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Grinding out another newsletter

It's getting better....

There are a number of arguments in baking that often have no solid basis for comparison or evaluation.  "That bread is too crusty!"  "That bread has no real crust!" "That bread  needs more sour!"  "I'd like that bread if it weren't so sour - it's like cabbage patch kids candy!"  "That bread is too light!"  "That bread is BURNT!"  "That dough is too dry!" "That dough is too wet!"

What is interesting is that in many cases, the two opposing views could be used to describe the same breads, or doughs.  I suppose if you wanted to be more of a technically focused baker than most of are willing to be, there could be empirical measurements of how crusty (a calibrated strength test could measure the crust strength), how sour (a pH meter could determine acidity), how done the bread is (a colorimeter could determine how browned the bread is and a thermometer could measure the internal temperature) and a slump test could determine how wet a dough is.

However, those are empirical tests, and there is still a difference between our preferences and measurements.  There is an accurate scale, Scoville units, to measure how hot a pepper is.  But even with that, there are differences.  A jalapeno has an instant in your face heat where a Serrano pepper, while hotter than a jalapeno, takes a while to make its presence known. One measurement rarely nails things down.  (Me?  I make my salsa with a blend of jalapeno and Serrano peppers.  Sometimes some Habenero's get thrown into the mix - I wanna get you coming and going.  But back to bread...)

What prompts these semi-philosophical musings are the two emails I received about the Sourdough Ciabatta recipe on the Sourdoughhome web page. The recipe description describes the dough as very wet and hard to handle.  The recipe on the web page has about a 60% hydration, which is hardly a wet dough.  It is worth mentioning that the most frequent comment about our classes is, "I learned I was making my doughs too dry!" even though our doughs aren't all that wet.  When the recipe was first posted in 2002 or 2003 the current craze for ultra wet doughs hadn't hit.  A baker I know makes whole grain doughs with 120% hydration, which you'd think would be soups.  By the standards of the day, the dough was wet.  And, as I pulled a batch out of the mixer today, I felt the dough was wetter and stickier than I'd expect from a 60% hydration dough.  Hydration doesn't seem to tell you all you need to know any more than Scoville Units do.

I made one batch of ciabatta with the recipe on the home page, another with the recipe we used in our bakery.  And both were disappointing.  The one on the web page spread out more than rising up.  While it had a fairly open crumb, it was still almost a flat bread and more crust than crumb.  Not what I was after.  The one we used in the bakery rose nicely, but the crumb was tight and closed.  Again, not what I was after.  Both breads tasted good though.  Looking back I realize I didn't add gypsum to the dough, which is all but essential in Sanger if you want to make dough. So, I'll rerun the test bakes with Gypsum and also look at some other recipes.  Apologies to anyone who made that recipe and was disappointed.

And now, for something completely different!  Not long ago a representative from Pleasant Hill Grains asked if I'd like to try out one of their KoMo grain mills.  Honestly, I wasn't all that excited for the project.  I have an original KitchenAid grain mill attachment.  It is slow, noisy and doesn't produce very finely ground flour, though I like to use it to crack wheat or rye.  I also have a WhisperMill.  It sounds like a jet taking off, more of whine than a whisper.  It is fast, and produces too finely ground flour.  A number of flour gurus tell me that micronizer mills like the WhisperMill produce flour with too much damaged starch and the flour isn't all that good for bread making.  I don't know about the damaged starch part, but I never was all that happy with the WhisperMill's flour.  When I looked at their web page the recipes all had lots of eggs and milk in them.  That reinforced my belief that the flour wasn't all that good.  Please understand, I make enriched breads also, but when ALL the recipes are enriched that suggests that the flour is weak and the enrichments are making up for problems with the flour.

Bottom line - home grinding has always seemed like a time wasting way to make inferior bread.  I understand the arguments that freshly ground flour is better for us, but that hasn't been convincing.  Few Americans are malnourished, and it isn't clear using home ground flour would help the few that are.  I'm all about that taste, that taste, all about that taste. And there are those who say freshly ground flour makes better tasting bread.  I hope so!

There are, of course, a number of factors that can get into the mix that are worth discussing..  It isn't always easy to find good grain to grind.  The big mills scour the country for the best grain and because they buy so much of it, they get the first shot at it.  Smaller mills and vendors, like Bob's Red Mill, King Arthur and Honeyville Grain get to pick over the rest of the harvest, unless they have agreements in place with specific farmers.  However, such agreements are a double edged sword.  If the farmer has a good year, the company has a line on good grain, however if the farmers have a bad year, that means the mill has a bad year.  However, if the farmer has a bad year, that grain will probably wind up as animal food.

And then the health food stores and other outlets get what's left over.  What is still left over goes to animal feed.  You might find wheat at great prices at feed stores.  However, it's the bottom of the barrel of the crop, it often has off tastes, and can include more dirt and stones than are acceptable in grain intended for human consumption.  Unless you are really desperate, give the feed stores a pass.  And if you are that desperate. be careful!  Rocks can destroy some grain mills.

When we look at flour quality, two of the critical numbers for bakers are protein content and falling number.  Protein content suggests gluten content, and that is what helps the bread retain gas when rising.  All purpose flour usually has about 10% protein, bread flour is around 12% and high gluten flour is closer to 14%.  All of these protein numbers are acceptable and will make good bread.

The falling number is a little more complicated.  It is an indication of the enzymatic action in the flour.  It is measured by grinding the grain, making a slurry of the flour with water, heating it, and then dropping a calibrated weight into the test tube.  How long it takes the weight to fall is the falling number.  You want a falling number of 250 or higher.  If the number is lower, that suggests the wheat was damaged, perhaps it started sprouting in the field before harvest (late rains cause this).  As usual, WikiPedia has a good explanation of falling number if you want a bit more technical a description.  Washington State University has a great white paper here.

What is interesting is that my usual grain supplier doesn't test their grain for falling number.  Many mills will let you look up the falling number for each lot of flour.  Wheat Montana lists the typical falling number for its products on its web site.  If you are a scientific baker, it helps to know the falling number.  If you have a lower than expected falling number, you can adjust for it by adding diastatic malt extract and/or ascorbic acid to your dough.  However, it is harder to do this if you don't know what the falling number is.  To round out the picture somewhat, the farther you are from the field, the less accurate the test becomes, and a falling number tester is out of reach for most bakers.

The conclusion here is that it isn't easy to be an educated baker and know what to expect with your home ground grain.  In the absence of product information, all a baker can do is cross their fingers and do some test bakes.  If you find a good grain, go out and buy more while it's still in stock.  If the grain doesn't make good bread and you can't return it to the vendor, you might consider adding diastatic malt extract (available from brewing supply houses and Amazon) and/or ascorbic acid (vitamin C).  Start with 1/4 tsp of malt per 3 cups of flour.  The usual sources are all over the place with regards to ascorbic acid.  Commercially it is added to some white flours at a rate of around 25 parts per million, or about .025 grams per thousand grams of flour.  Then again, Dan Leppard proposes using as much as 500mg per 1000 grams of whole wheat flour.  Luckily ascorbic acid is vitamin c and is harmless in the quantities we are talking about.  If your dough isn't up to snuff, first adjust the hydration then consider adding malt and/or ascorbic acid.

Another potential pitfall for the home baker is the moisture content of the grain and flour.  Commercial mills temper the grain so the flour will have about a 14% moisture content.  And the triple ply paper bags the flour is sold in do an excellent job of maintaining that moisture level.  (If you close the bag, the flour will remain very consistent!)  What you get from the grain store can vary widely, which means the exact formulas many bakers use may not work out. You may have to add some more water or flour to make the dough feel right.

Over the years, the enthusiastic home grinders I ran into were the ones using stone flour mills.  Like the KoMo.  So, I was guardedly optimistic.  I wanted to try, but hadn't wanted to try enough to buy a pricey grain mill.

UPS did their thing and a large box arrived.  Beth wrestled it inside the house where it waited for me.  I unboxed it and found that the pictures don't do it justice.  The shop teacher in me loved the woodwork.  Beautiful beech wood and great woodwork.  It would get a good solid "A" from me in a shop class.  And that is very unusual for commercial products.  Beth said it looked good enough it could stay on top of our kitchen counters, and Beth wages a constant war on counter clutter, so that is saying something.

And that bring us around to actually using the machine.  When I turned on the machine, I was delighted by how quiet it was.  Both the KitchenAid attachment and the WhisperMill were louder.  Then I added the grain and it got louder.  Not a whole lot louder, but loud enough that listening to the TV or carrying on a normal conversation became impossible.  It's fast enough that the noise wasn't a real problem.  Next time I'll get out my sound pressure level meter and see what it says.

The first bakes were done using Wheat Montana's organic Bronze Chieftan wheat. The flour had a great feel and made a lovely dough. As long term readers know, we have water issues in Sanger.  The water is alkaline and soft, so we usually add gypsum to the dough.  I forgot on this batch of bread and it still came out wonderfully!  The sourdough whole wheat bread came out beautifully.  Again, the real test is in your mouth, and it passed that test with flying colors.

Since then I've made 4 batches of different rye breads, more whole wheat bread, and all came out nicely.  Some recipes called for a blend of white and whole grain flour.  I just used all whole grain flour and was delighted.  One of our favorites is Jeffrey Hamelman's flax-rye bread.  We loved it, and took some pictures.  We'll do one more test bake and then publish the recipe on Sourdoughhome.com

These test bakes have been informal and to get my feet wet.  I'll do some more tests in the next few weeks and then publish a more in-depth review at sourdoughhome.com, but right now I'm pretty pleased!

As you might have guessed, the Komo has sparked a resurrection of interest in rye breads for me, to the point where I'm reading Stanley Ginsberg's lovely book, "The Rye Baker"  This book was a labor of love for Stanley, and it shows with every page and every word.  I'm hoping to start baking some recipes from this book in two weeks or so... along with my next shot at a ciabatta and my next run at flax-rye sourdough.

Until next time, no matter how you get your flour, may your bread always rise!
Mike

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