Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Baking with Locally Grown Grains

"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!


  1. Hello MC,
    Thank you for this wonderful account of your ‘Baking with Locally Grown Grains’ class.
    The breads and pastry you made from local Vermont flour all look so beautiful.
    Your comment “…the common resolve to keep farms up and running where we live and work by spending our money in our community” – these words struck a chord with me, having participated in a community-supported-agriculture program this year that supplied flour milled from locally grown wheat.
    I had the pleasure of meeting the farmer and seeing the fields where the grain was grown, and have gained a deeper appreciation of the effort that goes into the creation of the flour that I now am enjoying baking with.
    The information you have kindly passed along about what to consider / adjustments to the baking process when working with local grain is very helpful!
    It was also very interesting to read about the history of grain growing in Vermont, and of the farmers who are reviving grain cultivation there.
    Thank you so much for sharing this experience, and hope you really enjoyed Mr. Hamelman’s class; it seems like it must have been such a great follow-up to Kneading Conference West.
    :^) from breadsong

  2. Hey MC,
    Just bought some local grain from Cayuga in Upstate NY, they have wonderful half white bread flour too..I think it's meant to be a high-extraction flour and I have used it in my breads already. A bit pricey but the flavors and feel make it all worthwhile. As well I purchased grain to mill at home, Farro, Spelt, Rye....all good!

    Happy baking!

  3. Hello breadsong! Thank you very much for stopping by and sharing your local grain experience. How lucky you are and how I wish my CSA grew grain too... But its land is too small. It has to stick to veggies, herbs and flowers (for which I am already eternally grateful). I know of a CSA in Vermont where the weekly share includes a loaf of bread from Gérard's bakery. So even if the members don't bake, they still have access to the taste of grain in their area. And what a taste with all these levain aromas to showcase it...
    You are absolutely right, the class was actually a great follow-up to the KCW and on top of that I had the pleasure to meet Kimmy and many other very interesting bakers. I wish you could have attended. We missed you!

  4. Hi Jeremy! So glad to read you are now home milling as well. I heard great things about Cayuga flours. Isn't it wonderful that you have access these local grains from the heart of the city?

  5. Hi MC,
    I'm so glad you and Kimmy were able to meet.
    I really wish I could have attended that class too - for the wonderful company :^) and interesting subject material.
    How fortunate those CSA participants are in Vermont, to enjoy Gérard's bread on a regular basis!
    :^) from breadsong

  6. Hello MC,
    Although not directly relevant to your current post, I thought I would mention a movement that is prevalent in France at the moment. At the organic bakery I am working at in Normandy (near Caen) two of the bakers are starting to put in place a project to grow and mill their own wheat. The paysanne boulangère movement (growing wheat/making bread) is fairly small in France, but large enough that people have an option to purchase their bread from local organic sources. While supporting the paysanne boulangére, they are also supporting the traditional methods that are almost always employed: au levain naturel, pétri à la main, et cuit au four de bois (our motto). I am not saying it is an easy option, or realistic choice (in France, US, or my area in Canada), but it is satisfying knowing there are skilled people who are providing excellent tasting, and sustainable food options. When you visit France, it may be an interesting topic to look into.

  7. Hello Seth, thank you for the suggestion. Is the Normandy project linked in anyway to Réseau Semences paysannes? I heard about the Réseau through Jonathan Stevens, a baker I met in Northampton, MA. I would love to hear more about that. Would you please drop me a little note ( so that we can discuss it further? Thanks.

  8. Hi MC,

    That's a very unusual pie form that Jeffrey was using. It doesn't look like a typical Pyrex or regular aluminum pie pan, but it looks more like a spring form pan? Can you confirm that? How did the vegetable pie taste? Thank you very much for this very informative article!


  9. this was so informative, thank you!!! but I am still jealous of your wonderful experience: taking a class with Hamelman! funny, I've ordered his most famous book (the one you quote) just a few days ago. now I am even more eager to read it. really would not know where to start to get non industrial flour in Sweden... for now I am happy about Saltå Kvarn, a brand that makes high quality organic flour... huge difference in my starter since I use it...

  10. Wonderfully informative post MC, I will be reposting on FB. Wish I could accompany you on some of those trips....I can't wait to see what you come up with for those scones.......

  11. dear MC,
    first of all, i just read your post abt injuring your hand. I trust, hope?, you're well by now!
    Then, thanks for this very informative post. Even though i'm miles and miles away from any farm (on a concrete island), i can imagine how wonderful the flours and breads are, and congratulate all of you who are taking the steps to eat and support local. If ever i am able to do likewise, i hope to remember all the do's and don't's you mentioned. I have written before telling you how much i enjoy your profiles of artisan bakers and producers. Keep up the good work. (And how nice you can meet Mr Hamelman in person. My copy of his book is beginning to fall apart. He looks hale and hearty, and from the few photos i've seen of him, the man doesn't seem to have aged!)

  12. Hello MC,
    Sounds like a great workshop!Your post is very informative and thanks for adding that NPR clip...
    The scones looked like little pillows.
    Cam not wait to try them.

  13. What a great and informative post MC! You are so lucky... what an amazing experience!!
    Thanks for sharing,

  14. @Carl, it wasn't a spring form. Just a round pie pan with straight (unslanted) sides. Jeffrey said he got the idea for this savory dish in Paris where it is offered for a quick lunch or dinner in many bakeries. It did taste good but honestly I don't think I'll make it at home. I thought it was too rich (100% butter in the dough + 113% cheese and 43% eggs in the filling) for our own good!
    @Barbara, I wish I could have met you at Jeffrey's class too. I am sure you will greatly enjoy his book. It is a bottomless mine of information and proven formulas. Glad to read you have access to organic flour and that it made a big difference in your starter. These micro-organisms do seem to know what they like! Do you know where the grain comes from?
    @Wee, so good to hear from you again. Yes, my hand has healed (almost) and I am eager to go back to baking. Where is your concrete island? Now I am curious... Singapore?
    @Judd, your neighbors will love you when you go visit with some of these scones in hand!
    @Hilmar, thank you. I am so happy the Internet makes sharing so easy...

  15. how did you guess?? amazing! yupe, i'm in singapore.

  16. Hi again Wee, "a concrete island" miles and miles away from any farm... It could only be Singapore or maybe Hong-Kong... ;-)

  17. Hi MC,

    Thank you for great write up and also links in your article. I definitely will bake a batch of scone for the coming Thanksgiving morning. They were really delicious in my opinion.


  18. hi Again MC. thank for the question (where do the grains come from). actually they come from 4 relatively small byodinamic farms located in the South, South-West of Sweden, so from a quite small area. The grains are also stoneground. I noticed a huge difference in vitality in my starter after shifting to this brand.



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