Bread bakers, I’d like to help you to think more about your flour. Here’s what I mean: I want you to think about flour the way you carefully choose the rosiest, juiciest-looking tomatoes when high season rolls around. We all know that fresher, more flavorful produce, meat, and dairy products can make a major difference in our cooking, but few of us give similar consideration to the flour we use, even though it’s an ingredient we tend to go through a whole lot of, especially if we love to bake.
Instead, we’ve tended to treat flour as another “neutral” ingredient like water or salt: something that, provided it does its required job, is meant to fade into the background completely. Flour, thanks to the starch and the gluten within it, is what gives bread structure, so we’ve come to think of it only as scaffolding and not also a source of potential flavor.
The dominance of neutral flours in our breads made sense when most grain was grown in the Great Plains states or Canada and transformed into flour in just a handful of large industrial mills. Flour with a long shelf life was the only practical option when it had to be trucked long distances and stored in warehouses before making its way onto supermarket shelves. And since most bread wheats were grown to be converted into refined flour, breeders were free to select for strains that were high-yielding in the field and performed well in breads, without concern for whether the grain had good flavor or not.
Flour can actually be—alongside the twang of fermentation, of course—one of the primary sources of character in our breads.
But thanks to recent developments in the intertwined worlds of grain growing, flour milling, and baking, flour can actually be—alongside the twang of fermentation, of course—one of the primary sources of character in our breads. The arrival of a new crop of flavor-forward flours is the most exciting development in the world of bread baking since, well, sliced bread. Not only do they mean our breads have the potential to simply taste better, they also represent a world of new options for the playful, creative baker. These flours have the ability to add buttery, creamy, grassy, earthy, and spice notes (among others) into our breads, all on their own, provided they are freshly milled and that we make the most of them before their magic fades.
There are historical reasons for our ignorance of flour’s flavor potential. At least until very recently, nearly all of the flours you could find at your average supermarket have been highly refined, thanks to the use of modern steel roller mills. These high-efficiency machines are wonderful at separating the hard, fibrous bran and oil-rich (and thus rancidity-prone) germ from the exterior of the wheatberry, leaving behind the starch- and gluten-containing endosperm to be ground into flour. But the bran and germ are where you find most of the flavor in a grain of wheat. Removing them has the benefit of rendering the flour shelf-stable, but at the cost of most of its character.
Stone burr (or grist) mills, meanwhile, crush the grain between two grooved, circular stones. While larger bran particles remain intact after stone milling and can be sifted away if desired, the remainder of the grain—endosperm, gram, and finer bran particles—is inextricably combined, yielding a flour that is buff or creamy in color, flavorful and nutritious, but with a far more limited shelf life. (Stone-milled, lightly sifted flours are often referred to as “high-extraction,” since they contain a higher percentage of the original grain than more refined flours do.)
The bran and germ are where you find most of the flavor in a grain of wheat. Removing them has the benefit of rendering the flour shelf-stable, but at the cost of most of its character.
Bran is the wheat seed’s protective outer shell, its primary resistance to both moisture and pests. It is rich in compounds that serve to strengthen the bran and to act as a chemical defense against the insects, bacteria, and fungi that would like nothing more than to get at the energy stored in its core. Many of these compounds also happen to be highly aromatic and include chemicals more commonly associated with fresh hay, butter, vanilla, fenugreek, potatoes, and honey. (This is true of other grains we use in bread as well: for example, rye shares chemistry with cooked potatoes, mushrooms, and fenugreek, and barley with malt and cocoa.) Bran can also have an underlying—and, like coffee, tea, and caramelized sugars, not necessarily unpleasant—bitterness, independent of its aroma.
The perishability of the germ, meanwhile, accounts for why breads made from whole wheat have long been associated with an insipid, cardboard-y flavor and aroma. Normally the oils found in the germ have little to no odor. But once exposed to oxygen, they begin to break down into compounds with a pungent, unmistakable scent that easily subsumes the more subtle flavors of the grain. (One class of these molecules, nonenols, are also the main volatile compounds in cardboard.)
A renewed interest in fresh flours—and the increasing likelihood that a bag may not have to sit on a shelf for long periods—has encouraged grain breeders to seek out grains where a robust or interesting flavor is as important as any other trait. Through careful strain selection and crossbreeding, plant scientists like Dr. Stephen Jones at Washington State University’s Bread Lab, and Dr. David Marshall at the USDA in Raleigh, North Carolina, are bringing new varieties of wheat to the market that not only produce high yields in the field and perform well in breads, but actually taste good.
“If you breed for something you'll get it,” Jones says. “My program has been in place since 1894. We are the first to breed for flavor and we find it every day. Whole wheat flour from our varieties straight out of the mill makes baked goods that have a bright open flavor, [with] strong hints of sweet spices, maple, milk chocolate, and a buttery finish.”
In parallel, the world of flour milling has seen a return to its roots. Companies like Vermont’s New American Stone Mills are producing a new generation of grist mills and flour sifters that are affordable, effective, and scaled to fit within the often-cramped confines of an average bakery. Which means that more and more bakers are now milling and sifting flour in-house and turning it into breads and other baked goods straightway, to maximize fresh flour flavor.
For Kerry Hanney, of Night Moves Bread, in Biddeford, Maine, milling flour in-house means not only more flavor overall, but more flavor variety, as well. “Glenn wheat grown in Somerset County, Maine, tastes different from Red Fife grown in Illinois, she told me. “And with grain, it can also provide a sense of place and a prolonged snapshot of a season. Rye that smells like an orchard, corn that tastes like buttered cornbread just on its own, wheat that tastes the way spring smells in Maine. From a baker's perspective, baked goods are just that much more comforting when they evoke our senses in this way.”
Even when bakeries don’t mill their own flour, many of them are accessing regionally produced, fresh stone milled flour via the new generation of small- and medium-scale millers that have sprung up: Places like Maine Grains, Texas’s Barton Springs Mill, Farmer Ground Flour in New York, and Carolina Ground in North Carolina. Jess Wagoner, the head baker at Appleton Farms, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, uses flours from Ground Up Grain in Hadley, and is a huge fan of the flavors they supply.
Using fresh flour instead of commodity flour, Wagoner told me, “is like using freshly ground coffee versus pre-ground, or like eating a fresh tomato right off the vine versus a tomato you might find in the grocery store. The aroma and flavor are elevated so significantly that it’s difficult not to notice the difference. If you mix commodity white flour with water and smell it, [there’s] not much going on. Mix fresh flour with water and smell it...holy smokes. Wheat flour can smell like watermelon, barley flour can smell like sour apple.”
The best way to inject fresh flour flavor in your own baking is to get your hands on some of these stone-milled flours. You might be lucky enough to find them in your supermarket (my neighborhood Whole Foods stocks a variety of flours from Maine Grains, which is just a few states away from us). If not, they can always be ordered online. Though that means even flours from even the other side of the country are within just a few days’ reach at all times, I recommend that you seek out flours milled within your region, if possible, both to maximize freshness and to help foster a robust regional grain economy, also known as a grainshed. (Barton Springs Mills has recently started adding a postcard to shipments headed outside the borders of Texas, encouraging people to do just that. Here’s some of what they say: “There’s a rich world of grain producers out there—growers and millers who are embracing heritage grains like never before—many in your own back yard. We encourage you to go exploring, meet your local miller, and bake with their grains, too.” They also include a link to a list of North American regional millers.)
You can also mill your own flour at home, preferably from grains grown in your region and/or best for use in bread baking. (Many regional millers sell whole grains alongside the same flours they milled from them.) There is a new generation of consumer-scale, affordable tabletop stone mills from companies like Mockmill and Komo, which means that even home bakers can grind grain into high-quality flour on demand. (Mockmill even makes a stone mill attachment for KitchenAid stand mixers.) If you want to create high-extraction flour, you can then pass it through a simple and inexpensive drum sieve—a slightly more fine-meshed upgrade to a standard kitchen sieve—to remove the bulk of the bran.
Finally, you’ll need recipes. Whole-grain and high-extraction flours absorb water at different rates and the bran they contain changes how gluten behaves compared to refined flours. Which means you can’t just take your favorite bread recipe and swap out one flour for another. At least in the beginning, I’d recommend working with recipes specifically crafted to feature these flours. Fortunately, with the revolution in artisan flours has come a wave of great guides to making the most of these grains, including the books Heirloom and Sourdough, from baker Sarah Owens, Heritage Baking, from Ellen King, of Evanston’s Hewn Bakery, and two brand-new titles, Mother Grains, from Roxana Jullapat, of L.A.’s Friends and Family, and Southern Ground, by Carolina Ground owner Jen Lapidus. Any one of these books will have you baking confidently with fresh flour in no time.
The following is a selection of just 10 of the many regional stone flour mills where you can get fresh flours in the United States right now.
Arizona: Hayden Flour Mills
California: Grist and Toll
Illinois: Janie’s Mill
Massachusetts: Ground Up
Maine: Maine Grains
New York: Farmer Ground Flour
North Carolina: Carolina Ground
Washington: Cairnspring Mills
Texas: Barton Springs Mill
Wisconsin: Meadowlark Organics
Originally Appeared on Epicurious