While it may sound old-fashioned, home milling could have the potential to redefine one of the world’s oldest processed foods—bread. The grain revolution is sparking the revival and innovation of traditional and new local wheat varieties, home milling tools, and unique recipes that are creating healthier alternatives to today’s highly processed grain and other flour products.
Grains have been a staple in diets throughout history. A nutritious source of fiber, vitamin B, omega-3, and vitamins and minerals, whole grains are comprised of three component parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. When processed, these components are broken up and combined, creating flour that is turned into pasta, bread, pastries, crackers, and countless other foods.
Historically, processing grains involved milling by stone, allowing the nutrients in the grain’s component parts to be released and combined into a rich flour. But the introduction of the roller mill in the late 1800s transformed milling by breaking up and further refining the grain to remove its bran and germ components. While this allowed flour to be stored and transported without spoiling, it came with some unintended consequences.
To “deliver long-lasting products, large mills disrupt the natural balance of a grain’s composition,” says Paul Lebeau, Managing Director of the miller and grain mill manufacturer Wolfgang Mock. “They remove certain nutritionally key and truly tasty parts [of the grain], denature other parts, and re-compose what is left into something they label as 100-percent whole grain.”
As a result, these so-called whole-grain products lack a complete composition of whole grains. “About four-fifths of the grain’s beneficial fiber, minerals, and other micronutrients are missing from refined white flour,” notes Wolfgang Mock on its website.
“The fact that the products are truly adulterated is hidden by questionable marketing practices and protective regulatory conventions,” says Lebeau. “The biggest resulting problem, as we see it, is that the consumer is left uninformed about the food she or he is eating, and uninformed about the opportunity she or he has to get the most out of grains.”
Efforts are underway, however, to educate and reintroduce consumers, grain producers, and local economies to the concept of whole grains. Agriculturists, scholars, millers, chefs, and bakers alike are combining science and technology with nature’s natural processes, in the field and in the kitchen, to revive whole grains in the bread and baking industry.
Small-scale grain producers and flour millers are at work, growing diverse wheat varieties and processing the grains using more traditional milling styles to create rich and flavorful flours that are shaking up the bread and baking business. Among them is Dr. Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and the Director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University, who is experimenting with different wheat strains localized to different regions in an effort to make wheat a regional product again.
According to Jones, “today [there are] three basic millers that control at least 80 percent of [flour] production” in the United States. In the late 19th century, about 23,000 regional flour mills existed across the U.S., tying locally produced grains to local bakers and consumers.
Inspired by the great flavor potential, nutritional quality, and community impact of locally produced grains, numerous chefs are also getting behind uber local milling, incorporating wholesome grains into their menus and products. Committed to bringing local and sustainable food to the table, Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurants developed, in collaboration with Jones and The Bread Lab, his very own wheat strain, “Barber Wheat.” He and Jones bred the strain to prioritize its flavor and offer Blue Hill’s guests a deliciously unique and educational tasting experience. In addition to being used for Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ breads, Barber is also growing his wheat on the property’s fields in Pocantico Hills, New York.
To further educate, collaborate, and expand the whole grain movement, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) recently hosted an inaugural International Bread Symposium, On the Rise: The Future of Bread in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Symposium allowed scholars, millers, bakers, authors, farmers, and other bread enthusiasts from around the world to come together to talk bread. Curated by bread master and JWU faculty member Peter Reinhart, the Symposium featured a lineup of numerous noteworthy figures in the bread world, including Chad Robertson, co-founder of Tartine Bakery; Glen Roberts, founder of Ansen Mills; Wolfgang Mock, inventor of the MockMill; and Francisco Migoya, head chef at The Cooking Lab and a co-author of Modernist Bread.
View highlights from the Symposium and the recorded sessions here.