Experimenting with Specialty Grains

Specialty grains; it’s a topical phrase that is being increasingly thrown around by bloggers, television chefs and ‘in-the-know’ foodies. But what exactly are specialty grains? Australian Baking Business catches up with an artisan baker, a couple of manufacturers and a nutritionist to find out why a whole new range of grains is working its way into ovens across the country.

Specially-bred grains for white bread have dominated the western baking industry for the past few decades. Nonetheless, many so called ‘forgotten’ grains still exist in near-original form and have been thrown back into the limelight as today’s consumers search for unique tastes and unrefined textures. The range of these specialty grains is extensive; however those most noticeably on the rise in Australia include amaranth, sorghum, quinoa, spelt, millet, buckwheat, chia and khorasan.

The use of such varied grains may have once been reserved for artisan bakers and those catering for niche dietary markets. Nonetheless, Justin Logie from Brisbane’s popular Banneton Bakery encourages the greater baking community to broaden their knowledge of grains and to use their versatility to create unique products.

“We’ve been mainstreaming breads with novel grain combinations into the shop’s daily offering for some time now, and our customers are generally very quick to try something different,” Justin says.

“Don’t get me wrong, it will be a few years before a real variety of grains become commonplace in all Australian bakeries. But here at Banneton, our market is growing all the time and it’s obvious those who are interested in food are really going for breads with specialty grains – and this enthusiasm will spread,” Justin says.

Indeed, Banneton Bakery’s range has grown significantly since Justin and his business partner Eric Ramonda opened the Woolloongabba shop just over three years ago.

“We started with a smaller more traditional range including a plain sourdough with olives and rosemary, and a New York deli rye. Our customers were always so eager to try new products that we soon expanded into a latvian dark rye – a 100 per cent rye with honey and caraway seeds – and other breads such as a rye and sunflower, and a wholemeal and sprouted barley,” Justin says.

Of all the grains, Justin says spelt is currently among the most popular. “We have a spelt sourdough and also use spelt in several of the pastries. I particularly love using spelt because it’s the closest I’ve come to tasting the bread my mother made me as child when we lived out on a farm at Kingaroy, in regional Queensland.

“It just has this really earthy, rich flavour that you don’t get from ordinary wheat. This is one of the things I love about trying new grains; they have a unique flavour and texture. And they feel very different. Take spelt for example, it has a really silky, velvety feel.”

Not surprisingly, bakers who go down the path of specialty grains undertake considerable experimentation.

“It takes a lot of trial and error to get some grain breads ready for the market. And it’s an ongoing process, particularly with artisan bread when you don’t use improvers or additives. If you don’t have your hands on slight changes in the flour it will really affect the bread negatively, or at least visually,” Justin says.

Shila Barak – director of gluten- and allergy-aware food manufacturer Well and Good – agrees and says each grain has different properties and therefore different functions.

“Bakers simply can’t swap one grain for another, it takes time and a few mistakes to find out what works well together,” Shila says.

“Take amaranth and quinoa for example, they have a grassy flavour that can be unfavourable in sweet baked products. Such grains work better in savoury applications or when combined with a flavour that can bridge the sweet and savoury gap, such as ginger.

“Barley also works well in savoury applications. While barley does not contain gluten, it swells, absorbs moisture and coheres the way oats do. As a result, it can be used successfully in pie crusts and quick bread formulations.”

Nonetheless when perfected, Shila acknowledges recipes with varied grains offer real opportunities for the baking industry.

“One of our best sellers at the moment is actually our chia, linseed and sunflower bread mix, not just because it’s a little different, but because of the crunch of the seeds and the nutritional richness of the omegas,” Shila says.

While unique tastes and textures will no doubt remain the driving force behind bakers jumping on board this trend, a growing school of health professionals believe it’s the nutritional profile of specialty grains that will continue to drive a high level of consumer interest.

Eugeni Roura – senior research fellow of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences – says the introduction of more and varied whole-grains in baking is a healthy step forward.

“Refined white flour doesn’t have the same health benefits as whole-wheat grains, such as chia, which is high in Omega-3 and fibre. As a society, we need to look at eating more grains that are as fresh and as unprocessed as possible, because that’s what our digestive system has evolved to. This is why unbalanced and excessively processed diets are linked to cancer, including colon cancer,” Eugeni says.

“We have to find that marriage between bread that looks great and bread that satisfies health demands, such as providing enough fibre and enough nutritional variety. Otherwise, the trend of specialty grains may not be sustainable enough.”

With the mentality that fresh is best, Eugeni says Australian bakers really can’t go past local summer-grain sorghum.

“Nutritionally speaking, sorghum is higher in protein and lower in fat than corn for example, and it’s really just as good as other grains out there on the market.”

Justin may have a different view of sorghum, at least until he perfects his recipe.

“I’m trying to make a sorghum bread, which is getting better but it’s just not marketable yet. It’s a difficult bread to make because when baked the sorghum seems to have a very distinct bitter aftertaste,” Justin says.

“But while this particular recipe may need a longer fermentation process, or more leven content, it’s this fact that every grain tastes so unique that keeps me motivated.

“Life is all about the experiment and a lot of my experiments taste great, so why not?”

Shila agrees, saying the best part of this trend is that there are consumers out there, waiting for new tastes to hit the shelves.

“It’s a captive market, let’s get out there!”


Quick facts with April Helliwell from The Chia Company

What is chia?

Chia is the highest plant source of Omega-3, fibre and protein, and is also high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Why are more and more chia-based products appearing on the market?

In researching what they need to eat to have a healthy daily diet, consumers are finding chia is the most nutrient-dense natural grain or seed there is. Food manufacturers are aiming to improve the nutrient content of their foods, mainly in Omega-3 and fibre, and chia is a natural way they can do this. It is important to look for chia that is black or white, but never brown. Brown chia represents immature seeds that have not fully developed, usually from exposure to a bad weather event and the nutrition has been compromised. This is especially important if a nutritional content claim is being made. Chia also provides a suitable gluten replacement in gluten-free breads.

How is chia used in baking?

Chia works best at around 10 per cent inclusion on dry flour weight, there is no need to presoak it for use in bread. However, it can also be soaked and used as a fat replacement in muffins and cookies. It’s interesting to note chia also has a very high natural antioxidant content and many of our customers have seen it extend the shelf-life of bread for an additional eight-days mold-free.

What big brands are using chia?

Burgen Chia Bread from Allied Bakeries in the UK, Bakers Delight in Australia and Cobs Bread in Canada, to name a few.

How does chia taste in baking?

Fantastic! There is not any bitter taste like there can be with other seeds, grains or specialty flours, so we find that even people who do not normally eat whole-grain or seeded breads love chia bread. It also is completely taste-neutral and a soft texture so it works really well with the sweet flavour profiles of muffins.


High quality chia seed is the world’s richest known natural source of Omega-3, essential for good health and effective brain functioning. Chia seeds are also an excellent source of protein, fibre, calcium, iron and other nutrients. Despite being traditionally consumed in Mexico and south-western regions of the US, Australia was the world’s largest producer of chia in 2008. Chia is gluten-free.


Teff is an ancient grain that is tiny in size, yet packed with nutrition. It is simple to prepare and similar to millet or quinoa in cooking. Originating in north-east Africa, Teff comes in white, tan, red and brown colours and is a popular ingredient in sourdough flatbread. Higher in protein than wheat, teff has a high concentration of calcium, thiamin and iron, which unlike some other grains, is easily absorbed by the body.


Whole grain barley is a healthy high-fibre, high-protein whole-grain boasting numerous health benefits. When cooked, barley has a chewy texture and a nutty flavour, similar to brown rice. Barley flour, also known as barley meal, has a low-gluten content which results in a low-rise. As a result, it is often combined with higher-gluten flours when used for leavened breads that need to rise.


Originating in the African savannah more than 5000 years ago, sorghum is the main summer grain crop in most regions in Queensland where it is primarily used for animal feed. However, the global gluten-free market has found a new use for ‘sweet’ sorghum as a popular ingredient in gluten-free flour and baking mixes. Some bakers do find cooked sorghum is difficult to digest, and it’s generally recommended to mix sorghum with tapioca starch to improve the volume and texture. Sorghum has a milder, more neutral flavour compared to other ancient grains.


Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, rather it’s a fruit grain related to sorrels, knotweeds and rhubarb; rendering it a suitable substitute for people who are sensitive to wheat. Originating in south-east Asia, this grain has a strong flavour and is both versatile and highly-nutritious. Diets that contain buckwheat have been linked to lowered risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure.


Spelt is one of the most popular non-wheat flours available. It shows up in pastas, breads and in a variety of wheat-free recipes. Spelt is a cereal grain in the wheat family, which has its roots in both central Europe and the Middle East. It has a nutty and slightly sweet flavour, similar to that of whole-wheat flour. The flour is easy to digest but is lower in fiber than wheat.


Like quinoa, amaranth is referred to as a grain because of its earthy flavour and the way it is used in cooking, however it is actually a seed. This is a highly nutritious grain that offers a complete form of vegetable protein, as well being a good source of dietary fibre, calcium and minerals. Amaranth is native to Latin America and Mexico, where it was used for tortillas before corn. It works best when combined with other strong flavours and is gluten-free.


Often associated with bird food, millet contains a host of nutritional benefits and is high in protein, fibre and B-complex vitamins. The magnesium in millet can also help reduce the severity of asthma and the frequency of migraines. Millet is a tasty grain that has a mildly sweet, nut-like flavour. Its flour can be used in baked goods and produces light, dry and delicate products. It easily takes on other flavours, is gluten-free and is easy to digest.


Khorasan wheat is an ancient grain that is two-times larger than modern day wheat and is known for its rich nutty flavour. Kamut is the product name for the wheat variety Q-77 of this species, and is sometimes used instead of khorasan. Some people who have a wheat allergy are able to eat some forms of khorasan wheat. “Kamut is a really interesting grain because it’s said to have come from grains that were found in the tombs of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, hence the nickname King Tut’s Wheat,” Justin Logie said.


Originating in South America more than 6000 years ago, quinoa is related to beets, spinach and chard and can be ivory, brown, red or black in colour. It has the most protein of any grain and also the highest fat content. Like buckwheat, quinoa is botanically not a grain, but rather a seed. Nonetheless it is cooked like a grain, and commonly referred to as a grain in cooking circles. While white quinoa is more common, red varieties are firmer, hold their shape better, and have a stronger earthy taste.

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