In a quest for healthier, tastier eating, many folks have returned to the art of baking bread. What they don’t realize is that they go to all that trouble to get good flavor with flour that may be a bit short on nutrients when compared with the wheat it’s been milled from. That’s right — depending on the type, flour can lose up to 45 percent of its nutrients through oxidation within the first 24 hours of milling, and 90 percent within the first three days.
So what’s a home baker to do for best flavor and nutrition? Grind your own grain fresh, of course. With a hand-powered mill you can grind the wheat (and other grains) needed for a pound-sized loaf of whole-wheat in less than 5 minutes — and you’ll burn a few calories in the process.
Where did the nutrition go?
Of the 44 known nutrients essential for good health, only four are not found in wheat: vitamins A, B12 and C, and the mineral iodine. Commercial wheat milling to create white flour removes bran and germ, resulting in flour that is missing up to 80 percent of its nutrients. Manufacturers do enrich commercially made flour, but with only four nutrients. So what about the other 40? And the fiber?
Maybe you think all those nutrients would be destroyed in a 350-degree oven anyway, but not so, according to Sue Becker, founder and owner of BreadBeckers Inc. and former industrial food scientist. First, even though we bake bread at 350 degrees or hotter, bread is done when its internal temperature reaches 185 degrees. In a recent interview, Becker explains that the enzymes in the grains make the nutrients more bio-available when they are heated. Some nutritional value may be lost, but some is enhanced by this design. She also points out that the vitamin E found in whole wheat is not destroyed by cooking. Convinced? Let’s get started grinding grain at home.
Before you go shopping for wheat, you need a mill to grind it. Grain mills come in two types: the electric impact mill that bursts the grain open, and the burr mill, which rubs the grain between two wheels of stone or stainless steel. Neither type of mill is better than the other; you simply need to know how you’ll use it before buying. If all you want is whole-wheat flour, any mill on the market can deliver. But if you want to crack your grains for grits, mill oily grains, seeds or beans, a burr mill might prove more useful. Generally, burr mills are hand cranked. Don’t let that deter you, though. Many come with motor and bicycle kits. With a little do-it-yourself spirit, most folks can handle this adaptation with no problem. The advantage of the impact mill is speed. It can mill enough flour for a batch of muffins in less than a minute — but it produces only flour.
You don’t have to grow your own wheat to grind your own flour. If you want a local product, ask around at your local farm store to see if anyone knows a wheat grower in the area. If you can’t find a local farmer, check out the nearest bulk food supplier. I buy Wheat Montana wheat from a grocer that stocks bulk foods. A 50-pound bag costs $28 to $42 depending on the variety.
To make bread, or any kind of yeast dough, use a hard white spring wheat or hard red wheat. The red has a stronger flavor and darker color than the white. Some folks prefer stronger flavor in their daily loaf; but for something like pizza crust, where you want a milder flavor, use the white. Spring wheat has a higher protein content, which gives you a lighter loaf. To make pastries, cakes, pancakes, or any product using baking soda or baking powder, use soft white wheat. The hard wheat will work here, but the soft wheat will give your product a lighter texture.
You don’t have to mix store-bought white flour with your whole wheat. The secret to light, soft bread is to make it immediately after grinding your grain. If baking with whole wheat is new to you, and your bread is not light enough for your palate, try adding egg, honey or lecithin to your recipe. Some folks will start with a half-and-half recipe and slowly replace the white flour with whole grain until they are used to the flavor and texture of 100-percent whole wheat.
If you want to adapt a recipe you’re already comfortable with, just replace all flour products in it (flour, germ, gluten) with freshly ground flour. Measure the flour after milling, as you will get more than 1 cup of flour from 1 cup of wheat — how much more will depend on the variety and the coarseness of the grind. In my experience, whole wheat tends to be drier than white flour, so your dough will not be as sticky and you will probably not add as much in the kneading process. Baking times should be comparable.
If you want the health benefits of grinding your own grain, don’t be tempted to add gluten to your recipe. According to the Whole Grains Council (WGC), “If the grain has been processed, the food product should deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.” Becker says adding the additional gluten to the whole wheat upsets that balance that the WGC refers to, thus rendering the bread no longer “whole grain.”
Since I buy my wheat in 50-pound bags, I have to store it somewhere. If kept in an environment free of pests and moisture, wheat will keep indefinitely. In fact, legend holds that wheat kernels found in Egyptian pyramids have sprouted. When I bring my wheat home from the store, I pop the bag into the freezer for three or four days to kill any unwanted pests that may have made it home from wherever the bag has been. I then take it out and bring it up to room temperature — this may take a day — before transferring it into a food-grade, 5-gallon bucket, preferably one with a lid that screws off easily and has a rubber gasket to keep out any moisture. If you put the grain in the bucket right out of the freezer, it will produce moisture inside from the change in temperature. Likewise, if you choose to store your wheat in the freezer, you will need to bring it up to room temperature before milling.
Who can resist the smell of bread, fresh from the oven? Or whole-wheat pancakes heavy with home-churned butter and maple syrup? What about tortillas, soft and warm, right off the griddle? Someone once asked me how my whole-wheat bread turns out so light and soft. Now you know my secrets. And it’s not only healthier, it tastes better, too.
Carol J. Alexander grinds her grains with a Country Living Grain Mill operated with an old washing machine motor. She uses the freshly ground flour for her daily bread, pancakes, tortillas and more.
Popular Grain Mills
This hand-operated mill features a large flywheel and a long extension bar to make the cranking easier, but it can also be attached to a motor. Switch out the auger, and you can grind corn or beans.
The WonderMill goes from whole grain to fine flour in a matter of seconds. Made in Korea, this impact mill grinds 90 pounds in 1 hour, weighs about 8 pounds, and holds 6 cups. It is UL, CSA and CE approved.
This hand-operated mill comes in several models. Like the Country Living Mill, the GrainMaker has a large flywheel and can be powered by a motor or bicycle. This U.S.-made mill features superior craftsmanship and a lifetime warranty on the entire mill, including the grinding burrs.
Similar to the WonderMill, the Nutri-Mill is more compact, weighs about 11 pounds, has a 20-cup capacity, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
Wheat and Local Equipment
BreadBeckers’ online store offers wheat, as well as equipment and other homemaking items. To make mail ordering easier, it has organized co-ops throughout the country as far west as Texas. For more information on joining or organizing a co-op in your area, visit the co-op page of the website.
The Urban Homemaker sells not only wheat and bread-making equipment, but also items for juicing, fermenting, sprouting and more. It offers a wide array of homemaking products from food items to small appliances, and a page on its website is devoted to articles and recipes.
If buying from the source is important to you, Wheat Montana will ship orders direct to the customer. In addition to wheat, the website also features other grains, mixes and educational information.