What Is Irish-Style Wholemeal Flour And How Is It Best Used In Baking?

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The irresistible smell of freshly baked bread is like culinary aromatherapy. Something is calming about the toasted nuttiness that makes you feel at home. According to Statista, global bread consumption is estimated to reach 7.11 billion kilograms by 2026. Whether you prefer the robust maltiness of rye or the milky sweetness of shokupan, life is better with bread.

One country well known for its bread is Ireland. In households throughout the island, brown wheaten bread is a traditional classic enjoyed during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's hearty, high-fiber, and reminiscent of a time before electronic bread makers. Along with being quick and easy, it's cheap and doesn't require a leavening agent to make. The difference between Ireland's craggy-crusted favorite and other whole wheat bread is the special type of flour used to make it.

Irish wholemeal flour is a more coarse variety of American whole wheat flour. Unlike the latter, it's made using the entire wheat berry, which consists of the bran, germ, and endosperm. Wheat berry infuses baked goods with delicious flavor and whole-grain richness. Sadly, for curious bakers, wholemeal isn't readily available outside of Ireland, and only a handful of brands offer it. You could create a substitute or beg your Irish auntie to ship some, but we've compiled every important detail you need to know about wholemeal before you click the search bar.

What is Irish-style wholemeal flour?

Wholemeal flour is a hard-to-find ingredient commonly used for baking in Ireland. It contains the entire wheat berry (or whole wheat kernel) and is considered a "soft" flour, unlike American whole wheat, which is a "hard" flour. Coarsely ground with large flecks of bran, it provides a nutty flavor and soft texture while giving baked goods a rustic charm. Although flour is a good source of fiber in general, wholemeal is loaded with it.

Wholemeal flour works best for baked goods that don't require elasticity, like scones, biscuits, and, of course, soda bread. In Ireland, it's primarily used to bake two traditional bread varieties: Brown wheaten and Irish soda bread. Both are unique because you don't need yeast to bake them. Yeast-less baking was previously discovered by Native Americans, who ingeniously extracted pearl ash from wood to use as a leavening agent. The Irish adopted that concept, using baking soda in place of pearl ash.

How is Irish-style wholemeal flour made?

Irish-style wholemeal flour is milled from lower protein soft white winter wheat. The main differences between flour milled from hard wheat versus soft wheat are the protein and gluten content. Hard wheat contains more protein, ranging between 11-15% — soft wheat only contains between 5% and 9%. Soft white winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested in late spring or early summer. Known for containing the least gluten of all whole wheat flour, it's rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and important minerals. 

On the Emerald Isle, some wheat millers continue to use traditional methods. Marty Mill, Ireland's oldest running water mill, has been producing stone-ground wholemeal flour since 1859. The mill was restored in 2012 and grinds flour the old-fashioned way, supplying local bakeries, supermarkets, and shops. According to Brockwell Bake, there are 17 stone ground flour mills in Ireland still operating today. Beyond milling purists, many wheat millers use modern milling techniques as well.

Irish-style wholemeal vs. whole wheat flour

Learning the difference between flour varieties can be a complex undertaking. Whole wheat flour is an umbrella term used interchangeably with specific whole wheat flour varieties. It's sometimes referred to as "whole grain" as well. In general, all whole wheat flour types are made by milling the entire wheat berry, which, according to Bob's Red Mill, provides a wide range of health benefits. When bran is ground, it develops jagged edges that prevent gluten from forming and bread from rising, resulting in dense baked goods.

While Irish wholemeal is orange-brown, America's whole wheat flour is ground to a finer consistency, making it resemble a brown-colored all-purpose flour. The total protein content is also higher in stateside flour, as it is milled using hard red winter wheat rather than soft white winter wheat. Comparatively, while both wheats are nutrient-rich, flavorful, and harvested in the spring, that's about where the similarities end. Ireland's wholemeal flour is distinctive for its coarse consistency, which preserves more nutrition and flavor than whole wheat.

What does Irish-style wholemeal flour taste like?

With a crumby exterior and super soft consistency, wholemeal is a true bread lover's flour. A 2020 study by Britain Loves Baking revealed that at least 50% of home bakers from Northern Ireland bake every single day, continuing a tradition that goes back centuries. Irish-style flour has a bran-flecked wheaten nuttiness that's distinctively citrusy and subtly tart, similar to malted wheat. Earthy and sweet, it carries a robust grain-like smell. You'll be greeted by a layer of large bran flakes that resemble animal feed upon opening a bag of wholemeal rather than the usual powder-like appearance. 

It's a truly unique-flavored flour that, when used in baking, infuses each delectable bite with roasted almonds and walnuts. Wholemeal's roasted taste comes from heat produced by the stone ground milling process. The last thing you expect from this coarsely ground flour is cakey baked goods, but beneath the biscuity crust, Irish-style wholemeal is surprisingly tender.

How do you bake with Irish-style wholemeal flour?

Baking with Irish-style wholemeal is an art form. On the Emerald Isle, it's traditionally used for recipes that don't require yeast. According to Serious Eats, yeast-free "aerated" bread surfaced in the 1820s after London-based bakers discovered the chemical reaction between baking soda and hydrochloric acid (HCI) — before buttermilk arrived as a superior alternative. It gained popularity in Ireland during a period of famine that lasted from 1845 to 1852. Beyond more affordable, the resulting consistency of the dough was so soft that kneading wasn't needed.

Wholemeal baked goods are dense and cakey on the inside, with a rustic crusty exterior. We suggest starting with Ireland's most beloved loaf, brown wheaten bread. Harkening back to a time of working-class ingenuity, it only requires four ingredients: Flour, salt, buttermilk, and baking soda. How you stir yeast-free dough can majorly affect the formation of gluten — the more you stir, the more rustic the loaf, the less you stir, the smoother.

Unlike yeast, which can sit overnight, baking soda reacts rather quickly to acids and does not produce carbon dioxide over time. That means you should put it in the oven right away. Brown wheaten bread is traditionally cooked in a Dutch oven over a coal fire, but all you need is a conventional oven to experience a taste of Irish history. You can also sidestep tradition and add a bit of sugar and butter to modernize it.

Irish soda bread vs. Irish brown bread

In Ireland, two bread types vie for the throne: Irish soda bread and brown wheaten bread. You're bound to come across the latter most often, but both can be enjoyed with just about anything. The biggest difference lies in the ingredients used for each. Brown wheaten bread is a customary part of daily life in Ireland. You're likely to find it served with butter, a fresh pot of tea, or alongside a savory meal. It has a traditional bready texture that's dense yet moist on the inside with a solid crust. Ingredient-wise, it's made with baking soda, buttermilk, stone-ground wholemeal and white flour, bran, molasses, and sometimes oats. It's a deeper brown color and has a more robust nutty flavor.

Crumbly and scone-like, Irish soda bread is the pale brown cousin to brown wheaten bread. It's made using many of the same ingredients minus the molasses, oats, and butter. More breakfast-centric, locals pair it with jam or honey, along with hot tea. Baking Irish soda bread is simple, straightforward, and a great recipe for first-timers. Another important step in baking these breads in the traditional style is carving a cross on top — cross-cutting helps the bread expand without splitting.

Where do you buy Irish-style wholemeal flour?

This unique bran-speckled flour is somewhat rarer than your everyday varieties. There is only one brand offered at brick-and-mortar retailers outside of Ireland — King Arthur Baking Company. Rather than wholemeal, it's aptly labeled as "Irish-Style Flour." You can find it in the baking aisle at major grocery store chains like Ralphs and Food 4 Less on the West Coast, Jewel-Osco and Meijer in the Midwest, Foodtown and Key Food on the East Coast, and Publix and Kroger in the South. Nationally, it's stocked by Whole Foods, Walmart, and Target. You can also order it on Amazon and its official website.

Odlum's is another brand that sells wholemeal; it's an Irish company that has been producing it since 1845. Unlike King Arthur, Amazon and an Irish products-based online retailer named Food Irelandare about the only places that people outside of the Emerald Isle can find Odlum's. Amazon also offers a lesser-known brand called Marriage's that makes stone-ground wholemeal. Despite wholemeal's low availability, you needn't fret, keep reading to learn how to create a mock version of wholemeal at home.

"Purchase King Arthur Baking Company Irish-Style Flour for $14.95."

"Purchase Odlum's range of Wholemeal Products on its website."

"Purchase Marriage's Strong Organic Wholemeal Bread Flour on Amazon for $24.99."

Substitutes for Irish-style wholemeal flour

Unless you live in Ireland or have relatives there, getting your hands on authentic Irish-style wholemeal flour can be tricky. Like all distinctively regional ingredients, the experience that goes into milling the real deal is supported by a rich history, and it's simply hard to duplicate the Irish spirit. Good fortune is on your side, though. Just in case you have trouble finding the aforementioned brands in stock nearby or online, there is a replacement formula for wholemeal. All you need are a few ingredients and the right measurements.

To start, you'll need wheat germ, wheat bran, and regular whole wheat flour. According to Smitten Kitchen, the formula goes as follows: ¾ cup of wheat germ, ¼ cup of wheat bran, and ½ cup of regular whole wheat flour. That should give you the coarse consistency of wholemeal and keep your belly filled with delicious Irish baked goods. Whole wheat flour also works as a substitute, although it doesn't carry the same flavor and coarseness.

Nutritional information about Irish-style wholemeal flour

Packed with every part of the wheat berry, Irish-style wholemeal flour is a nutrient-rich gift for your health. Whereas all-purpose flour generally ranges from 9-12% in protein content and American whole wheat from 11-15%, wholemeal is a "soft wheat" and sits around the lower spectrum between 8-10%. Odlums does happen to carry a "Strong Wholemeal Flour" product that's milled from hard wheat and has a staggering protein content of 15.3%. To clarify any confusion, traditional Irish-style wholemeal is milled from the whole grain of soft wheat, yet there are newer iterations that employ hard wheat. Despite its lower protein content, wholemeal is an excellent source of fiber.

Nutrition-wise, 1 serving (or 30g whole grains) of King Arthur Baking Company contains 110 calories, 4 grams of dietary fiber, and 3 grams of protein. For every 100 grams of Odlums' 2-kilogram bag of Coarse Wholemeal Flour, there are 10 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein.

Varieties of Irish-style wholemeal flour

The different varieties of Irish-style wholemeal flour typically range between brand offerings. For example, King Arthur Baking Company sells a custom blend that's coarsely ground from red whole wheat. It was inspired by the whole grain flours used in traditional Irish baking and works for any recipe that requires wholemeal. Odlums has the widest selection of wholemeal flours — six to be exact. You can choose between less granular options like the Odlums Super Flour Wholemeal, which actually contains yeast and Organic Wholemeal Flour. For something closer to the real thing, try the Coarse Wholemeal or Extra Coarse Wholemeal flours.

If you want to load up on protein, test out Odlums Strong Wholemeal Flour. Inversely, you can simplify the baking process and still have the wholemeal experience with its Self-Rising Wholemeal, which contains sodium bicarbonate. The other available brand, Marriage's, offers perhaps the most authentic Irish-style wholemeal. Its Strong Wholemeal Bread Flour was milled using traditional French Burr stones and comes in organic and non-organic options. 

How to store Irish-style wholemeal flour

Wholemeal flour must be treated like any other flour type and stored properly. Without it, your precious Irish-style wholemeal can become rancid and may even attract pests and vermin. According to All Recipes, there are three important rules to remember when storing flour. The first involves its temperature. All flour contains natural oils, and freezer storage is one way to retain them. Not only can it prevent rancidity, but four days of storage in a chilly temp will kill off any pests hanging around.

The refrigerator is a suitable alternative if there is no space in your freezer. Naturally cool places are generally best for storing flour, like a cellar, basement, or garage. It should always be put into an airtight container, which can protect it from outside smells and liquids. The next important rule to remember is that flour should be stored away from direct sunlight. Not only does it generate heat, the oxidation it causes will gradually lower its shelf life. Wholemeal flours contain more natural oils than white flours, so they can only remain fresh for up to a month at room temperature. At homes located in colder climates, it can last for three months, while the fridge can give you six months of wholemeal baking. For long-lasting freshness, you can store it in the freezer for a full year.