Across the country, bakers are starting to mill their own flour. The idea might seem silly. Make your own flour? Might as well make your own air. But like fresh ground coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh milled flour is a galaxy away from its banal supermarket counterpoint.
Flour’s job is often structural, delivering flavors such as butter and chocolate in sweets, or fermentation in bread. Flour stands in the background and doesn’t make a peep, like the ideal child of yore. This silence comes from stripping away the most flavorful elements of grains through the milling process, which generally removes all of the germ and much of the bran.
“Fat equals flavor,” a chef friend declared in the early ’90s, when fat was a popular thing to fear. I’ve found his statement holds true, even in grains.
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Grain kernels have three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. Most of the oils are in the germ and the bran, which also hold minerals, nutrients and flavors. Flavor and fat are volatile. Once exposed to air in the milling process, the oils in grains spoil quickly. Bran has other strikes against it, and the biggest is that it interferes with making lofty, airy loaves of bread.
Roller mills, which were adopted in the late 1800s, allow for removal of bran and germ. One advantage of this is shelf stability, and another is making flour that is mostly endosperm, a powerhouse of starch and protein that’s great for baking.
Stone milling was the way to make flour for millennia. Now, millstones prop up mailboxes on suburban lawns, but the technology is having a revival. Bakers are adding stone mills to their kitchens because the process allows them to use more whole grain flours and experiment with flavors.
“Fresh milling is a new frontier in the repatriation of wheat to our regional economies,” said Steve Jones, director of The Bread Lab and Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center. The place is a magnet for inquisitive bakers drawn to the science that is following flour back to the field. The lab has small mills to test grains as scientists, and resident baker Jonathan Bethony, investigate varieties, seeking types that grow well for farmers and perform well for bakers.
“The flour is flavorful and quirky. The flavor is a plus for sure, the quirkiness can be a pain,” Jones said of fresh flour.
Flour aged to improve its strength
Flour is typically aged to improve its strength and even out irregularities that newly milled flour can display. Again, I think of children, who are tamed into good behavior. Time, or in many cases, bleach tames young flour, and its potentially wild expressions.
“We are working to add some predictability back to the equation. Fresh milled is usually weaker but in our experience still makes incredible bread and again the flavor makes it all worth it,” Jones said. “Grassy, nutty, chocolate and various hints of spice? You don’t get that from old flour.”
Fresh flour is one of the primary reasons Tabor Bread exists in Portland, Oregon. Owner Tissa Stein saw a gap in the foodie city, where there was wood-fired pizza, but no place exclusively making wood-fired bread, nor house-milled flour.
The bakery opened two years ago, in a house down the street from a dormant volcano, Mount Tabor. The kitchen is tucked behind the oven and mill, which are visible from the café. The Austrian mill has its own room, but the walls are glass, so people can see the action.
The pine-planked mill is pretty as a piece of furniture. Baker/millers pour grains in the hopper, and inside the wooden casing, two large stones grind grains into flour. Customers like to see this tool at work.
Stein likes being able to bake with whole grain flour for flavor and nutrition. She fell in love with bread of this quality when she lived in California and bought Desem bread from Alan Scott, the baker and oven maker who launched a wave of microbakeries in America. Scott built an oven in Stein’s backyard, and influenced her decision, decades later, to mill whole grains and capture their vitality.
“Going directly from grain to flour to mix with only a day or two in between,” she said, enhances the taste, and the food value of the bread. Fresh whole grain flours add complexity, building layers of flavor from the lively enzymes on the bran that feed the sourdough cultures.
Fresh flour rather gymnastic
Fresh flour can be rather gymnastic because of those enzymes and other factors, but the challenges are hardly insurmountable. In fresh milling, people are tapping into a tradition, as Dave Miller did in the late 1980s. Getting a whiff of fresh flour as an apprentice at Berkshire Mountain Bakery really made an impression on him.
“That imprinted the whole thing for me,” Miller said. “As a baker you never get to smell fresh flour, and you don’t know what you’re missing.”
The moment when grains are cracked open is when the flour has the most potential nutrition, he believes. By the time he opened his own Miller’s Bake House in Northern California, he knew how he wanted to bake, using a wood-fired oven, organic grains and a stone mill. His experience is a model for others taken with the concept, and putting it into practice.
Theoretically, milling also lends more choices in sourcing, but current production for industrial milling and industrial baking limits what’s available, and its channels of distribution. Baker Graison Gill, of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, is keenly aware of the flow of grain.
“We’re at the mecca of transportation for grain barges and elevators and silos,” Gill said. The Mississippi River handles 60 percent of grain exports for the country, but access to flour and grain is slim for the bakery. The constraints are partly why he chooses to mill some of the flour he uses. Making great bread with wildly good tastes and superior nutrition factors into the decision as well.
“When you’re stone milling you’re preserving the integrity of the grain,” he said, and all its vitamins and minerals. In the case of wheat that means, “Omega 3 fatty acids, plus phosphorus, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamins C, B and E.”
Bellegarde makes 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a week, selling to a mixed wholesale clientele of wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants. All of the breads incorporate some fresh milled flour. The fall menu of specialty breads was built to feature these stone ground whole grains, including wheat, rye, blue and yellow corn, buckwheat and durum. Louisiana rice and wheat go into the Acadian Miche, and a Pecan Flax bread is also made with Louisiana wheat. The Louisiana wheat is soft, and soft wheats are better for pastries, so he can only add so much to a bread.
“I got some Texas-grown hard red winter wheat and I made a loaf of it on Saturday and that was incredible,” Gill said. Aside from a few places milling grits, Bellegarde is an anomaly, which is a catch-22. Until there are more people seeking unusual grains, farmers can’t grow crops to serve the market.
The emergence of mills in bakeries can change that. Just as farmers markets acted as bridges to build local agriculture, mills are essential infrastructure for leveraging production of staple crops in small acreages and out of the commodity system.
Fresh flour, however, is not just a moral proposition, but a quick ticket to righteously great tastes. Dig around, and you might well find your favorite baker is getting curious about their main ingredient.
Main photo: Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he’s just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell
It’s hard to do justice to all the miller-baker all-stars, but here’s a list of some bakeries milling some or all of their flour.
Miller’s Bake House Yankee Hill, California
Tabor Bread, Portland, Oregon
Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans
Elmore Mountain Bread, Elmore, Vermont
Bread & Butter Farm, Shelburne, Vermont
Green Mountain Flour and Bakery, Windsor, Vermont
Zu Bakery, South Freeport, Maine
Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Housatonic, Massachusetts
Farm & Sparrow, Candler, North Carolina
Sub Rosa, Richmond, Virginia
Boulted Bread, Raleigh, North Carolina
Renards European Bakeshop, Princeton, Wisconsin
Baker Miller, Chicago
Crooked Tree Breadworks, Petoskey-Harbor Springs, Michigan
460 Bread, Driggs, Idaho
Nomad Bakery, Derry, New Hampshire
Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, Tennessee
Fol Epi, Victoria, British Columbia
600 Degrees, Tofino, British Columbia
Boulangerie Bonjour, Edmonton, Alberta
True Grain Bread, Cowenchen Bay, British Columbia
The Night Oven Bakery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Some restaurants that feature fresh flour
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York
All Souls Pizza, Asheville, North Carolina
Pizzeria Locale, Denver/Boulder, Colorado
Some independent mills closely tied to bakeries
Stone mills can supply your home baking
Farmer Ground Flour, Enfield, New York
Hayden Flour Mills, Phoenix
Carolina Ground, Asheville, North Carolina
Grist & Toll, Pasadena
Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon
Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine
Greenwillow Grains, Brownsville, Oregon
Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina