Thinking about flour, milling, and whole-grains.
A number of you have recently written to ask about whole grains: Which of our breads are made from whole grains? What do we think about whole grains? Why do we make any breads that are not whole grain? Have we read the recent article by _______ on the importance of whole grains?
I’ve written a few longish letters in response, but instead of answering each query, I thought I’d share my thoughts with all of you at once.
First! The short answers.
Q: Do we make breads with only whole grains?
A: Yes we do.
Q: Are all your breads whole grain?
Q: I’ve read/I’ve been told/I think I should eat more/only whole grains. Can you help me do that?
Q: Have you read the recent article by ______ that says we should be eating lots more/only whole grains?
Q: What do you think about it?
Ok.. this is where the answers start getting longer!
Here is my take on the whole grain question.
It’s hard to talk gently about whole grains, and particularly whole grain flour and bread, because the words are so loaded. Why?
Back in the day.. Like WAY back in the day, there was ONLY whole grain flour, and so there was only whole grain bread. So nobody called the flour or bread “whole grain.” The big distinction back then was between wheat flour, which was for the rich,, and flour made from other grains--barley, rye, spelt, etc.-- which was for everyone else. Mostly there was just “flour” and “bread.” To make that flour, the grains were simply ground between two stones. Some flour was sifted, and that made a difference, but the most important distinction was between wheat and other grains. That changed with the introduction of new milling technology.
In the early 1800s, millers started using “roller mills,” in which the grain was passed between rotating steel or ceramic cylinders. This new kind of milling sheared off the bran and germ, and the resulting flour was white and soft, and it had a terrific shelf-life. Roller milled “white flour” didn’t come into common use until the mid-1800s, and even in those early days it came with controversy.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Reverend Sylvester Graham (remember “Graham crackers”?), who argued that white flour (and meat-eating) was at the root of social decline and excessive masturbation (not joking). The cure was simple: eat a wholesome vegetarian diet, including lots of virtuous whole grains.
The idea that whole-grain flour is virtuous, and that white flour is the stuff of pernicious modernity, has been hard to shake. Wonder Bread, and all its squishy brethren, was everything modern: pre-sliced, artificially preserved, other-worldly white, and enriched and boosted by enterprising chemists. It was loved when it arrived, but it soon came to represent the worst. In the 1970s, whole wheat “hippie bread,” with all its weight and solidity, was “health food,” and it came infused with peace, love, authenticity, and an end to war. These days, the talk is more about glycemic index and fiber, but the old categories are still in the mix.
What I would like, and I think most bakers and millers would agree with me on this, is for you to start thinking about flour and grains a little differently. Here’s the most important thing: there are MORE than two kinds of flour in the world! There is a world of flour between white flour and whole-grain flour.
Here’s how we think of it.
Two Types of Milling:
When we think about flour at the bakery, we start with two basic categories: roller-milled flour and stone-ground flour. These two methods of making flour are completely different. When you grind wheat in a roller-mill, the bran and the germ are sheared off, leaving the starchy endosperm--the white flour. Because virtually all the fiber, minerals, oils, and vitamins in the wheat kernel are in the germ and the bran (and in the aulerone layer just beneath the bran) all of that is removed from white flour. When you put a kilo of wheat into a roller mill set to make flour, you get out maybe 650 grams of white flour, and you get 350 grams of bran and germ. In white flour, there is not much besides starch and protein. That’s why almost all of the white flour we eat in the United States is “enriched” with vitamins and minerals.
The other category is stone-ground flour. To make stone ground flour, you grind your grain between two stones. For real. The kernels crack and shatter, and the germ, bran, and aulerone layers are all ground to powder, and they’re all mixed together. The particles are not all the same size, though; the bran, which is fibrous, tends to come through the mill in larger pieces than the endosperm, which is fragile and breaks easily. The important thing to know about stone-ground flour is that it is all mixed together; the bran and the starch and the germ, along with all the oils and vitamins and minerals--they’re all mixed up in the flour.
Roller-milled flour and stone-ground flour are VERY different! They’re different at the chemical level, they’re different at the particulate level, they’re different in the way they behave in the bakery, and they are different on the palate.
Here’s the short story: White flour has no oils, so it won’t go rancid; its shelf-life is basically unlimited. White flour also has little nutritive value--its got no vitamins, no minerals, no fiber, but it does have starch and protein. White flour makes terrific bread! The dough is smooth and stretchy, and it traps fermentation gasses well, so the bread is soft and lofty.
Whole grain stone ground flour has oils in it, so it can go rancid, and its shelf-life is limited. Whole grain flour has a lot of nutritive value--it’s got vitamins, minerals, oils, and lots of fiber, in addition to starch and protein. That is all good, but it can be hard to make good bread out of whole grains. Hard wheat bran contains bitter compounds that most people don’t like, and the fibrous bits of bran puncture the dough’s gluten membranes, allowing fermentation gasses to escape. That’s why whole-wheat breads are usually dense and chewy, and, honestly, that’s why people don’t really like whole-wheat bread. It’s “good,” but it’s not always that good.
When we think about flour we also think about what’s called “extraction rate,” which is the percentage of the grain put into the mill that ends up in the flour.
For example: if we put 100 kilos of wheat into a roller mill, and we get out 100 kilos of flour, that’s “100% extraction.” If we put 100 kilos of wheat into the mill and we get out 75 kilos of flour, that’s “75% extraction.” White flour, roller-milled flour, is between 55-70% extraction--but remember that it still doesn’t contain any bran or germ; it’s just the starchy interior of the kernel.
Stone-ground flour also has an extraction rate. If we put 100 kilos of wheat into a stone-mill, and we get out of it 100 kilos of flour, that’s “100% extraction.” If we put 100 kilos of wheat into the mill, and then we get 100 kilos out, and then we run that flour through a sieve, we can sift out the biggest particles, which are the large pieces of fibrous bran. Once we’ve sifted it, we might have 85 kilos of flour, and that is “85% extraction.” It’s got a lot of bran in it, and it has oils and vitamins and minerals. It contains pieces of germ, and starch, and the aulerone layer. It has almost everything that’s in the whole-wheat flour, but it doesn’t have those big pieces of bran.
That 85% extraction flour is called “high-extraction,” and it’s something we work with every day. We like it, and here’s why: it’s very flavorful, but it’s not as bitter as whole wheat. It has lovely color and aroma. It bakes beautifully! The bran particles are small, so the bread can rise nicely, so it looks good and is a pleasure to eat. It also ferments like crazy. Basically, that stone ground “high extraction” offers all the good things we love about whole grains, but it bakes and tastes better.
What about that 15% of bran that gets sifted out?
Isn’t that important? I hear you cry.
We don’t know. It may be important in some respects. The size of bran particles may impact the populations of gut microbes. Foods containing large bran particles are associated with lower glycemic index than those with smaller bran particles, even when the total quantity of bran is the same. And there is general agreement that it’s better to have plenty of fiber in your diet, and wheat bran is a great source of fiber. I don’t know of any evidence that bran is bad for you.
But how important is it?
We don’t know. But here’s what it looks like from here: Dieticians and researchers don’t make distinctions between roller-milled and stone-ground flours. I have yet to hear a dietician discuss the details of milling, extraction rates, or even grain-growing practices themselves. Research on the relationship of bran-particle size and digestibility, gut biota, or glycemic index is rare and slim.
When someone, even your doctor, tells you to eat only whole-grain bread, ask about high-extraction flour and you’ll find.. Nothing. There is a lot left to learn about all this!
The standard medical advice on the topic is simple: “Eat less refined white flour, and eat lots of whole grains.” That’s excellent advice. But it is a bit heavy-handed, and it leaves out the very flour you eat every day. White flour isn’t poison, and whole grains are no panacea. And between the two is a world of good.
I know you didn’t ASK for my dietary advice, but I’ll give it to you anyway: in addition to all the other good stuff you eat, eat some good bread made from good flour and good grains. Learn about the differences between stone-ground and roller-milled flour, and choose the one you want. If you eat white flour--in a croissant, for example--enjoy the hell out of it.
I hope this is all some use to you!
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