Lest any of you consider that my life is all flights across the Pacific and raw squid for breakfast, I recently found myself in driving (in my little green convertible - top down - adorned with my "I Love Okinawa" magnet) from Colorado's Front Range to the great wheat growing region of Kansas for a tour of the Heartland Mill in Marienthall, KS.
Some of you may know Heartland Mill (www.heartlandmill.com) as the producer of Golden Buffalo flour - a high extraction organic flour. And so here comes the first of my shameless plugs. Heartland Mill mills a variety of flours - all organic - either stone ground or on their long-flow roller mill. They also produce oat products and sell whole grains. Why shamelessly plug them? Because the mill is farmer owned and they are very interested in producing flours that support the artisan bread baking community . I believe in supporting businesses like these that can make decisions not only on profitability (as I am a great believer in making a profit) but on what they think will support their employees and their community. So that's my first plug. If you are interested, they sell directly to the consumer - their small bags are very lovely cloth bags - for use after emptying for small sewing projects.
So I will now give the second of my shameless plugs. This tour was sponsored by the Bread Baker's Guild of America (BBGA) (www.bbga.org) (Hello, Laverne! It's me again!) without whose hard work I would not have had such a marvelous opportunity. I have said before that the educational opportunities they provide are well worth the membership fee - even for this raggedy home baker - and I mean it sincerely. So, that being said, I don't think it is fair to try and write a "tell-all" of the tour because I don't want to give the impression that folks who hunger for this kind of education just need to wait long enough and I will post it all here, and that there is no need to join. I support a lot of their efforts and membership fees support those.
But some highlights are well worth sharing with other bread baking and milling enthusiasts.
First, for all that I have been out and about in the world, my travels have neglected actual drives through what is often referred to as "the flyover zone." Since my trip started from Denver in the pre-dawn hours, I got to see the sun rising over the fields of Eastern Colorado, the magenta clouds reaching down to the frost covered fields, a gentle mist making the entire scene something out of a fantasy. Yes, our mountains are beautiful, but I have never been so struck by the beauty of our plains. I believe someone once wrote a song about it.
Then I hit the great wheat growing region. For those of you in coastal states, or countries with less acreage, the scale of these farms is quite striking. They are immense. Not big, not really big - immense. I was not exactly driving slowly and it took quite a while to drive between any areas where I could spot houses. I cannot help but wonder how these immense farms could ever become the small farms that so many food enthusiasts promote, but this trip was not about that.
After five hours of driving, I arrived at Heartland Mill. it is a very small operation both in size and staffing. Their head miller said that he had no particular expertise but was just "an old farm boy." I instinctively put my hand to my wallet... :>) They had the mills shut down so we could both tour the mill and talk. (So sorry about no pictures, but not only are my photography skills not up to the task, but only pictures by the official photographer were allowed. )
We talked a great deal about the millstones themselves. There is a type of millstone called a French millstone that is constructed of stones that are only 2 hardness points softer than diamonds. What was discussed was that this type of millstone (which is not yet in operation in the mill) will produce a caramelization of the flour that is the "ultimate" in flour taste - or so it is according to B.W. Dedrick's "Practical Milling". Also interesting is that this type of millstone is not a monolith, but is pieced together so that there the hardness and composition of the stone is more consistent.
We then moved on to the stone milling area where we took a look at the Meadows mills. To get their high extraction flour, Heartland is milling in one pass and bolting the flour (through a number 40 mesh sieve). Of course I had to ask questions about this. They found that grinding un tempered wheat (9-10% moisture) was most successful, but then the miller similarly claimed that it was a characteristic of stone milling itself that made this possible. No one seems think about burr milling with steel, but our exchanges lead me to believe that my approach of treating my process similar to the roller milling process might (and I emphasize "might") be a good one.
We also discussed stone milling vs. roller milling and how the difference in the processes might influence the flavor profile of the flour. While there is one school of thought that the stones themselves impart a better flavor, Craig Ponsford put out the thought that the fact that the parts of the grain were never separated (as they are in roller milling) created a better flavor profile. All were in agreement that in blind tests, bread made with stone ground flour tasted "better."
We also had an interesting discussion about the words "stone ground" when applied to flour and how various labeling regulations made it imperative to "know your miller" so that you know that the flour was really 100% stone ground, not just run through stones to meet the labeling requirements.
We went over the tempering process (for roller milling) in detail. I have some things to think about...
The long flow roller mill is run at speeds where the flour comes off "cool." They had experimented with milling very "un aggressively" and found that they did not create enough starch damage in the flour for it to be used in baking.
We talked a bit about aging flour. The maxim of "use right away or wait two weeks" was discussed. Thom Leonard tells me that this is true - because there is enzymatic action that takes place soon (but not immediately) after milling that will impact baking qualities until oxidation takes place. However, we also discussed that for whole wheat flours this impact is negligible and that he has used whole wheat flour at various ages with little impact on the final product. (Thom- if you are listening in, please log in and fill in the exact details - there are people here who want to know...)
On the whole, I came away with the feeling that I have a lot more research to do on milling and that that even though I have taken a lot of factors into account in my process, I have a lot more things to consider.
We then spent a little time in the lab to watch the alveograph. I've read a lot about these tests and how to interpret them, but I've never seen the thing in operation. Essentially this machine blows a bubble (think bubble gum) from a specially prepared disk of dough and measures the pressure required to blow the bubble and the time it takes the bubble to burst. If you've made it this far in the blog, and you are not familiar with this test, you need to look up source material in any one of the excellent books available to home bakers that discuss rheological testing for flour. In short, the pressure gives an indication of elasticity and the time an indicator of extensibility. We, as home bakers, care about this because it is the perfect balance of extensibility and elasticity that give us well shaped, but open crumbed breads that we so seek. (More about this later.) The importance of the results of this test cannot be overemphasized (for white flours - the bran in whole wheat flours cuts the gluten so that the bubble pops prematurely). I want one of those bad boys. Bad. (They talk about "boys and their toys" - I'm possibly worse - and for those that don't know - I'm a girl.)
At lunch I had the opportunity to chat with P. Stephen Baenziger of the University of Nebraska. He works on selective breeding and improving small grains (including my favorite - triticale. "You probably haven't heard of it," he said. "Actually, I've milled it and baked with it..."). We talked about the local heirloom wheat - Red Turkey. We discussed that while these heirloom breeds try to keep their genetic lines pure, the various diseases that attack them keep evolving and eventually a once disease resistant variety needs to be crossed with other plants to produce reliably, especially in an organic situation (heirloom breed enthusiasts - hold off! He is dealing with very, very large commercial operations. Results on a smaller scale will be different.) I did have to agree with him somewhat because my own experience with heirloom plants in my home garden (which sometimes gets less than optimal care because of my work/travel schedule) has been very similar and I've begun to love my hybrids for reliable, yet still tasty production.
We did have a more formal presentation on wheat breeding and what it takes to get a new breed to the point where it can be released for large scale planting. Now here is where even I began to glaze over a bit, for truthfully little me and little you (unless "little you" are a professional artisan baker) have little influence in this process. But the overall takeaway was pretty profound. He discussed that various strains of wheat - that might have better baking qualities for the artisan baker - were being abandoned because there is no perceived market for them. In the context of a BBGA educational event, the discussion wound around to how such an organization can change this (back to the second shameless plug.)
We talked a bit about alveograph tests and how to compensate for a flour that was not ideal. Here's where I want to put some emphasis - yes, hydration was mentioned (proper fermentation is a given in this company) - but another factor for correcting flour properties was the amount of flour pre fermented. I found this out for myself when I was tuning up my baguette formula, but it gets very little play on these pages - I wish it would get more.
This winds me around to our last discussion. We talked a bit about "protein levels" in wheat and how American bakers are all about the absolute number and not how the flour actually performs under the conditions of artisan bakers. Professional bakers who have baked in Europe expressed that the absolute protein number was not as important as how the flour acted as far as its baking qualities. Unfortunately the industry accepted tests are not designed for the kind of breads being produced by artisan bakers. It was expressed that Heartland would like to mill these lower protein flours, but there is no market for them because bakers have been trained to look for certain protein numbers. A lot of this was discussed within the context of how the BBGA might help, but my takeaway was this: It is not that Europe is a superior place to produce wheat; it is not that we don't have wonderful millers; it is that there is no perceived market for these flours. I have considered this for a long time. Maybe it was the sight of those immense fields of wheat. North America is a great place to grow wheat - but we, as consumers and bakers don't show enough demand for these flours to make production economically viable. Back to my shameless plug - here is where organizations like BBGA can make changes.
(I also had a lively discussion about the difference in economic incentives for small businesses/farms in Europe/Canada vs. the US, but do- not - get - me - started. Really.)
My last memorable quip was a gentleman who asked me why a raggedy home baker would know so many technical details about wheat, milling, and flour. "Was it that your bread didn't turn out well and you decided to find out why?" "No, I was always a pretty good baker," I replied. "The bread was always good. It's just that I - can't - help - myself."
I decided rather than stay for the dinner that I had spent enough time away from home and drove back to watch the sun set over the Rockies. To wrap up this long, long post, as I drove I pondered that this had been one of the most satisfying days that I had had in a long time. (A long drive on clear roads in nice weather in a sports car might have had something to do with it, but the mill tour played a large part.) And I thought of those words uttered by that most famous Kansas girl:
"...if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.."