RECIPE: Water is key to fluffy whole-wheat rolls

Brushing rolls with butter and adding a dash of flaked sea salt will make a homemade roll look bakery bought.
(Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)
Brushing rolls with butter and adding a dash of flaked sea salt will make a homemade roll look bakery bought. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Credit: Nicole Lewis

For many of us, baking with whole-wheat flour can be intimidating. Whether your trepidation about using whole grain has its root in the dense whole-wheat loaves of the back-to-the-land 1970s, or years of marshmallowy whole-wheat pretenders that come from your average supermarket bread aisle, I get it.

Decades of bad whole-grain baking has rendered a complex ingredient with a storied history into a boring, bland blah-fest. Why does whole-wheat flour get this undeserved reputation?

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Let’s start with the basics: Whole-wheat flour — like all wheat-based flour — comes from a wheat berry (the seed of a wheat plant) and is the product of grinding the wheat seed into a flour instead of sifting it. For a fun test, take a handful of whole-wheat flour and sift it. You’ll find the sifted stuff to be significantly lighter in color. This is essentially how the bag of all-purpose flour in your pantry comes into existence.

Because whole-wheat flour contains more bran (the outer layers of the seed) than white flour, your job as a newbie whole-wheat baker is to increase the amount of water in your dough to make it light. Why? Bran absorbs more water. Generally speaking, whole-wheat loaves turn out unusually heavy and dense when there is not enough water in the dough. The solution: Add more water.

Let’s practice with an easily customizable, very delicious, and seasonally appropriate bread. Integrale herb rolls, a remix of the aromatic, naturally sweet, pane integrale alle erbe, can be made with whatever fresh or dried herbs you have on hand, and while this recipe utilizes a blend of whole-wheat and white flour, you can increase the whole-wheat ratio as you become comfortable with whole-grain baking.

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Bake rolls in a 10-inch skillet for an impressive and simple-to-clean table presentation. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)
Bake rolls in a 10-inch skillet for an impressive and simple-to-clean table presentation. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Integrale Herb Rolls
  • 2 cups water, room temperature
  • 1 cup (125 grams) whole-wheat flour
  • 3 3/4 cups (490 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon (15 grams) salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (7 grams) dried rosemary (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon (5 grams) dried oregano (optional)
  • 1 packet (7 grams) instant yeast
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup (15 grams) fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter, for brushing (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons flaked sea salt, for garnish (optional)
  • In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with dough hook attachment, add water, then both flours. Mix to a smooth consistency, on low speed if using a mixer, making sure that no dry bits of flour remain. Let dough rest for at least 15 minutes.
  • Add salt, dried herbs (if using) and yeast to dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. If the dough sticks to your hand or the bowl more than to itself, keep going. If mixing by hand, this step will take about 30 minutes; if using a stand mixer, this should take 8-9 minutes on medium-high speed. Resist the urge to add more flour. You’re done kneading if, when you pull on the dough, it fights you quite a bit, and tries to pull back.
  • Once dough is smooth, add olive oil and fresh herbs, a little at a time. If mixing by hand, squeeze the dough to work the oil and herbs into the dough. Be sure that it is mixed well. If using a machine, mix on low speed with a dough hook 5-6 minutes.
  • On a clean work surface, coax the dough into a loose ball, and place back in mixing bowl and let dough stand for 1 hour at 72-75 degrees.
  • Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Cut dough into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball. Arrange rolls on a 10-inch oven-safe skillet, or a baking sheet. Allow to stand for 45 minutes at 72-75 degrees.
  • Heat oven to 425 degrees.
  • When the rolls look as if they’ve taken a deep breath and exhaled, but are not looking bloated, they’re ready to bake. If poked very gently, the indentation should come back very slowly, and the roll should not collapse. If desired, brush rolls with melted butter and lightly salt the top of each roll. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Makes 12 (3-ounce) rolls.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per roll, without optional ingredients: 219 calories (percent of calories from fat, 21), 6 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 484 milligrams sodium.

Chris Wilkins has been a professional baker for 12 years. He is a two-time James Beard Award nominee and the founder and co-owner of Root Baking Co. and Pizza Jeans. Submit your baking questions to

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