100% whole wheat sandwich bread: Searching for the perfect loaf

The customer service folks here at King Arthur Flour field requests from customers all day long. Many begin with the words “My mother [grandmother] used to make this thing, it was like a cake, only it had a lot of thin layers of…” Or, “Do you still sell that little twisty whisk thing…?” Or “Can you tell me if you’re giving any classes in Dallas [Des Moines, Decatur, Dothan…] soon?”

And then there are the baking questions. “Why do my cookies burn on the bottom?” “Why does my banana bread sink in the center?” And, perhaps the all-time most-asked question of all: “Why didn’t my bread rise?”

Talk about a loaded question—one fraught with mysterious side paths and dark twists and turns—that has to be it. “Why didn’t my bread rise?” Well, how long do you have? It could be the ingredients; it could be the way it was kneaded; it could be where you set the bowl; it could be whether it’s raining or sunny, for crying out loud. Yeast is a living thing; and when it gets together with flour and liquid and salt (and sugar and whatever else you want in your loaf), it acts like any other living thing, humans included: capriciously. Unpredictably. With a mind of its own.

Luckily, with practice you can become friends with yeast. Become familiar with it, understand its likes and dislikes, its quirky foibles (doesn’t like cinnamon; doesn’t like garlic; who knew?). And, with very little practice, you can become a good yeast bread baker. So long as you don’t insist on baking 100% whole wheat sandwich bread.

Ah, my bête noir… Would that it were as easy to make a soft, moist, nicely sliceable 100% whole wheat bread as it is to attain the same goal using all-purpose flour. Or even half whole wheat, half AP. But 100% whole wheat bread—wow, have I struggled with it over the years. And the struggle continued last week, as I sought The Perfect 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Loaf for a new section on our recipe site, Guaranteed Classics, due to launch in a few months.

I’d spent two weeks trudging through loaf after loaf of 100% whole wheat bread. I knew the goal; I saw the prize out there on the horizon. But, like a mirage in the desert, the harder I struggled toward it, the more it receded. That high-rising, fine-grained, supple loaf, the one that slices like a dream without crumbling, the one that tastes like the best parts of whole wheat—nicely earthy, “nutty,” rich—had been eluding me. I’d made dry loaves; dense loaves; over-risen loaves, flabby with air and collapsing at the sidewalls. I’d made loaves whose overriding flavor was a tannic bitterness. Loaves that tasted like… well, like nothing much at all. I’d come close to despairing.

But as any bread baker knows, hope springs eternal. So long as there’s flour in the canister and yeast in the freezer, salt on the counter and water flowing from the tap, there’ll be bread. And yesterday, I came as close as I’ve come to my Holy Grail, 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread.

And the secret is… I went back to my tried-and-true methods and ingredients. I’d been experimenting with different ways of kneading, different types of yeast, and different varieties of flour. So, like we all do sometimes when our computers go blooey, I went back to all my original whole wheat bread defaults: King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour; SAF instant yeast; and a Zo bread machine, for kneading.

The result? Not unexpectedly, the dough kneaded up gnarly and clay-like, rather than smooth and supple. Whole wheat flour, with its tiny, sharp little bran particles, does an effective job of shredding its developing gluten as you knead. But said dough also showed adequate vigor during its first rise, and was even more cooperative during its second rise, crowning a perfect 1” over the rim of the pan. Thank you, my dear yeast… as you grow and prosper, your mere numbers help overcome the deleterious effects of the bran.

The loaves (I made three) showed good oven-spring as they baked, rising into smooth domes. When I pulled them out of the oven, they didn’t stick in the pans, instead sliding out “slick as a smelt,” as they’d say in Maine. A gilding of melted butter on the crust was a lovely final touch.

And the taste? Surprisingly delicious. Me, I’m a white bread fan at heart. But I can totally see enjoying this whole wheat bread—spread with peanut butter and jelly, toasted and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar, as part of a BLT.

So here it is, my current state-of-the-baking-art 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread. I’m sure the recipe will continue to evolve; but this is a good snapshot of a moment in time, a stopping place along the path. And hey, fellow bread bakers: if you have a 100% whole wheat sandwich bread recipe you love, one that bakes in a loaf pan and has all the attributes sandwich loaves need—easy to slice, moist and non-crumbly, tasty—let’s compare notes, OK?

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Once I’d finally settled on a whole wheat bread recipe I thought was pretty good, I decided to test it with our three King Arthur whole wheat flours. And now, introducing our contestants: organic white whole wheat flour; traditional (red) whole wheat flour; and white whole wheat flour. All are unbleached 100% whole wheat; white whole wheat is simply a different strain than red, a lighter-colored, less assertively flavored flour. By the way, the “bandage” on the bag on the right is simply to keep its contents safely inside; we often get punctured bags from our warehouse to use here in the test kitchen.
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You can see the slightly different colors of these three flours; the traditional whole wheat (right) is both darker, and more coarsely ground. The speckles are bits of bran.

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Even though I prefer to knead bread in the bread machine, I thought I’d show you a version made in a KitchenAid stand mixer. Notice how “gnarly” the dough is when you first start to knead it…

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…and how it smooths out—though not as nicely as yeast dough made with all-purpose flour. This is a different kind of dough indeed.

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Here are the three types of whole wheat (l to r)—organic white wheat, white wheat, and traditional—kneaded into dough in the bread machine.

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And here they are an hour later. As you can see, they’ve become puffy; but they haven’t come anywhere near doubling in bulk.

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Here they are, shaped and in their greased 9”x 5” loaf pans.

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And here they are, 75 minutes later, nicely risen. The organic white wheat loaf (l) had risen to 1 1/2” above the rim of the pan; the white wheat loaf, to 1” above the rim; and the traditional loaf to 3/4” above the rim.

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Lovely! Forty-five minutes in the oven resulted in three golden loaves. Here I’m running a stick of butter over the hot loaves; it gives them a soft, buttery crust.

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Surprisingly, the organic white wheat (l) didn’t have nearly as much oven spring as the white wheat (center), which had slightly more than the traditional (r). Nevertheless, I’d call them all good loaves: nice texture, moist, easy to slice.

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AND tasty! As much as I always say I don’t like whole wheat bread, when these loaves came out of the oven I couldn’t resist. They really did taste divine, even without the peanut butter and jelly. We were in the midst of a meeting and I brought everyone a warm slice. As Tom, our marketing manager, said, “This is wonderful—it doesn’t even need butter!”

So—I guess I’ll eat my words, right along with this delicious bread! Maybe I DO like whole wheat bread…

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread.

When you bake whole wheat bread at home, not only are you treating yourself to something fresh, delicious, and hot from the oven; you’re saving money. The chart below shows a typical price for three different baked goods you might purchase at the supermarket, and the ingredients cost for you to make them at home.

Cost of ingredients
at the supermarket
Butter $2.39/lb.
Sugar $2.69/5 lb.
Blueberries $3.29/lb. frozen
Yogurt $2.39/quart
Large eggs $2.69/dozen
KA AP flour $5.39/5 lb.
KA bread flour $5.29/5 lb.
KA whole wheat flour $4.89/5 lb.
Instant mashed potatoes $1.99/13 ¾ oz.
Dry milk $5/lb.
Yeast bulk $5.50/lb.
Vanilla $2.59/2 oz.
Baking powder $1.79/10 oz.
Baking soda 69¢/lb.
Salt 69¢/lb.
Milk $3.59/gallon
Orange juice $2.69/1/2 gallon
Cost of baked goods
at the supermarket
Bagels 72¢ each
Blueberry muffins 99¢ each (supermarket bakery) or $3.99 (18-ounce package of 6)
Whole wheat bread $3.49/24-oz. loaf
Cost of ingredients
to make your own blueberry muffins
4 ounces butter 60¢
¾ cup (5 ¼ ounces) sugar 17¢
2 large eggs 45¢
2 teaspoons (1/6 oz.) vanilla extract 43¢
1 ½ teaspoons (7g) baking powder
½ teaspoon (2.2g) baking soda 1/6¢
½ teaspoon (3g) salt 1/6¢
2 ¼ cups (9 ½ ounces) KA AP Flour 69¢
blueberries $1.65
TOTAL $4.04 for 33 oz. blueberry muffins averaging 2 ¾ ounces each
Cost of ingredients
to make your own bagels
4 ½ cups (19 ounces) bread flour $1.26
1 5/8 teaspoons yeast
1 ¾ teaspoons salt 2/3¢
TOTAL $1.33/12 bagels
Cost of ingredients
to make your own whole wheat bread
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast 13¢
1/2 cup (4 ounces) lukewarm water
1/2 cup (4 ounces) lukewarm milk 11¢
1/2 cup (2 5/8 ounces) orange juice
5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces) melted butter 37¢
1 1/2 teaspoons salt ½¢
3 tablespoons (1 ¼ ounces) sugar
1/4 cup (5/8 ounce) nonfat dry milk 20¢
3/4 cup (1 5/8 ounces) dried potato flakes 24¢
3 3/4 cups (15 ounces) King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour 92¢
TOTAL $2.09/28-oz. loaf; $1.19/lb.
PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Malini

    Tried this recipe today. I doubled it so used double the quantity instant yeast. Found that the rise happened very quickly. Should I have used lesser yeast?
    The overall results were quite satisfactory. The bread tastes soft and yummy. It’s not as light as I’m dreaming of whole wheat sandwich bread to be😉. But this’ll do for now😄
    Also, can I substitute molasses for sugar? If yes, what would the quantity be?
    Can I use this recipe to make burger buns?

    And, thank you so much for putting up this recipe that’s easy and satisfying! My family has been subjected to so many trials and errors that they almost gave this bread a standing ovation!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Malini,
      Doubling yeasted bread recipes can be a bit tricky, especially with whole wheat dough which tends to rise quickly anyways. For a double batch, increase all of the ingredients x2, but use only 1.5x the yeast in the future. This will help control the rise.

      To lighten it up, try using white whole wheat flour and/or some all-purpose to give the rise a boost. Also make sure you are fluffing and sprinkling your flour or measuring it by weight using a scale. Our Whole Grain Bread Improver can additionally make your loaves rise higher.

      Molasses for sugar–sure. Use 2 tablespoons and expect a slightly darker loaf.

      Burger buns–again, sure! You can use this dough to make rolls, buns, or even baguette-shaped loaves. Just be sure to adjust the baking time accordingly so you don’t over bake your bread. The smaller shapes will take less time to bake all the way through. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    2. Malini

      Gotcha! Will try again incorporating all your suggestions except for the bread improver. I’m trying to not add extra gluten for health reasons.
      I think I was doing measuring all wrong. Your video on fluffing and sprinkling was very helpful.
      Thanks a ton!

  2. Sara

    I plan to use instant yeast for this and the instructions say to skip the step for soaking the yeast if I use the instant. But do I still add the 1/2 cup of water in to the dough?

    Yes, that is the liquid or part of the liquid in the recipe. betsy@kaf

    Reply
  3. Kathleen

    I made this today and it turned out very well. I used my bread machine’s dough cycle, then baked in my oven. I did add 4 tsp of vital wheat gluten according to the directions on the box. It rose well, had a fine texture, especially for whole wheat, and tasted very good. I will try to make it again and will replace a little of the whole wheat flour with all purpose to come up with a compromise the rest of my family will like a little better.

    Reply
  4. azpirate

    can you provide a dietary breakdown on this recipe?

    Our customer/bakers often sub ingredients to meet their needs, so our recipes don’t include nutritional info. There are several nutritional programs on-line that will help you break down recipes to get the information you seek. Call our baker’s hotline at 802-649-3717 and we can direct you to some of our favorites. Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  5. Sara

    I only have a 8.5 x 4.5 inch pan. Can I scale down the recipe slightly to fit in this pan instead of 9 x 5 inch? Do you have suggestion for percent decrease?

    The size difference between these 2 pans is about 20%. Frank @ KAF.

    Reply

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