Bran, the hard outer layer of whole cereal grains such as oats, wheat, rice, and corn, contains healthy doses of protein, iron, fiber, carbohydrates, fatty acids, and other nutrients, including B-vitamins. Many people associate it with a "healthy" muffin or "good" choice of breakfast cereal. Milling strips the bran from grains, significantly reducing the nutritional content of refined products such as white flours, quick-cooking rice, and breakfast grits.
What Is Bran?
Bran, the skin of an edible seed, provides a significant source of insoluble fiber, but bran and the underlying germ, the seed embryo, contain high levels of fatty acids, which means they easily go rancid when exposed to air. Food manufacturers often mill raw seeds to strip them of the bran and germ, extending the shelf life of their products. They may add back some of the lost nutrients, marketing the products as "enriched." But refined products never match the health benefits of whole grain products.
With packaged bran, you can achieve the taste, texture, and nutritional benefits of whole grain flour, even when you use refined varieties.
How to Use Bran
Adding bran to your diet can be as simple as sprinkling a tablespoon onto cereal; adding it to a smoothie or yogurt; or using it to thicken soups, stews, or casseroles. You can also replace some of the refined flour in recipes for heartier baked goods that don't rely on a fine crumb, such as cookies, bars, muffins, and breads.
What Does It Taste Like?
Bran has the slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavor generally associated with whole grains. It adds a pleasantly hearty texture to baked goods such as muffins, breads, and cookies.
Wheat, oat, rice, and corn bran adds fiber, along with subtle taste and texture, to baked goods that might otherwise rely on heavily processed white or all-purpose flour.
Where to Buy Bran
You can purchase unprocessed miller's wheat bran and often corn bran at most health food stores, in the baking aisle of well-stocked grocery stores, and online. Oat bran typically gets packaged as hot cereal but can also be used as an addition to baked goods, while rice bran hasn't quite gone mainstream, so you may need to look for it at Asian grocers or specialty stores. It's also available online.
When it comes to keeping bran fresh, heat, oxygen, and light are the enemy. To avoid rancidity, store it tightly sealed in a cool, dry, dark place such as the pantry or the refrigerator. For long-term freshness, stash bran in an airtight container in the freezer.
Although all whole cereal grains contain a bran layer, it's generally wheat, oats, rice, or corn bran that you can find in a package because they're commonly processed to produce refined grains and grain flours. The most widely available of those, packaged wheat bran looks a bit like flaky sawdust. It contains gluten and must be avoided by those with celiac disease or an intolerance.
Unlike with wheat products, most packaged oats still contain the bran, as rolled versus steel cut just refers to the method used to process the whole grains to a more manageable size and texture. Oat bran has a finer texture, so it naturally cooks more quickly with a creamier result than oatmeal. Although oats do not contain gluten, they're often processed in facilities that also process wheat, so cross-contamination can be a problem.
Rice bran, which has traditionally been used as feed for horses, isn't as available, although it's been gaining a reputation as a superfood. Look for stabilized rice bran, which undergoes a process to inactive the enzymes that lead to rancidity, for better storage results.
Corn bran's light color, powdery texture, and rather bland flavor make it easier to incorporate into baked goods and other recipes where you want to boost the nutrition without altering the taste or appearance of a dish.