27 December 2008

Baking with Freshly Ground Whole Grains

Using a hand cranked steel-roller grain mill to grind our whole wheat and rye kernels, the flour we use for baking is full of bran, and is coarser than purchased flour. We could go through an extra step, put it through a stone flour mill and filter out the larger flakes of bran to produce a product identical to the whole wheat flours we used to buy from the somewhat-local organic flour mill.

Sifted flour
Bran (that fly must have snuck in the picture, they are pesky little things in the summer)

But to these light flours I used to add multi-grain mixes or cracked wheat to produce a hearty loaf of bread with the nutty aroma of freshly ground grains. The advantage of making a finely-ground, sifted flour is that I could use it in any recipe without modifying the ingredients. But cooking with seasonal ingredients, primarily from our garden, has taught me the art of modifying recipes and substituting ingredients, so I chose instead to become familiar with my own unique flour. Besides, our tastes prefer this slightly coarser grain in cakes and bread. The texture of my cakes is similar to cornbread when made with half wheat flour, and if you have ever tasted bread made with a significant portion of rolled oats, that is the texture of my wheat and rye breads.

Cake showing flakes of bran
Baking my first batches of bread from our flour, I followed a familiar basic whole wheat recipe, but struggled with the texture. I have found that working with a flour so high in bran changes the ratio of liquid to flour in any given recipe. Where a recipe calls for one cup of whole wheat flour, I use 1 1/2 cups: the extra 1/2 cup being similar to a recipe that lists an optional amount of wheat germ, for example, that can be omitted without changing the desired texture.

The benefits of baking with freshly ground flour are, a superior flavor and nutty aroma imparted by each particular grain, and the superior nutrition. Grains contain Vitamin E in the germ and bran. Vitamin E is an oil, all oils or fats, when exposed to air and oxidation, go rancid and become free-radicals in the body when consumed. By storing our grain whole, and grinding only what we need, the Vitamin E, along with other familiar vitamins that are removed with the bran and added again to "enriched" flour, are consumed in a state that is beneficial to health.

Consuming white flour, can be found, in part, to originate with the gentry and aristocratic classes of Europe. Pastries and breads baked solely using white flour were more expensive, since nearly half of the whole wheat flour, the bran, became a waste product, meaning that nearly twice the amount of grain had to be produced, stored, and then ground, before filtering out the undesirable bran. Bran was the food of horses and peasants in those days. But the white flour, and the whiteness of the resulting products, was desirable to the upper-classes also because it was reminiscent of purity and delicacy. Women of this class were preferred to have pale white skin, while peasant women, who labored under the sun, had bronzed and dark skin tones, not unlike the brown bread that sustained them.

As the Industrial era approached, and manufacturing was centralized, products like flour were produced further away from their markets, and needed to be stored longer. The cheaper whole wheat flours that the lower classes were used to consuming would go rancid, and the industrialized process necessitated cheap white flour for the masses. In the first half of the 20th century, it was "discovered" that this now widely available cheap white flour no longer contained vital ingredients, and deficiencies were prevalent in society. But industrialization could not afford to make freshly ground whole wheat flour available, so the cheap white flour, which was once ironically the food of the aristocracy, was "enriched" with the necessary vitamins.

Since the 1970's we have been in the "health era" as it could be called. And once again, whole wheat flour, and and foods like yogurt, became fashionable among progressive mostly middle-class families. Food manufacturers are now happy to make these "health products" available, but of course with a higher price, "healthy" being a value-added quality. So what was once the food of peasants and horses, is now unaffordable to a large population of working poor. Up to the 1970s, a loaf of whole wheat bread was half the cost of white bread, now it is nearly double.

I find this story interesting, and I do believe that the flour we are making at home is similar to the flour of peasants two centuries ago, but it is not out of these sentiments that we are motivated to change the way we eat. The way we eat is simply an extension of the way we live.

So here is my basic bread recipe, the recipe that finally gave me a kneedable dough, and a well textured bread:
3 cups warm water (I use potato water most times, or even vegetable water from canned beans)2 tsp sugar
1 tsp yeast (I have lots of yeast in the air from baking, so double the yeast if you don't bake regularly)
2 lbs wheat, freshly ground
1/4 lb rye, freshly ground
1 tsp salt
optional: tsp caraway or tsp rosemary

When the hens start laying more eggs in the spring, and the goats start milking next month, I will experiment with some richer bread recipes.


el said...

Ah, I am jealous of your mill. It's on the long list...

Have you done much experimenting with wet-kneading dough? Basically it is just what it sounds like: with tough-to-knead whole grains like yours it's basically kneading in a puddle of cool water. The dough remains quite sticky on top but it becomes more pliable, especially after a bit of a rest. In general I think a wetter dough with whole-wheat loaves is just fine.

I've also used yogurt to do the sponge of a whole-wheat bread: even storing it cold overnight it seems to allow the dough a chance to puff up and rise; I think it has something to do with breaking down and forming gluten. But I am a huge fan of potato water!

Susy said...

We also use freshly ground grains in a lot of our breads as well. I still make some white flour things.

I have a mill that attaches to my kitchenaid mixer, I would like to get a hand crank one, but this one was free so I'm using it for now.

I'll have to give your recipe a try.

redclay said...

I'll gladly give your recipe a try. My goal is to come up with a recipe that is acceptable to my wife (in preparation for my anticipated wheat harvest this summer). She grew up on Wonderbread (ack) and though she has broadened her horizons to whole wheat bread, she still likes the fluffiness of the refined product.

I totally agree with your commentary about the enriched flours. The problem is that they only enrich what they KNOW to be missing and they cannot replace the compounds that are prone to oxidizing.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

el and susy, this little hand crank mill is the only one I would reccomend for grinding by hand, because it is geared. The gears are stainless steel, and it is overall of good construction. It is usually only advertised as a oat roller, but there is a setting for flour, and I put it through twice to get the flour you see in the pictures. Here's a link for the mill: http://www.kitchenkneads.com/index.php?module=store_listings&action=view_listing&listing=63

As far as other flour mills go, I have tried grinding the wheat by hand, and it is HARD. I think I expended more energy grinding the flour than I get back from eating the bread. The only flour mills that really make sense are either motorized or pedal powered.

el, I'll have to look into wet-kneeding... do you eventually incorporate the water into the dough? I would love to know more about your yogurt sponge. I am a novice baker, and working with our flour is really teaching me a lot.

redclay, I agree that the texture of fluffy white bread that you can spread peanut butter over and not tear a hole through, is impossible to replicate with whole grains. But the flavor of freshly ground wheat is irresistable, especially fresh from the oven or lightly toasted. Besides all of the compelling health considerations...