Baking Sourdough With Fresh Milled Flour

This entry originally appeared in the seventeenth issue of Bread Magazine.

“You’re so crazy,” I heard my wife whisper in the background as I unearthed the great red beast from its box marked “Extremely Heavy.” The beast, a GrainMaker Model No. 116 hand cranked mill, was carefully packaged and shipped across the country from a small place in the Midwest where everything was made and assembled by hand. It exuded quality and craftsmanship. As I placed the large, shiny apparatus on my kitchen counter I tried to hold back my excitement and eagerness to start baking with fresh milled flour.

But is my wife right: am I crazy to have my own flour mill in our kitchen? Throughout history communities were centered on the flour mill. People would gather when the mill was finished grinding berries into wheat and pick up their fresh flour to bake with it straightaway. These mills were life-giving to the community. Is it so different to have a mill in your own home and bake with fresh flour? While the importance of bread may or may not be the same today as it was back then, there’s certainly a list of things to be gained by baking with fresh milled flour, and for me, taste is at the top.

GrainMaker 116 Mill

The GrainMaker allows me to produce some incredibly fine flour, but milling is definitely not a speedy process: it takes me between 10 and 20 minutes to mill just 300 grams of flour (depending on how fine I decide to grind, and how strong I’m feeling that morning). While my proficiency improves each time I use the mill, the physical process of milling is part of the enjoyment for me. It’s that missing step in baking, the transformative part that takes each seed from field to bread. But perhaps most importantly, the resulting flour is spectacularly fine, very light and the aroma is intoxicating. Milling that first batch of flour was a real awakening: who knew flour could smell like this?

What was my motivation for milling my own flour? There were several things that captivated me after reading numerous articles and first hand accounts of people milling at home: economics, overall increase in freshness, health benefits, and king of them all, the taste.

Benefits of Fresh Milled Flour

The benefits of milling your own wheat are numerous. First, buying whole, raw berries makes financial sense compared to milled sacks of wheat: not only are they cheaper but buying in bulk typically will save you even more. When stored in the proper way (a cool, dry pantry devoid of light) the shelf life of raw wheat berries is incredibly long—years long, so ordering an excess is never a problem. For a home baker like me this can be a real advantage as I can store 50 pounds of wheat berries almost indefinitely and not have to worry one bit about them spoiling. I typically bake two to three times per week and I have no problem churning through a 50 pound sack of flour, but it’s nice to have fresh flour and mill only what is needed for the next bake. But if you are a sporadic baker it might make even more sense, mill only what you need and the rest will stay fresh long into the future.

Wheat Berries

Milling your own flour, without sifting, means you will retain 100% of the same wheat berry in your end product. Many mills will indicate on their packaging that you’re buying whole wheat but that doesn’t always mean whole grain. Additionally, they will sometimes perform several milling passes, especially on the germ and bran which are sifted out and then later added back in, reconstituting back to 100% of its original weight. I have not had firsthand experience with fresh milled & reconstituted flour but I’ve read several accounts where bakers say there is something different about the taste, nutrition—and it simply does not perform the same as fresh milled flour milled in a single pass (see Peter Reinhart’s latest book, Bread Revolution).

Studies show that fresh milled flour provides added nutrients to your diet compared to aged flour. To start, bread baked with fresh milled flour has higher vitamin and fiber levels in resulting loaves1. Further, foods exposed to oxygen (oxidization) for prolonged periods will result in nutrient loss, and in this case beneficial minerals and oils2. Once the wheat berry is milled, breaking open that protective bran layer, oxidization begins which causes nutrients to slowly degrade. While we do not eat bread primarily for its vitamin content (compared to say, spinach), but rather more for proteins, fiber and carbohydrates, it is great to know that bread baked with fresh milled flour retains more vitamins and nutrients than we might otherwise get.

GrainMaker Milling Fresh Wheat, ScrapsWith all that said, it’s easy to get caught up in debate on the exact percentage of vitamin and fiber retention, but to me those are beneficial side effects of a larger motivating factor: taste. It’s much better to focus on the fact that this bread is just plain delicious (and, in some possibly unquantifiable way, healthier). Let’s talk about the taste.

The Taste of Freshly Milled Flour

Great taste is of course something we always strive for when baking, irrespective of what flour we are using, but the bread I’ve baked with fresh milled flour is a world apart from what I’m used to. It starts with the smell during milling — a smell that reminds me of heavy cream or panna cotta. I never knew wheat could smell like this and it’s captivating. When you smell aged flour it might have a certain sweet smell, but there’s something more here, something I wasn’t expecting the first time I milled. You’re hit a second time with this wonderful aroma right when you get your hands in and mix with water, it wafts up from the cream-colored mixture and lingers with you though the mix.

I like to equate milling flour to grinding your own coffee beans. Once you taste the results there’s no alternative.

My typical sourdough baked with fresh milled flour takes on added levels of complexity, a taste that is hard to capture in words but brings a smile to my face at each slice. The crust becomes incredibly thin and crackly with a forward shine to it, a shine that almost looks as if I had smeared the bread with olive oil and then baked it. The interior of my loaves is tender, light and yields a deeply rich taste compared to my other loaves. I’ve read others describe the taste as having a bit of a “nutty” or “grassy” taste to it, in a good way.

Fresh Whole Wheat Enzymatic Activity

The Perfect Loaf Fresh Milled Whole Wheat Crumb

Surprisingly these loaves with fresh flour are almost better after a few days when toasted. That thin and crackly crust crisps up even further, along with the open interior, to provide the perfect crunchy vessel for bruschetta, ricotta & honey or even just a good slather of salted butter (you’ll see what I mean in just a bit). Incredibly simple but exquisitely delicious.

Fresh Milled flour vs Store Bought

There are accounts of the unpredictability of fresh milled flour, how different batches (and sometimes the same batch but just day-to-day variation) of grain can ferment at drastically different rates, and how aging flour helps to level out the inconsistencies. But using the whole grain from fresh milled flour is exactly what we want in the first place: a flour that’s free of bleaches, stabilizers and other chemicals, just 100% of the wheat berry and nothing else. If that means we have to be a bit more attentive and deal with the peculiarities of the fresh flour then it’s worth it for the flavor gained.

I haven’t noticed drastic differences in flour performance (in terms of strength) when using fresh flour, but then again I’m still relatively new at the milling game. I’ve been working my way through two 25 pound sacks of raw berries and have been testing and tweaking formulas along the way. One thing I have noticed, however, is a significant increase in fermentation activity. Even when my loaves are retarded in cold temperatures at 40-42ºF I have to keep a close eye on the dough after about 8 hours. Through my tests I’ve found that the final dough temperature (the temperature of your dough mass after final mixing) is incredibly important: if it’s 78ºF or higher then be ready for a speedy bulk. I try to target around 75ºF each bake so my bulk comes in at the typical 4 hours, which is the norm for me. Of course the duration of your bulk is also impacted by other factors, such as ambient temperature and how much levain you included in your mix, but that is my finding when using around 14-15% levain.

Mixing Levain

Building Levain

Milled, store bought flour is not always consistent either, of course. There are variations in each sack that every baker must account and adjust for because flour is not a static input, it is an ever changing component of baking. Each growing season for the farmer is different and therefore each batch of flour will have different properties. One season might be full of rain and the next might be very dry, the flour will then require different hydration and might even be stronger or weaker.

Since flour is such an important part of baking (it is the largest ingredient after all), it is incredibly important we look for the best flour we can reasonably afford.

Wheat Berry Selection

Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.Alice Waters

I like to source organic wheat when possible. There are many, many great resources out there for local wheat that is farmed in an organic and sustainable way, why not take advantage of these great products? For my first bulk order of raw wheat berries I settled on a 25 pound sack of Great River Organic Hard Red Spring Wheat grown up north of me near the northern part of the Mississippi River. I had plans to use a local wheat grown a few hours north of me but they sadly dropped their organic rating. I still plan on trying their wheat in the future with the hopes that they return to their original plans of farming wheat organically. Organic or not is a personal preference, I choose organic whenever possible to support farmers who are able and choose to grow in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. It’s also something my family strongly believes in.

Raw Wheat BerriesMy selection of hard red spring wheat was made consciously. Hard wheat is typically chosen for bread here in North America because it has a higher protein content than soft wheat, which is used primarily for cake and pastry flour. Red wheat lends a creamy reddish color to the dough (hence the name) and a wonderful red hue to the crust. Having only milled a few times with white wheat I’ve found that the red variety has a slightly stronger flavor–not bitter, just a more pronounced flavor in general. Both of my wheat trials were performed on spring plantings and I will have to do further taste tests between spring and winter to determine which I prefer.

Milling

One of the incredible things about the GrainMaker is that it is able to mill flour at near room temperature. Keeping the temperature low is important when milling as it prevents the destruction of those important oils and nutrients we want to preserve. Smaller, motor-driven mills can mill flour at a much faster rate but sacrifice that low temperature of the flour as it comes out of the mill. Larger mills are able to offset this significant heat generation by utilizing massive grindstones that rotate at low revolutions per minute while still producing flour at a relatively fast pace. For the home baker there are several options for mills, hand operated and motor-driven alike, and some with incredible build quality to boot, but for me the GrainMaker was the right choice.

Milling Fresh Flour on the Grainmaker

I always start milling early in the morning. The house is still asleep and it’s just me and my mill in the kitchen as the sun comes up. I find it convenient to mill all the flour needed for the day’s bake first, then build my levain with 100% fresh milled flour. Finally, the rest of the day is baking per usual. I will typically bake two loaves, sometimes four, and I can comfortably mill enough flour in the morning to cover them.

Flour at Room Temperature

Before I start milling I work out how fine I am going to mill the wheat berries on hand. I can turn the dial at the front of the mill clockwise to head more towards a finer flour, or counterclockwise to get a more coarse grind. This turning action essentially moves the two stainless steel burrs closer or father apart, respectively. I am still experimenting with varying levels of granularity, but currently I start by turning the dial until it is at a medium level and then I begin milling grain slowly with a handful of grain to start. I turn the dial clockwise to go finer, inspecting the output at each turn. I’ve become attuned to the sound the mill makes and the vibration of the arm and handle when the grind is at just the right level to get the granularity I want.

When I first experimented with the mill I used my whole wheat flour on hand as a guideline, I placed the two side-by-side and inspected the differences. My comparison results were obtained empirically, but by simply taking flour and pressing it between my fingers I can garner a surprising amount of data: how large are the bran particles? Does the flour cake and stick when squished? How does the flour fall when run through my fingers? All very tactile and visceral tests but that is how much of baking is, after all.

Milled Fresh Whole WheatUsing a manual mill is definitely not a fast process, but with the right music playing through my headphones hand-milling becomes a very meditative process. As I turn the crank it gives me time to step back from the hustle of the day and think about the upcoming bake, what am I going to test? What do I seek to learn? And maybe most importantly, how can I work this bread into each meal of the day?

With my bowl of freshly milled flour I’m then ready to build my levain and later in the day start mixing.

The Perfect Loaf Country Sour with Fresh Milled Flour

I’ve been working on a formula that has a balance between enough fresh milled flour to really bring out the flavor but enough white flour to get a nice and lofty rise. The following produces some of the best tasting bread I’ve ever made and it is now my go-to when I plan to mill flour. I’ve also baked a few 100% fresh milled loaves and those are equally incredible, if not more, you can see those recipes and results here.

The Perfect Loaf Fresh Milled Whole Wheat

Overview

Total dough weight 1900 g
Pre-fermented flour 7%
Hydration 84%
Yield 2 x 950 g loaves

Levain Build

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
43g Mature stiff starter (at 65% hydration) 50%
66g Fresh Milled Organic Great River Hard Red Spring Whole Wheat 100%
43g H2O @ room temperature 65%

Formula

Note that the baker’s percentages listed below are with respect to the final dough ingredients and do not take into account the levain.

Target final dough temperature is 75ºF.

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
664g Central Milling Organic Artisan Baker’s Craft, Malted (~11.5% protein) 70%
189g Fresh Milled Organic Great River Hard Red Spring Whole Wheat 20%
102g Central Milling Organic Type 70 10%
815g H2O @ 95ºF 85%
20g Fine sea salt 2%
143g Mature, stiff levain 15%

Method

For more details on each step, refer back to one of my older recipes for more instruction.

1. Levain – 8:00am

Build the levain in the morning after milling fresh flour. Store somewhere warm around 78-82ºF ambient.

2. Autolyse – 11:00am

Mix flour and water (reserve 50g water for mix, later) very well in a bowl and cover. Ensure all dry flour is hydrated. Store near levain.

3. Mix – 2:00pm

Using about 30g of the reserved water, incorporate levain build into autolyse and hand-mix thoroughly. Slap and fold for 6 to 8 minutes until dough holds shape well. Place dough back into bowl and let rest for 5 minutes. Then, use remaining water, if necessary/desired, to incorporate salt into mixture. The dough will initially break apart and then come back together. Slap and fold an additional 3 to 6 minutes until dough starts to catch air and strength is built enough to keep dough relatively in shape on counter.

Transfer dough to a tub or thick-walled bowl for bulk fermentation.

4. Bulk Fermentation – 2:20pm

At 80ºF bulk fermentation typically takes me somewhere between 3.5 and 4 hours. Watch the dough near the end–as I mentioned previously fermentation can quickly get out of control.

Perform 4 sets of stretch and folds (each set is a stretch and fold at North, South, East & West), one every 30 minutes.

5. Divide & Preshape – 6:20pm

Divide the dough into two masses, each scaled at 950 grams. Lightly shape each mass into a round, cover with inverted bowl or moist towel, and let rest for 25 minutes.

6. Shape – 6:45pm

Shape each mass into a boule or batard, whatever your preference may be. Place into a banneton lightly dusted with white rice flour, or into a basket with no flour but lined with a cotton tea towel (if you want serious shine on the crust).

7. Proof – 6:50pm

Retard immediately into refrigerator at 40ºF to 42ºF for 12 hours.

8. Prehead oven – Next Morning, 6:00am

Preheat oven for 1.5 hours at 500ºF.

9. Bake – Next Morning, Preheat oven at 6:00am, Bake at 7:30am

Bake for 20 minutes at 500ºF with steam, and an additional 30 minutes at 450ºF, until done to your liking.

Crust Fresh Milled Whole WheatThe resulting crust is incredibly thin, crunchy and wonderfully colored. You can see how much shine is brought forward by using fresh milled flour–just an immense amount of enzymatic activity. The crumb is soft and tender, it has a wonderfully complex flavor with a hint of sourness and a creamy hue throughout. The taste… well I’ve already spoken at length on the taste of this bread with fresh milled flour, it’s just delicious.

The Perfect Loaf Fresh Milled Flour Crumb

Parting Words

I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of milling fresh flour at home but thus far I’m extremely exited about the results. I bake bread that truly tastes vibrant and fresh, it has levels of flavor that I’ve never experienced with my sourdough. The laborious act of hand-milling flour may not be possible, or desirable, for everyone but for me this part of the enjoyment, the transformation from seed to flour to bread — wonderful.

After tasting the results I think my wife has finally accepted the large red beast into our kitchen, and my “crazy” status has been downgraded to “normal” — well as normal as one can be when they wake before the sun rises to turn their kitchen into a flour mill.

In the same vein as my last post, and given the seasonality of these little gems, I toasted several slices of my sourdough using the recipe above and added organic figs, ricotta and a light drizzle of local honey. Perfetto.

Fig, Ricotta, Honey and Sourdough




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