Baking with ancient grains: Learn to add alternative flours to classic recipes

Baking with Ancient Grains via @kingarthurflour

Here at King Arthur, we take our flours pretty seriously — wheat or otherwise — and right now we’re hooked on ancient grains. I mean, what’s not to love? They have unique flavors. They contain a variety of yummy nutrients. Plus, they’re fun to pronounce. (Say it with me: quinoa.)

Since we introduced our latest three ancient grain flours — amaranth, quinoa, and teff — we haven’t stopped baking with them. Baking with ancient grains has enhanced our breakfast cookies, given our breads new life, and jazzed up our crêpes. But you don’t need special recipes to incorporate more ancient grains into your baking.

Enter our Complete Guide to Baking with Ancient Grains, the product of months and months of testing. We wanted to create a go-to, easy-to-follow resource for mixing ancient grains into some of our classic recipes like pancakes and muffins.

Here’s a peek at how the guide came together and some key baking lessons we learned along the way.

Baking with Ancient Grains via @kingarthurflour

Creating a guide from scratch

To make sure our guide was the resource for incorporating ancient grains into baking, I had some brainstorming to do.

My first task was to decide which ancient grains to test. Easy! With a simple shop around our test kitchen and local grocery store, I came up with a list of eight flours that are tasty, popular, and generally accessible: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, Kamut, millet, quinoa, spelt, and teff.

These eight ancient grains are versatile enough to include in many standard recipes; just swap out some of the all-purpose flour for an equal amount of ancient grain flour. Our R&D team has had great success doing this at a 25% substitution (i.e. it has replaced 25% of the all-purpose flour with an ancient grain flour in many recipes without significantly altering the flavor and texture of the baked goods). This was a great place to start, but I was eager to dig deeper. Would substituting more than 25% of spelt or millet flour yield disastrous results? If I put in 100% teff or amaranth flour, would I discover fantastic new combinations?

Next, I had to pick recipes for testing. This wasn’t as easy. With literally thousands of recipes on our website, it was hard to even know where to start. With some collaboration, though, I narrowed my focus to breakfast baking, a natural fit for these wholesome grains. From there, I chose five customer favorites: Banana Bread, Basic Muffins, Scones, Simply Perfect Pancakes, and Cinnamon Bread.

Now I had a plan: I would substitute 100%, 50%, and 25% of each ancient grain flour in each recipe.

You don't need special recipes to incorporate more ancient grains into your baking. Click To Tweet
Baking with Ancient Grains via @kingarthurflour

Cinnamon bread baked with (left to right) 25% quinoa flour, 25% buckwheat flour, and 25% spelt flour.

Baking and tasting

In the comfort of King Arthur Flour’s test kitchen, I worked through 32 batches of each breakfast item. At the end of each day, I taste-tested and analyzed everything, oftentimes recruiting my fellow employee-owners and family members (lest you think that I didn’t share).

It may seem like glamorous work, but picking out the textural impact and intricate flavor components in 160 different baked goods was no easy task. My notes became a jumble of descriptors like nutty, earthy, light, moist, tender, etc., etc., etc. More often than not, I spent more time analyzing and sorting through my notes than I did baking. In the end, though, the hard work paid off in the form of this thoroughly researched guide.

Baking with Ancient Grains via @kingarthurflour

Scones baked with (left to right) 50% amaranth flour, 50% buckwheat flour, and 50% spelt flour.

Our favorite ancient grains combinations

Ancient grains are definitely just as cool as they’re made out to be. Each of the flours I tested had a unique taste and contributed varying degrees of textural complexity to the recipes. That said, I did have some favorites. Here are just a few I recommend trying:

  1. Cinnamon Bread made with 50-50 Kamut and all-purpose flours was so soft and tender that we preferred it to a loaf made with 100% all-purpose flour.
  2. Our Simply Perfect Pancakes almost seemed more perfect with amaranth flour. In fact, here’s a secret: our gluten-free Easy Amaranth Pancakes are actually just our Simply Perfect Pancakes recipe with amaranth flour replacing all-purpose. We liked this combination so much that we created a new recipe just to feature it.
  3. Kamut flour really enhanced the flavor of our Scones, making them richer and more buttery tasting.
  4. We loved the way the quinoa flour complemented the cinnamon and nutmeg in our Banana Bread and didn’t mask the banana flavor even when substituted 100%.
  5. Spelt flour ensured that our Basic Muffins were moist and tender, and had an extra touch of sweetness.
Baking with Ancient Grains via @kingarthurflour

Pancakes baked with (left to right) 100% quinoa flour, 100% teff flour, and 100% kamut flour.

What we learned about baking with ancient grains

As for takeaways from the project, our new Guide to Baking with Ancient Grains includes all the results from our extensive testing, and is chock full of useful tidbits on each grain, as well as suggestions for how you can start incorporating them into your baking. But without getting into all that nitty-gritty, here are some of general tips to help get you started:

  1. Substituting 25% ancient grain flour for all-purpose flour in just about any recipe will add interesting flavor to your baked goods without significantly altering the texture.
  2. While many ancient grains are gluten-free, Kamut, spelt, and barley contain gluten and generally have a higher threshold for substitution.
  3. In yeast bread, we don’t recommend substituting more than 50% ancient grains for the all-purpose or bread flour. You’ll end up with dough that’s difficult to work with and a finished loaf that’s dense and fractured.
  4. Of the five recipes we tested, the quick breads (muffins and banana bread), and pancakes seemed the most adaptable to the ancient grain substitutions we threw at them.
  5. We found that adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of liquid to our batters and doughs was an easy way to combat the sometimes drier, crumblier texture in baked goods made with higher amounts of ancient grain flours.
  6. Because ancient grains are often whole grains, they’re more prone to deterioration when left at room temperature. We recommend storing them in plastic containers or bags in your freezer.
  7. To preserve freshness, any uneaten baked goods should be stored airtight at room temperature for up to two days, and in the freezer after that.
  8. Like all our flours, the best way to measure ancient grain flours by volume is with this fluff-sprinkle-scrape method. Better yet, measure by weight.

We loved experimenting with ancient grains, and will continue to do so and pass along our findings. In the meantime, we encourage you to check out our guide and start incorporating these unique, flavorful grains into your baking. As always, we’d love for you to share your own experiences and discoveries with these versatile ancient grains; tell us what you think in comments, below.

Charlotte Rutledge
About

The daughter of an Austrian baker and a French (pastry-connaisseuse) mother, Charlotte Rutledge learned to love a flakey, buttery croissant from a young age. She joined the King Arthur Flour test kitchen team in 2011 and has been developing, writing, and curating recipes ever since.

comments

  1. Karleen Wolff

    The Jury is still (Out) or should I say “in the oven”. I am experimenting a zucchini bread recipe with 1 C. Buckwheat flour to 2 C. wheat flour. I added 1 heaping Tsp.gluten and one heaping TBLS. Ground flax seed, which I add to almost all of my. breads, cookies, muffins. So . . We shall see how it turns no out. My recipe makes 2 loaves.

    Reply
  2. Diane and Zoë Masters

    My 8yo daughter and I just tried your Simply Perfect waffle recipe with a slight modification. In an effort to develop a recipe that incorporates the malty smell and flavor that Stonewall Kitchens gets in their pancake mix, we replaced 1 Tbsp. of your flour with 1 Tbsp. diastatic dry malt powder and replaced sugar with 1/4 c. malted milk (as your recipe recommends).

    They were beautiful, light, and fluffy, but we could not smell or taste malt flavor. Do you have any suggestions for achieving that malted barley flavor and the aroma that filled the kitchen?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Unfortunately, malt is a very mild flavor, so it does take quite a bit to get that flavor and aroma. Adding more malt powder will certainly give you more of that flavor, though. You might try experimenting with using more to see if that works for you. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  3. Rae Sutherland

    This is a great find, thank you for sharing all this information. I have recently discovered Kamut flour and am in love. I found a great 100% Kamut pan bread recipe that is soft, fluffy and I would dare say, juicy. The whole loaf was gone the first day. 🙂 I can’t wait to explore many more recipes and other ancient grains.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Nicola! If you’re looking for some bread recipes that don’t call for wheat flour, we’d suggest checking out the gluten-free bread section of our site. Many recipes that have ancient grains in them will also call for wheat flour as the gluten that ancient grains form is often very weak or they don’t form any at all. We hope this helps and happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  4. Lee James

    I would like a suggestion of a mix of ancient grains for a batch of bagels and proportion to bread flour. No gluten issues involved personally but loved the taste in one I tried out of state. Slightly sweet and had a definite nutty flavor with great chew. I wish I found the flours among your products. What is the story? Loved the bagel series I read and look forward to sharing my results. The scones and cinnamon bread is on my definate baking bucket list. Thanks for sharing the love and passion. Leia

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Lee! Using spelt for up to 50% or barley for up to 25% of the flour in your bagel recipe are some good places to start. We did carry some of the ancient grains flour but they didn’t sell so they were discontinued. We hope you’re able to find some in your area! Annabelle@KAF

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