Baking with spelt flour

All you need to know about using spelt flour for baking bread, muffins, scones or quick breads.

By Mike Lewis

Spelt grains

Photo with acknowledgements to Sharpham Park

If you've never baked with spelt flour before, I urge you to give it a try. It might take a little getting used to, but the results will be worth the effort. As well as being more nutritious than most other types of flour, spelt can greatly improve the flavor of your baked goods, and give them a firmer, more substantial texture. Almost any recipe that calls for wheat flour can be improved with the help of spelt.

The benefits of spelt might come as a surprise to you, considering that it was, until recently, almost completely unknown to amateur bakers. For centuries, spelt was the staple flour in much of Europe. But some time in the early 20th Century, it went completely out of fashion. Up to about five years ago, not only had most of us never used spelt, but many had never even heard of it.

Is spelt good for you?

Recently, though, spelt has made a big comeback - and you can probably guess the reason. As with so many recent food trends, it's the health benefits that are all important. Spelt certainly scores high in that category.

As well as being high in fiber, spelt contains more vitamins and minerals than common wheat, especially niacin (which can help lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar levels), iron, potassium and zinc. It also has a low glycaemic index, which means it can help keep hunger pangs away - important for people on a weight-loss diet.

Because spelt contains less gluten than common wheat, some people find it easier to digest. It's not completely gluten-free, so it's not suitable for people with coeliacs disease. But many people who are intolerant of wheat (as opposed to gluten) find that they have no problems eating products made with spelt.

Spelt is also more amenable to organic farming. That's because it has a hard hull that protects it from insects and pollutants, and so can often be grown without pesticides. Ironically, it was the hard hull that caused spelt to go out of fashion in the first place, as other varieties of wheat proved easier to process by machine.

Where to buy spelt

Spelt still isn't exactly a household name, but it is becoming easier to find. Many health-food and other specialty stores now carry it, and it's becoming increasingly common in supermarkets (even my small neighborhood market stocks it). In the USA, the main suppliers include Purity Foods (makers of Vita Spelt) and Arrowhead Mills. In the UK, Dove's Farm and Sharpham Park are among the best-known brands.

Dove's Farm spelt flour

Photo with acknowledgements to Dove's Farm

Making bread with spelt

My first attempt at making spelt bread was a failure. The loaf was much too heavy, to the point of being almost inedible. My mistake was to use my normal bread recipe, simply substituting spelt for wheat. That doesn't work.

I now know it's better to use a mixture of spelt and ordinary wheat flour. After some trial and error, I've settled on using one part spelt to two parts white bread flour. This produces a flavorsome loaf, not at all stodgy, with a rich taste and a good color.

Because spelt is low in gluten, the dough tends to be less firm, and loses its shape easily. To compensate for that, you should use less water than usual - perhaps about 20 percent less. It also helps if you bake the loaf in a tin, rather than trying to shape it by hand and baking it on a baking sheet.

The low gluten content also means that spelt dough is easier to mix than ordinary dough, and has a shorter proving time.

Provided you keep the above points in mind, you should have no problem using your favorite bread recipe for spelt bread. That applies equally to hand-made bread and to loaves made in a bread machine (but remember, bread machines vary; if the recipe book or manual that comes with your bread-maker has its own spelt bread recipe, try that first).

Scones, muffins and quick breads

The above remarks apply to bread - or any other baked product - made with yeasted dough. But where the recipe calls for a chemical raising agent (typically, baking powder or self-raising flour), the story is different. In those case, there's usually no need to mix the spelt with ordinary wheat flour. You'll often get good results just using spelt on its own.

This is especially true of scones, muffins, quick breads, and the like. A good example is Janey Macleod's popular recipe for British-style fruit scones. I've made this by simply replacing the wheat flour with the same quantity of spelt, with very satisfactory results.

Because there's no such thing as self-raising spelt flour (as far as I know), you'll always need to add the raising agent in these recipes. As a rough guide, use one teaspoon of baking powder to each cup (4 oz, 110 grams) of spelt flour.

Not all baked products are improved by using spelt. I've tried using it in rich fruit cake, carrot cake and chocolate brownies, and the results were disappointing. The distinctive taste of the spelt somehow clashes with the underlying flavors of the cake. But don't let me stop you experimenting - you might be more successful than I was.

Recipe: Orange and blueberry spelt muffins

Muffins made with spelt

Photo © Mike Lewis; all rights reserved

To finish this article, I'll give you my all-time favorite spelt recipe. These excellent muffins (see photo) have a rich fruity flavor that puts them in a class of their own. And unlike my usual attempts at blueberry muffins, they don't fall apart after you take the first bite.

The quantities given here should yield about ten muffins.

Oven: Pre-heat to 375°F (160°C).

Start by creaming the margarine and sugar together in a large bowl. Stir in the eggs and the orange zest and juice.

Peel the apple, and either grate it or chop it finely (don't do this ahead of time or it will turn brown). Stir it into the mixture.

Sift the spelt flour and baking powder into the mixture. Mix thoroughly so that the grains of flour are fully coated, but don't over-beat. The resulting mixture should have the consistency of a thick batter.

Gently stir in the blueberries, taking care not to crush them.

Transfer the mixture to prepared muffin tins or paper muffin cases. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a knife comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

July 2011

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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