Adventures in Milling Flour
I recently read William Alexander’s 52 Loaves, a book which details one man’s quest for the perfect loaf of homemade bread. Alexander takes ‘homemade bread’ to the extreme and much like the Little Red Hen, starts by planting wheat. When his neighbor inquires as to why he is sowing wheat in his front yard he responds that he is baking bread! I’m going to post some more detailed thoughts of mine on this book in a few weeks.
For now I possess neither the front yard nor the desire (yet) to plant wheat, but I have gone back one step in the bread baking process and begun to mill my own flour on occasion. I was recently gifted a hand powered grain mill by my fiancée’s parents and spent the last weekend putting it to good use.
Before starting I felt it important to learn as much as I could about fresh milled flour and how it behaves. I didn’t find the answers to all my questions, but what I do know I’ll share here along with some pictures of the process.
I know nothing about wheat, where do I start?
This was me about two weeks ago and I found the best place to start is the wheat grain itself. A grain of wheat consists of three things: the bran, endosperm, and germ. Wheat bran is part of the harder outer surface of wheat and houses a large percentage of vitamins and minerals. The endosperm is where you find most of the protein and starches in flour. Lastly, the germ is the part of the seed that sprouts and contains fat to sustain the embryo.
OK, so I understand the structure of wheat. Are there different types?
Wheat can be described by answering each of the following questions: Hard or soft? Winter or spring? Red or white?
Hard vs. Soft: The ‘harder’ wheat is the greater percentage of its weight is made up from protein. Softer wheat has higher amounts of starch. Bread flour comes from hard wheat and has a protein content of around 12-14%. In contrast AP flour, a blend of hard and soft wheat, is usually 10-12% protein.
Winter vs. Spring: In the U.S. spring wheat is planted in (you guessed it) the spring and harvested at the end of summer. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and after going dormant over the winter is harvested in the late spring and summer. The cycles of winter and spring wheat vary a bit depending on the regional climate.
Red vs. White: This is pretty self explanatory, you get different color flours with different colors of wheat. See this The Fresh Loaf post for an interesting experiment concerning this.
The plurality of wheat grown in the U.S is hard red winter wheat, which is what I chose to purchase for my first foray into milling.
How is flour milled commercially?
Whole wheat flour includes all of the parts of the grain, but AP and bread flour are different. These flours will have a great deal of the bran and germ sifted out in the milling process.
‘But wait?’, you say. ‘Didn’t you say that most of the vitamins and minerals come from those parts?’. Why yes, I did! This is why commercial flours are enriched, they have to put back in the vitamins and minerals they take out! This is a convention that started in the 1920 and 30s and was industry wide by the end of World War II. Interestingly there is no federal mandate on flour enrichment but states have since adopted requirements. Despite best intentions, synthesized vitamins and minerals do not necessarily confer all the benefits natural ones found in fresh milled flour do.
In an effort to separate the germ, bran, and endosperm commercial millers ‘condition’ the grain by adding water. This makes it easier to separate the parts of the grain and also means that fresh milled flour will require more water.
So, why take out the bran and germ?
This happens for several reasons. First, for a variety of reasons society has tended towards feeling more comfortable with white bread. The whole grain movement is headed in a different direction but largely the U.S. consumer base prefers white bread.
Second, the bran and germ work to undermine the gluten structure. The wheat germ contains an antioxidant called glutathione which has been show to limit gluten development (or break down existing chains). A 2009 study in Clinical Biochemistry demonstrated that children with celiac disease (who cannot process gluten) had significantly reduced levels of glutathione. Oxidation has been shown to reduce levels of glutathione, so often millers will ‘age’ their wheat for several weeks before milling. The oils in the germ (once oxidized) can lead the flour to having a shorter shelf life. No germ means flour can stay usable longer before going bad.
When milled the wheat bran gets in the way of gluten development by preventing the creation of long strands of gluten. By kneading the dough for a longer period of time the affects of the bran can be lessened. Otherwise, you will be left with a much denser loaf. Another way to combat this is time: letting the flour fully hydrate to soften the bran and prevent it from damaging gluten structure. However a loaf that takes 3 times as long to make is not in the interests of commercial bread companies. I have found that loaves with some fresh flour come out significantly better than if I just use 100% commercial flour.
So now you’re just milling your own flour?
Well, sometimes. As you can guess from the pictures above it is a physically intense process. I’d like to make one or two loaves a month that are at least partially fresh milled flour. I’d keep experimenting with it now, but we already have 6 loaves of bread in our freezer!
The information above comes from a variety of sources, all of which I’ve linked to where relevant. Michael Pollan’s Cooked highlighted the commercial milling process and TheFreshLoaf users were exceptionally helpful in answering a few of my questions I couldn’t find answers to. Happy Baking, and Happy Milling!