“Baking with Locally Grown Grains”, such was the title of the class I recently attended at the King Arthur Baking Education Center in Norwich, VT. Sponsored by the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA), it was taught by Jeffrey Hamelman (whose Bread: A Baker’s Bok of Techniques and Recipes figures prominently on the shelves of most serious bakers I know). Attendees were mostly professional bakers but there were also a few home bakers like me, so I didn’t feel like the odd woman out. All of us were brought there by the common resolve to keep farms up and running where we live and work by spending our money in our community. As Hamelman aptly put it: “If you buy grain from the neighboring farmer, there is a good chance he’ll become a customer at your bakery”.
Many of us were also motivated by the desire to savor our terroir which, in this context, can roughly be defined as the taste of the place where we live. The flour used in the class came from grain grown in Vermont to which most of the participants wouldn’t have access once back home but grains purchased from small farmers elsewhere in the country share enough similar characteristics that we can take the knowledge back to our bakeries and adjust our baking techniques accordingly to obtain the best possible results (at least that was my hope when I registered for the class and happily I left with the information I had been looking for).
Local grain can be used for more than making bread. Intent on making the point, Hamelman started the class by preparing a vegetable pie for which the mock puff pastry dough had been made with equal parts of Vermont white whole wheat pastry flour and white flour (from Gleason Grains).
On the second day, we made scones from local white whole wheat pastry flour. Based on a recipe Hamelman brought back from Ireland many years ago, they were simply the flakiest and lightest I have ever had and it was hard to believe they didn’t contain a gram of all-purpose flour. I’ll try and make them when I get home using Fairhaven white whole wheat pastry flour (Fairhaven Mill being the only source for organic grains and flours that I have discovered so far in my neighborhood). I’ll post the recipe then. So stay tuned if you like pillowy scones!
Update November 20, 2011: the recipe can now be found here.
Hamelman reminded us that, in colonial times, Vermont was the breadbasket of America and that wheat, rye and barley grew in the Champlain Valley. But as nutrients were not put back in the soil, it took only 20 years for the land to be overfarmed. With the construction of the Erie canal, more agricultural land eventually opened to the West. Wheat growing became concentrated in the Midwest and in the Canadian prairies. At the same time, the invention of roller mills and the expansion of the railroads made it economically possible to bring the grain back East. One by one the small grist mills which had dotted the Vermont landscape (there had been one every three miles on every little river) became idle and disappeared. The Western farmers were not breeding for flavor but for yield per acre and for the ability to withstand hailstorms (which explains the preference for short stalks). Short stalk wheat was the main thrust of research and development in the wheat business for over 100 years and still is today.
But some local farmers are pushing back: Jack Lazor (from Butterworks Farm) is a case in point. (If you are curious to learn more about him and his wife, you may want to read this detailed article about them in Vermont’s Local Banquet.)
I visited the farm a couple of years ago with a friend who is a baker and a long-time customer of the Lazors’ and I was struck by their energy, dedication and inventiveness.
Anne Lazor offered us bottles of her kefir and it was so good that, ever since, the very first thing on my list whenever I get to Vermont is to find a coop and buy some. We bought bags of spelt and hard red winter wheat.
I brought my purchases home (back then, I still lived in the Northeast) and as soon as I started baking from it, I was hooked. There was simply no comparison, taste-wise, between the flours I could buy at the grocery stores and the flour I milled from Lazor’s grains. The explanation is to be found in the varieties Lazor chooses to grow, which are typically more flavorful (and richer in nutrients) than the ones grown on an industrial scale.
For more information on the renewal of grain growing in Vermont, you may want to listen to this Vermont Public Radio talk.
But nothing is ever simple, is it? Buying grain or flour directly from a farm is tempting but it can have its pitfalls. In Vermont, many of today’s old farmers were once fervent adepts of the back-to-the-land movement and they are still at it. Their philosophy is: “It’s organic and we grew it. So it’s good.” Their milling is empirical and they don’t sift, so that the flour isn’t necessarily tailored to the needs of the artisan baker. However when they realize they can attract more customers by sifting a bit and also use the resulting bran for other purposes, they are more likely to adjust to the new demand.
The Northern Grain Growers Association was created with the help of the extension staff at the University of Vermont to foster a dialogue between the growers and beyond that, between the growers and the bakers. Hamelman was the first baker to join. Today Vermont farmers have a better understanding of the impact of their choice of grain varieties and milling techniques on the baking product and bakers are learning about farming life. On a much smaller scale, when seeking to buy grain from a local farmer who doubles as a miller, it is a good idea to tell him or her the baking characteristics you are looking for.
Don’t hesitate to ask about grain health either. Lots of crops are susceptible to fusarium. Cereal grains are no exception. If infected, they get fusarium head blight which gives them a very distinct pinkish cast. They can neither be used as seeds nor turned into flour. Therefore Hamelman advises any baker buying directly from a farm to have a conversation with the farmer about testing for DON (deoxynivalenol). DON can develop in the field in most growing conditions in the United States. Any grain with a level of DON above one part per million (1 ppm) is considered unfit for human production. For more information about crop diseases, you may want to check your local library for a copy of Field Crop Diseases Handbook by Robert Nyvall.
If the farmer is also the miller, ask about the milling stones. Are they vertical or horizontal? Horizontal stones might be preferable to vertical ones (I forgot why but if you are interested, I can find out). Are the stones properly dressed? American hard red winter wheat tends to wear them out faster than other grains and very few artisans now have the required skills to maintain the stones.
But even flour skillfully milled from healthy grain can produce a poor loaf of bread. Weather conditions are a factor. If the weather is dry close to the harvest, then the crop will have a higher protein content. While some moisture is ideal to get things going, wet summers can lower the amount of protein in the grain.
All kind of enzymes can be found in cereal grains. Amylase is one of these enzymes. Its role is to convert starch into sugar. As bakers, we need ample amylase potential in our flour. If the flour lacks amylase, very little starch is converted into sugar, fermentation is very sluggish and the resulting bread will be poor. If it contains too much, the fermentation gallops along, too much sugar is produced, the dough is too wet and the crumb gummy.
There can be an excess of amylase when the weather is too wet (it can happen in the field before the harvest, so that the resulting crop is spoiled or contains so much amylase that no miller will take it). Labs use the falling number method to calculate the level of amylase.
There is an inverse relationship between the falling number and the quantity of amylase in the flour. Millers won’t buy a grain with a falling number of 200. The bull’s eye is 250. It is much more useful to know the falling number than the level of protein. When you buy your grain or your flour directly from the farmer, you have no clue what the amylase level is. If you buy from an organic mill, you can ask the miller. If using one of these 5-lb bags sold at the supermarket, you don’t need to worry about it because the test will have been done at the mill and any amylase issue fixed through the blending of grains of different origins and the use of barley malt.
The falling number is usually quite high in whole wheat flour but this flour contains so many fermentable nutrients that it isn’t a problem whereas a low falling number would be. Another thing to remember is that rye is even more susceptible to wetness and excess of amylase than wheat. If you need to know the exact characteristics of the grain or flour you are buying from a local source, you can always send a sample for testing to CII Laboratory Services in Kansas.
I mentioned taste before. Beyond the desire to save food miles and to help farmers survive in our community, pleasing our taste buds is often the main reason we turn to local flours (for which we usually pay a premium). For some of us though, access can be problematic. Jack Lazor mentions during the above-mentioned radio talk that he feels very fortunate to be living and farming in Vermont. He had recently been to North Dakota and there, in the land of wheat, there was almost nothing local to be had…
If you are lucky enough to have access to a local source of tasty grains and flours and eager to start baking, what should you watch for?
- One of the main principles when using local grains is that you need to process things fast. With Vermont flours, Hamelman likes to go for a one-hour-long first fermentation with three folds and he pre-ferments up to 35% of the total flour in the formula to compensate for the shorter bulk fermentation;
- Use a firm starter (to better control the fermentation process);
- Do not retard overnight;
- Don’t try to go for a supermacho 85% hydration dough. Local grains are often low in protein and won’t be able to absorb as much water as the store-bought flours you might be used to;
- When scoring, don’t make a zillion cuts (it would flatten the bread);
- Local grains may have to go in the oven a bit underproofed;
- You may want to start them in a hotter than usual oven (470° to 480°F/243° to 249°C) and to lower the temperature progressively (receding oven technique);
- Steam the oven copiously, load the bread, steam again. Five minutes later (no more), open the vents (or, if you are a home baker, remove the steam-generating device from the oven).
If your local grain lacks protein:
- Do an autolyse;
- Watch your pre-shaping;
- Pay attention to the shaping;
- Reduce the fermentation time;
- Bake in a hotter oven.
Several of the bakers attending the class are already baking some of their breads with local flours but logistics frequently intervenes to prevent them from using more. There is no infrastructure for grain delivery in Vermont (taking advantage of his booming yogurt business, Jack Lazor couples his grain deliveries with his dairy deliveries and can thus supply King Arthur’s bakery and other bakers but other farmers do not have that option).
White flour represents 99% of the flour eaten in the United States. But white flour mills are hard to come by. A regional one would cost about $10 million. Even if the money were to be found, how would the grain get to the mill? The railroads have gone the way of the grist mills…
I obviously don’t know what the future holds for artisan bakers or for farmers. But I do know that I love the back-to local-food movement: when I was a child, my grandparents grew most of our fruit and vegetables and raised chicken, ducks and rabbits and I didn’t even know it was a huge privilege to be fed that way. I took it totally for granted and complained when we overdosed on asparagus, strawberries or salsify. I never imagined our way of living and eating would one day follow the grist mills and the railroads and almost disappear… Any thing I can do at my modest level to make it come back, I will!