Dear Bread readers,
I had a long conversation with fellow writers Andrew Janjigian & Alicia Kennedy about flour options and limits, and I know that brought a lot of you here. Welcome! For my bread pen pals who haven’t seen the talk we had, the transcript is here.
Our talk made me think to share a primer for Fresh Flour.
I fell in love with this ingredient because I had a cookie whose grains screamed loud and clear — I am oats! I am wheat! Usually, good chocolate shouts, but oatmeal and flour? I was stumped, and set out on a journey to understand why I’d been deprived of such great stuff for decades of obsessive home baking. I wrote a book, The New Bread Basket, and developed a fact sheet to explain flour and grains in baking classes.
Freshly-milled flours from small mills have great flavor because they contain parts — bran and germ — that are generally removed in the milling process. The bran is what creates the most differences for baking performance, although the type of grains that farmers grow for these alternative systems has an impact too.
· Grains are the edible seeds of certain grasses, like wheat, rye, barley, triticale, oats, teff, millet, rice and corn. These plants are in the grass family, and at the early stages of growth, actually look like tufty bits on a lawn.
· Wheats like emmer, einkorn and spelt, have unique flavors, and some people who can’t tolerate common varieties of wheat find they can eat emmer, einkorn or spelt. However, these wheats contain gluten, and are not suitable for people with celiac disease.
· Buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa are pseudo-cereals, foods that resemble grains but aren’t members of the grass family. None have any gluten, which means that they are going to work very differently from true grains.
· Rice and corn are true grains that do not contain gluten.
· Wheats are classified as hard and soft, according to the texture of the starch in the endosperm.
· Wheats are red or white. White wheats have fewer tannins, and are sweeter tasting.
· Soft or pastry wheats have a lower protein content than hard wheats. Lower protein = less gluten, the part of wheat that helps give bread doughs and loaves structure. Generally, use for quick breads, flatbreads and flapjacks.
· Bread wheat comes from hard wheats. Durum wheats — which are used for making pasta and some breads — are hard, too. Dry climates are better at producing hard wheats; a hot dry season will make higher protein than a humid one.
· All Purpose flour is made from both hard and soft wheat.
The habit of grinding starches is older than agriculture. Bread began as ground seeds mixed with water to make a pasty gruel. One day, somebody slid a puddle of gruel on a hot stone and voila, there were flatbreads, or maybe flapjacks! Over time, pancakes, hoecakes, griddle breads have remained a staple food for people with minimal resources. Flour plus water equals fuel.
Most flour in America is roller milled, and made from grains that are chosen to work well in industrial baking settings. Outside of the dominant system, farmers have more choices about what to grow, and good communication with bakers and millers about those choices.
· Roller mills work by separating the parts of grain kernels, and, in the case of whole grain flours, putting the components together again.
· Stone mills grind all parts of the grain – the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Hammer mills do, too.
· The bran and germ are where grain kernels store fat. Fat equals flavor, which is why you’ll find a flavor explosion in the freshly ground products of small flour mills.
· Freshly milled flours contain most or all of the bran and germ, which will spoil the taste over time.
· Fresh flours are best within 4-6 months of milling. I store the amount I’m going to use in a couple of weeks at room temperature, and freeze anything extra.
USING FRESH FLOUR
In many ways, understanding fresh flour means getting comfortable with whole grain baking. Please choose recipes that are written for these flours as you get to know them. Mills have robust recipes to help — online at their websites and also, in other formats — Janie’s Mill has a robust Facebook group.
I love these cookbooks written by millers: Southern Ground by Jen Lapidus, Home Baked by Hanne Risgaard, and The Miller’s Daughter by Emma Zimmerman.
These cookbooks are great guides to whole grain baking: Mother Grains by Roxana Jullapat, Better Baking by Genevieve Ko, and Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce & Amy Scattergood. Hit up your local library & check out abebooks.com — an aggregator of independent used booksellers — if you want to add them affordably to your collections.
Here’s some basics to help get you started.
· Bran interferes with the formation of gluten in leavened breads, so sifting helps improve the ease of making yeasted and sourdough breads.
· Because of that bran, whole grain & sifted flours are much thirstier than white flour. Recipes built for whole grains have more liquids & sometimes, fats to account for that.
· Sifting removes part of the bran. That’s why high-extraction & sifted flours are creamier in color than whole grain flours, and darker than white.
· Extraction rates in flour refer to how much of the grain kernel remains in the flour. 75% extraction means a quarter of the kernel was removed by sifting. Hi-extraction is a generalized way of showing this.
· Heritage varieties like Redeemer, Turkey Red, Red Fife and Sonora need more liquid than more modern grains. To ensure success, ask your mill for guidance, use a recipe written for the type of flour you are using, and pay attention to dough texture to adjust liquids.
I keep a list of mills at my website — which is under re-construction and not as pretty as it will be soon. When I travel, I check out the list that New American Stone Mills keeps, to seek out milling bakeries and flour mills.
One option for learning about stone ground flours is using King Arthur white whole wheat, or Bob’s Red Mill’s stone ground flours. These flours are more commonly found. Be sure to look for the words STONE GROUND on the bag.
However, I remain loyal to small regional mills, and the opportunities they provide for jobs, environmental stewardship, and community scale food systems. They really proved themselves when the alternative supply chain failed us in the beginning of the pandemic! I recommend them whole heartedly.
A few wars ago, including the culture war that’s tearing up America, I made up a goofy but serious pledge to help state the role of mills in communities. The Flour Ambassador pledge took off in England, stewarded by the UK Grain Lab folks. So I’ll close with a link to this nice video Brixton Windmill made, and the pledge itself.
I do solemnly, happily swear that I am going to tell everyone I see that it’s okay to love flour!
Bread is not poison. Invisibility is poison.
I will make visible all the labor in bread, from seed to mill and mill to loaf.
Because mills are the levers that farmers need to get new grains in the ground, and under our butter again.
Please let me know what else you’d like to know about fresh flour.
Your flour pal, Amy