For Whole-Grain Fanatics, a Mill Is the Ultimate Kitchen Tool
It didn’t occur to me that you could grind your own flour until about six or seven years ago, when I met Maria Speck, who was hard at work on her first book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. Having grown up in Greece and Germany, she had a great appreciation for her parents’ very different food cultures—her mother’s Mediterranean cuisine, with its reliance on simple, ultra-fresh ingredients, and her father’s, with its northern European emphasis on dark breads and other hearty foods. They’d often have a tomato-and-feta omelet, she said, but it was served with generous slices of her dad’s favorite whole-grain bread. “It was cut from a traditional loaf almost the size of a bicycle tire,” she explained, her hands sketching a circle.
A dedicated home baker, she went on to admit that she had not one but two grain mills—one here in the states and the other in Germany. In Ancient Grains, she elaborated on what she cheerfully described as an obsession. “Whole grain flours are at their most rewarding at their freshest. They are ravishing when used right after grinding,” she wrote.
“A grain mill allows you to create layers of texture and flavor in breads, muffins, cookies, pancakes, and more.... At dinner, freshly ground corn makes for polenta heaven, and delicate dumplings from millet spruce up my winter soup. I use mild and earthy barley for ancient flat breads, toasty oatmeal for naturally sweet cookies, nutty whole wheat and slightly sour rye for breads, and balmy rice flour for comforting sweet puddings,” she wrote.
I was reminded of Speck’s passion the other afternoon, when a scone, studded with finely chopped dried cherries and apricots, changed how I feel about pastries made with whole-wheat flour. It wasn’t heavy. It wasn’t dry. It also didn’t taste musty or bitter but instead had a deep, intriguing sweetness. As I reached for another, I asked the friend who was pulling a second batch out of the oven what her secret ingredient was. She’d used equal amounts of whole-wheat flour and whole-wheat pastry flour, she said. “But my real secret ingredient is actually a secret weapon,” she added then paused. “You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I went out and bought a home mill.”
She’d originally done it for health reasons, she explained, citing a New Yorker piece by Michael Specter from a few years back. “Did you know that the nutrients in wheat berries start to deteriorate shortly after they’re milled?” she asked. “I don’t want to give up bread or baked goods—or wheat, for that matter—but I want them to be as healthful as possible.”
It was refreshing to hear a pro-grain perspective at a time when so many people feel that grains—wheat, in particular—are toxic. I don’t have the space to dive into that issue in today’s column, but the New Yorker link above will give you a smart, nuanced overview that addresses gluten, the complicated combination of complex carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (which seem more likely than gluten to cause widespread intestinal distress), the workings of the very cool The Bread Lab, at Washington State University, and more.
One thing that has changed radically is how wheat is processed. Before the 1839 advent of the steel roller mill, which breaks the wheat kernel apart, all three components of the kernel—the nutritious outer coating called the bran, the fragrant, flavorful germ (the embryo that can develop into a living plant), and the starchy endosperm—were all smashed up together. The resulting flour was aromatic, speckled with bits of bran—and a far more fragile product than it is today. If it wasn’t used within a few weeks, the oils it contained turned rancid.
“Roller mills solved this problem. Their immense spinning cylinders denuded the endosperm and discarded the germ and bran, producing virtually unspoilable alabaster flour composed entirely of endosperm,” wrote Ferris Jabr in The New York Times last year. “It was a boon for the growing flour industry: Mills could now source wheat from all over, blend it to achieve consistency and transport it across the nation without worrying about shelf life. That newfound durability came at a huge cost, however, sacrificing much of the grain’s flavor and nutrition. In the 1940s, to compensate for these nutritional deficiencies, flour producers started fortifying white flour with iron and B vitamins, a ubiquitous practice today. The rise of roller milling and bread factories also put pressure on plant breeders to make wheat even more amenable to the new dominant technologies; whiteness, hardness and uniformity took precedence over flavor, nutrition and novelty.”
Jabr’s story revolves around Stephen Jones, director of WSU’s The Bread Lab and noted wheat geneticist, whose mission it is to “make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts.”
Can we all say “Yea!” on the count of three? One way to support those farmers is to buy their freshly milled products—or buy whole grains and mill them yourself. That control over a basic ingredient is a big selling point in my view. Much of the commercial whole wheat flour at supermarkets, for example, is really just white flour with the bran (but not the germ) added back in. Also, because you can mill just the amount of flour you want at any given time, you don’t have to fret about a quantity of whole-grain flour turning rancid.
When it comes to a home mill, there are numerous choices. “I have used a beautiful wood-encased German Hawos grain mill for much of my adult life here in the U.S. which I can highly recommend and which is currently growing its distribution network in the U.S.,” Maria Speck wrote to me in an email the other day. “KoMo mills have an very good reputation as well. Another German company is entering the market right now with an affordable milling attachment for the KitchenAid, called the Mockmill. All use stones for grinding the grains, which is the preferred choice for many bakers.”
Even though you can drop some serious money on a grain mill, don’t let that deter you. There are models to suit almost any budget. Mother Earth News just published an updated roundup of manual, electric, and convertible countertop mills.
As for sources for whole grains for home milling or distinctive freshly ground flours, here’s a baker’s dozen of well-regarded options.
Anson Mills (South Carolina)
Arrowhead Mills (Texas)
Bluebird Grain Farms (Washington)
Bob’s Red Mill (Oregon)
Butterworks Farm (Vermont)
Cayuga Pure Organics (New York)
Daisy Flour (Pennsylvania)
Great River Organic Milling (Wisconsin)
Montana Milling (Montana)
Pleasant Hill Grain (Nebraska)
Resurgent Grains/Lentz Spelt Farms (Washington)
Sun Organic Farm (California)
Wild Hive Farm (New York)