Let's Talk About Milling At Home
Part of the Grain Mill Comparison
If you're a regular here, you know I tend to ramble. This page could be a prime example of this. In this page, we'll look at many different aspects of grain milling at home, starting with philosophy, getting good grain, and then finally accidentally talking about grain mills. It's a few minute read and I think it will save you time in the long run.
From time to time I get an email that reads something like, "I've never baked before, but I want to start baking sourdough, whole wheat bread with home milled wheat! What do I do?" I remind them that every time they use the word "new" to describe something, the greater the chance of failure. Put another way, Apollo 8 wasn't the first rocket humans launched. Baby steps. One step at a time. Each step building on the step before.
If you find yourself in the position of my correspondent, I'd suggest you start with store bought white flour and yeast. Think of it as training wheels to get you where you want to be. Store bought white flour is more consistent than home ground, so you eliminate a problem area in your learning. Yeast is more consistent in the hands of a beginner than sourdough. If you are the person we're describing, we have a great introduction to baking. There are three great recipes there, and each teaches you a new set of skills.
Once you have a handle on baking with yeast, have learned to knead and so on, it's time to move on to sourdough baking. Once again, we have a great introduction to sourdough baking I call our Fast Track to Sourdough.
And that brings us to whole wheat. We have a great Whole Wheat bread recipe that has gotten lots of rave reviews. It is our 100 Percent Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread. Again, the recipe gives you lots of tips on how to make a great whole wheat bread.
Now, let's talk about whole grains - Getting good grain - Until recently it has been difficult to get grain of known quality. The big mills have contracts in place to buy most of the best grain. Smaller mills and health food stores fight over the rest. Sadly, the health food stores don't typically know what a baker needs, so they have little information about the wheat other than "it's hard red winter wheat" or "it's wheat dude!" Some of the lowest quality grain goes into animal feed - you don't want to buy grain to make your daily bread at a feed store, from accounts it is prone to be less clean than grain intended for human consumption and often has small stones in it which can damage many mills.
You can generally get reliable grain from companies that cater to Mormons who need to keep a year's supply of food on hand. We've been happy with Honeyville Farms. They have excellent service and the most affordable shipping I've seen anywhere. However, they don't offer as much information about their grains as I want to see these days. Still, this is a great starting point for home millers.
In recent years things have gotten better for home millers as specialty artisanal millers like Anson Mills, Barton Springs Mill, and War Eagle Mill to name but a few have sprung up. (If you own, or are a customer of, a good mill, please write me through the Contact Us page so we can expand that list of mills.)
In addition to offering flours, most of these mills also offer whole grains. The MockMill folks have fallen in love with Einkorn and have a web site dedicated to Einkorn, where they also sell this new ancient grain.
More interestingly, many of these mills contract with farmers so they can track the varieties of grain as well as the farmer's results. So you can buy Red Turkey raised by Farmer Smith in Falfurrias, Texas. Terroir is becoming important to bakers, who look for specific flavors in their flours and breads. It is worth pursuing!
The newer mills also tend to give more information about their grain than health food stores - the protein level is entry level information. You also want to know what the falling number is. In general, the higher the falling number, the better. For wheat, look for a number over 300. If the number is less than 200 for wheat, channel your inner Nancy Reagan and just say no.
Still, the artisan mills probably don't temper the grain they sell, so you don't know what the moisture levels are, and will have to adjust the moisture in your formulas from batch to batch of grain. Similarly, if you branch out into grains other than wheat, you will need to adjust the moisture levels in your dough and how you handle the dough. As always, pay attention to your dough and it will tell you what it needs.
Because each batch of grain, and different kinds of grain, vary, here are some simplistic tips:
- The finer the grind, the better the rise (old baker's folklore)
- If your dough is too wet, use more flour.
- If your dough is too dry, add more water (the easiest way to do this is wet your hands and knead in the water, repeat as needed)
- If your dough is tearing as you knead it, you're being too rough.
One thing you shouldn't expect is to save much money. If anything, good grain raised by artisanal farmers costs more than mass market grains ground into flour at the grocery store. Honeyville runs around $42.00 for 50 pounds of whole kernel wheat, or 84 cents a pound. King Arthur flour is often on sale for under two dollars for 5 pounds, or 40 cents a pound or less. Generic grocery store flour is often much less. It isn't likely that your mill will pay for itself, so you need a reason to pay for a mill and more for flour. Quality of bread and nutrition are the biggest reasons.
And FINALLY we talk about grain mills! The earliest grain mills used large round stones to grind the grain. This was simple and effective. The stones absorbed the heat created by grinding grain and the size of the stones minimized the heat buildup. An issue with stone mills is that the grain wore them down, so the stones needed to be sharpened, or dressed, to keep the mill producing top quality flour. Early mills were powered by hand. After a while, animals were pressed into service, and then water was used to drive the mills. After the industrial revolution, electric motors came into play. The mill to the right was driven by a central motor with power delivered with drive shafts and belts. Many mills could be powered this way in a single facility. This arrangement also meant it was relatively easy to switch from water to electric power as only one thing in the facility needed to be changed.
The first "improvement," beyond power sources,in mills was the use of steel rollers. Two steel rollers are controlled to precise separations to crush the grain with a high degree of precision. This allowed a much higher speed process while keeping temperature of the flour under control. Also steel rollers don't get dull the way a stone does.
By changing the spacing between the steel rollers, the miller can separate different parts of the grain making it easy to separate the bran, the kernel and the endosperm. Some industry observers say there are many different streams, or fractions, coming from the mill. The different fractions are processed and handled differently. The bran is typically sold as animal feed. Some misinformed enthusiasts say that the mills combine the streams they want and package the result as whole wheat flour. However, the USDA requires that whole grain flour be unchanged from the input grain, except in that it is milled. If the mills stripped out the germ, the mill would be violating the law. Still, many people feel steel rollers don't produce as good a quality as stone grinding. It isn't clear if this is inevitable, or the result of modern milling practices.
A modification of steel rollers was the use of steel wheels, which act like stone milling wheels. The classic KitchenAid grain mill, one of the first home grain mills, uses this. They rarely need to be sharpened. The link, above, is to the latest version of the KitchenAid grain mill attachment. We used an older version.
The KitchenAid grain mill was mind numbingly slow, so ways to improve speed were very important. One answer was the micronizer mill. The WhisperMill we review is an early example of this sort of mill. Newer versions include the WonderMill and Nutrimill. In the micronizer two metal plates are spun in opposite directions at very high speed, often 45,000 rpm or more. When grain strikes these plates it explodes into powder. These mills produce flour very quickly, but some people feel they make inferior flour because the protein is damaged by the high speed milling process. The sound levels are comparable to the KitchenAid grain mill, but where the KitchenAid produces low grinding noises, the WhisperMill sounds like a jet taking off. A more consistent noise, a higher pitched noise. Which bothers you the least may depend on the acuity your hearing.
This discussion leaves out a wide variety of home mills that have been marketed over the years. Retsel, Sampo and many other companies have their fans and merit discussion, but since I haven't used these devices, I'll not comment upon them. If you are with these companies, I'd be happy to look at your product.
While we haven't looked at them, a number of grain mills are hand powered. Unless you are convinced that our industrial and electrical society will collapse and a hand powered mill will save you from starvation, I'd avoid them. It takes a lot of effort to grind a small amount of wheat. If you are worried about the end of the world, I'd look at driving a hand powered mill with a bicycle so you could pedal grind the grain.
And that brings us to a new generation of stone mills. These use synthetic stones that never need to be dressed, or sharpened. Wolfgang Mock has developed several generations of these mills. They are so popular that over 3/4 of the home mills in Europe are his creations. The KoMo Fidibus Classic and Mockmill 100 we discuss are his designs.
How we tested - We made two batches of bread with each mill. We also ground 1,300 grams of wheat into flour through each mill. We measured how loud the mill was an arms length from the mill using a Radio Shack sound level meter (I miss Radio Shack!), we timed how long it took to mill the grain.
We were also curious about how finely the mills ground the grain, so we passed the flour through graduated sieves to see how finely the flour was ground. In the case of the Komo Fidibus Classic and the Komo, we ran the coarser parts of the first run, often called the middlings, back through the mill to see if we could get a finer grind. The manual for the WhisperMill expressly forbade regrinding flour, and there wasn't enough time before the heat death of the universe to try again with the KitchenAid.
To gauge how finely the flours were ground, we used filters from Amazon that fit atop a 5 gallon bucket. We had a 20, 50 and 100 grid sieve. The 100 grid was, in retrospect, a bit too fine. An 80 grit would have been better. When we were done, we weighed the grist that didn't go through the 20 grid sieve. This was the coarsest bran. Then we weighed what wouldn't go through the 50 grid sieve, which was still pretty coarse. Then we weighed the flour that wouldn't go through the 100 grid mesh, which was some pretty fine flour. And then we weighed what had gone through the 100 grid mesh which was very finely ground flour. In each case, the number indicates how many wires there are per inch. Or, with 20 wires per inch the holes are fairly large, with 50 wires per inch, the holes are small, and with 100 wires per inch the holes are very, very small.
At first it was our intent to use the flour from this sifting to make our breads. In the end, it seemed that separating and rejoining the streams wasn't all that effective, and that we should test the flour the way most people use it, fresh from the mill. So, we ground more grain into flour for each bread.
In earlier versions of this review we talked about how much flour dust the mills raised. Looking at things a second time we realized none of the mills raised much dust - it was when we ran the flour through the sieves that dust was raised! And the only reason we ran the flour through the sieves was to check the distribution of particle sizes in the flour each mill produced. Apologies to anyone we misled.