Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Flour Power - Growing and Grinding your own Wheat

Today is a cool, wet and windy day. So in order to stay warm, be useful and to make something delicious for dinner, I'm making French Bread. I don't usually use a recipe when making bread so this will be a first in a long time. Here's my recipe:

French Bread

* 2 cups Warm Water
* 1 Tablespoon dried yeast
* 1 Tablespoon of sugar
* 1 Tablespoon butter or veg. oil
* 2 teaspoons salt
* 5-5 1/2 cups bread flour

Mix together the sugar, warm water and the yeast and let sit for 10 minutes. This is a traditional step that ensures your yeast is active (alive) but with today's high quality dried yeast you could skip this step and just mix the yeast with the flour if you want. Next measure the salt, butter or oil into a bowl and add 5 cups of the flour. Either mix in a mixer with a dough hook, a bread machine, or by knead by hand on a lightly greased counter for 10 minutes or until the ball of dough is smooth and silky. If it's sticky, add more flour a little at a time until the right consistency is reached. Place in a greased bowl to rise and turn the dough over in the bowl once so that the whole ball is greased. Cover with a cloth and let rise until doubled in size for 1 hour. Punch it down to get out any big bubbles then divide into 2 pieces. Shape into loaves or roll out to a 9x12 rectangle then roll from the long side like a jelly roll until you have a roll of dough. Place seam side down on a pan coated in oil of cornmeal to prevent sticking. Rise for 30 minutes then bake at 400 for about 30 minutes until crusty and browned. If you want a really crackly crust there are some tricks you can try. Sprinkle or spray the bread with water while cooking. Or, set the oven to 500, heat, put in your loaves and turn the heat to 400 after a few minutes. Or mix one egg white in 2 tbsp water and brush this mix lightly over the bread before baking. Another way is to use a baking stone in your oven instead of metal pans. I'd love one, but that's on my Christmas wish list.

I think it's a good idea to experiment and see what you like. French bread is slightly chewy inside with a tasty crust so very different from a fortified bread containing eggs or milk that make it richer. It's a matter of personal choice and honestly, I bake whatever I'm in the mood for and I rarely use too much oil because our bread never needs to last or stay soft for more than 24 hours due to it's being eaten by a horde of hungry children. This French bread can be frozen. I'm going to experiment and see if it can be frozen after shaping then put in a pan to thaw and bakes as usual. I'll let you know how it works out.

Oh, you can tell if dough has doubled in size by doing the following. Poke in your finger to the first knuckle, the hole in the dough will close up about half way once you remove your finger. That means it's doubled. If you follow the amounts given and your yeast is still active then the times given should work just fine for you. A cooler kitchen can add to the rise time, but in today's modern warm homes, it usually doesn't make much difference.

Notes for our international readers, in North America both flour and liquids are measured by volume not weight so here's a conversion if you need it:

1 cup = 250 ml

1 tsp (level teaspoon) = 5 ml

1 Tbsp (level tablespoon) = 15 ml not the Australian 20 ml.

Fresh yeast can be substituted for dried yeast at this ratio 1 cake fresh = 1 packet of dried (13ml) If you do a lot of baking, buy your dried yeast not in jars but in a 1 lb vacuum packed block. It's WAY cheaper, usually between $5-7 and if kept in the freezer or fridge will last a long time. I use on average 2 packages a year and that includes holiday baking to give away to friends and family.

All-purpose flour can be substituted for bread flour but will yield an inferior loaf. The higher protein content of bread flour makes a more elastic dough and a higher rising loaf.


There are many grains used at different times and in different places in the world. Amaranth, corn, millet, spelt, wheat, oats, barley, triticale and rye to name a few. In Canada the main grain crops are wheat, oats, barley, triticale and rye. Here's the grain commissions page that lists descriptions of each cereal type. But we'll discuss wheat for today.

Wheat comes in some basic types and I'm not talking about white or brown, I mean winter, spring, hard and soft and durum. The names winter and spring depend on the sowing time. Some types of wheat are fall planted and therefore start early in the spring and have an earlier harvest. Spring sown wheats are harvested in September in most places in Canada I believe depending on that seasons growing conditions and weather. Hard wheat is higher in protein and used for breads and pasta making with Durum wheat the choice for pasta. Soft wheat, having less protein, is used for cookies, cakes, and crackers because it makes a softer crumb that's desirable in cakes. The wheats also come in red, white and amber colours (though traditional wheats are available in green, grey, blue, black and pink) and this does affect the colour of whole wheat ground flour but hardly at all, they're still going to look like brown bread. Hard red is considered the best for long term storage.

I think the best way to get some wheat seeds to start growing your own little patch is from Jim at Prairie Garden Seeds in Saskatchewan. His is an amazing story of hard work to preserve heritage varieties in interesting places, namely his monastery garden at St. Peter's Abbey. Check out his website here for tons of info about cereal crops and other interesting things. I can't possible explain how interesting you'll find it as you poke around his site.

Growing your own grains is fun and pretty easy but you need a lot of land devoted to this to make it feasible for bread making and possibly poultry feeding so think about it long and hard before you decide to do it. I think the best thing to do would be devote a small area, say 10x20 feet, grow a small patch and then keep a good portion of your crop as next years seeds. See how you like it. If you don't...just grind and eat it! But calorie for calorie, wheat is a good crop to consider. What I mean is...think how many calories of food you can grow in a given area with different crops and then plan accordingly. I want to try hulless oats in my garden and some blue wheat too like Utrecht Blue.

Here's a link with some of Jim's wheat pictures from a few years ago at St. Peter's Abbey. Enjoy!

The advantages of grinding your own wheat and using it fresh are that you retain all the vitamins and minerals found in the grain. Most of these are lost over time so freshly ground flour is the best choice if it's something that you're interested in maintaining. When you grind your own flour you're getting all the oils and nutrients from the grain plus the bran that aids in digestion. The wheat germ oil is still there of course so you get the health benefits but you must use the flour quickly because this oil will go rancid in a short period of time. That's why almost all mills remove the oil or give their flours a 2-3 month shelf life if they say they are 100% whole grain. Once you've tried bread made with your own flour or fresh milled grains you'll never look at the tasteless stuff from the store the same way again.

More on growing and grinding wheat tomorrow.

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