The At Home Issue — July 14, 2020
An Artisanal Miller’s Guide to Flour for Home Bakers
Professional miller Jill Brockman-Cummings of Janie’s Mill in Illinois provides a practical flour education for the home baker.
This guide was published in The At Home Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our limited edition printed newspaper for Life & Thyme members.
Whether you are new to baking or you’ve been a baker since you could wrap your fingers around a wooden spoon, chances are you’ve been thinking about flour more lately than you ever did before. To be a home baker at this time means being creative and determined, willing to seek new ways to get your hands on flour when the supermarket shelves are empty.
Jill Brockman-Cummings, senior mill manager and head miller at Janie’s Mill—an artisanal stone mill that produces organic heirloom wheat flours in Ashkum, Illinois—has worked tirelessly to keep flour flowing into home kitchens.
To help demystify the ABCs (all-purpose, bread and cake) of flour, as well as gluten, sourdough and beyond, Brockman-Cummings offers her insight and expertise in this handy guide.
On Gluten and Protein in Flour
As a home baker, knowing a little about the correlation between protein and gluten can help you understand why you might be more successful baking certain things with certain flours.
Brockman-Cummings explains, “In most wheats, if you have high protein content, that gives the gluten something to feed on. And then you will have good gluten strength, which means your dough can expand and stretch into a nice round loaf.”
Simply put, “usually, high protein equals high gluten,” which equals a high rise for your baked goods. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, such as with einkorn. With archeological evidence of einkorn found in Syria dating back thirty thousand years, it is considered the most ancient variety of cultivated wheat and is extremely nutritious. But it’s also high in protein and low in gluten, making it difficult to bake with.
There is a reason most of us choose all-purpose flour while filling up our grocery carts. This flour is milled to fulfill just about any baking impulse you might have, from cookies to cakes, muffins, pie crusts, or quick breads. The Janie’s Mill all-purpose flour is made with a hard red winter wheat called Warthog, which imbues it with a mild, slightly nutty flavor. Warthog has relatively low protein content (around nine percent) and, for this reason, is not ideal for sourdough breads.
If you want to bake crusty, fluffy, rotund loaves of bread, you should stock up on bread flour. For yeasted breads and sourdough breads alike, the high protein content of this flour (around fifteen percent) will lend to the loftiness of your loaf. Janie’s Mill offers a whole kernel bread flour made from a hard red spring wheat called Glenn with an especially earthy, intense flavor that shines in sourdough loaves. Brockman-Cummings notes the long, slow fermentation process involved in preparing sourdough allows the gluten to break down, making it easier to digest, even for those with mild gluten sensitivities.
Cake flour is generally made with soft white winter wheats, which Brockman-Cummings says are “lovely to mill.” She speaks fondly of Frederick, the wheat used for the cake flour at Janie’s Mill, explaining the kernels are pale and soft, which gives the flour a light hue and a “creamy, silky consistency.” Like all-purpose, cake flour has low protein content and is very versatile, capable of making not just cakes, but a wide range of pastries as well.
In Italy, pizza is generally prepared with 00 flour, which is very finely milled flour that gives Neapolitan pizza its tender, elastic quality. Janie’s Mill uses a traditional stone mill that simply cannot grind flour down to the 00 level. However, they mill and sift an Italian-style pizza flour made from a blend of two high-protein wheats: Glenn and Turkey Red. Being so close to Chicago—a city with strong opinions about pizza—Brockman-Cummings spent considerable time crafting a blend that could adapt to many styles of pizza. “It’s a comfort food,” she says, and while people are spending more time at home, the Janie’s Mill pizza flour “quickly became a top-seller.”
On Flour Quality and Storage
Flour from a certified-organic, artisanal miller will be more expensive than most bags of flour you’ll find at the supermarket, but that price is reflected in the quality of the flour, something that becomes noticeable while baking.
“There’s a learning curve to baking with flours like ours,” says Brockman-Cummings. Janie’s Mill customers have observed their baked goods are often darker and have a distinctly wheaty flavor, which comes from parts of the wheat that are often disposed of by industrial millers.
Stone-milled flour contains the wheat germ, a highly nutritious part of the kernel that is infused with a vitamin-packed essential oil. “When the grain is crushed between the stones, the germ permeates all of the flour, so our flours have a shorter shelf life and will go rancid if they sit on shelves for too long,” she explains. If you know you will not use an entire bag of flour within a few weeks of buying it, it should be stored in the refrigerator.
On Baking and Buying with Care
Baking should be a simple source of comfort in your life, but if you have the means and the energy to make thoughtful choices about the baking supplies you buy, your actions can have a positive impact that lasts long after your baked goods are gone.
When you truly come to know your flour—the name of the wheat, the town in which it was grown, and the name of the person who milled it—you realize it is so much more than a starchy white powder that can live in your pantry until pastry cravings strike.
Baking is something we do because we care. We bake for ourselves as an act of self-care and we bake for others to show them we care. If we realize the baking process begins when we buy our ingredients and we make an effort to purchase from small, sustainable producers, we can also demonstrate that we care for the land and the people who produce our food.