I'm going to attempt a series of posts on baking bread from scratch, because I've gotten lots of questions lately about said topic. This first post will give some general answers to questions I've received, and I will expand on many of these issues later. Please post any other questions you may have, and I will be sure to address them!
Why did you get into baking bread?
I've always liked to bake bread. My health teacher, Mrs. Walsh, taught my fourth-grade class to bake during health class. Brave lady, to be sure, but I was hooked. Of course, back then I used white flour, but I eventually switched to whole wheat (from the store). Besides, how much is a loaf of "healthy" bread? $3.00, at least, right? Bread is expensive, and my family is on a budget.
What is a grain mill, anyway?
I'll get into specifics later, but it's really just a kitchen appliance that can turn wheat berries (it's not really a berry - it's more like a kernel) into flour you bake with. There are several electric and manual mills on the market. Byron and I researched grain mills several years ago, but I didn't start seriously looking into buying a grain mill until Katherine, a lady in my ceramics class, (more notably a smart, energetic mother of eight who was tragically killed in a car accident almost a year ago) warned me that the whole wheat flour I was buying from the store was rancid. She also brought me a bag of freshly milled flour to try out. Read on...
Why is freshly milled flour better for you?
The whole wheat berry contains almost all the nutrients your body needs. The insoluble fiber found in the bran (outside of the kernel) provides food for the good bacteria in your system, and helps scrub out your colon. Gross, but it makes you wonder if eating this way could prevent things like colon cancer. And speaking of good bacteria, did you know we are probably the only society that does not have a fermented product as a normal part of our diet? Food such as yogurt (PLAIN! - more on that later too) and kefir contain good bacteria, which essentially build up your body's immune system. And that bacteria needs something to keep it thriving and fighting off anything bad that enters your system...which is where freshly milled flour comes into play.
Have you ever read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder? The Ingalls family was snowed in for the winter, and as their supplies dwindled, they survived by eating "brown" bread from flour they laboriously milled in a coffee grinder. To be sure, they all looked a little lean by spring, but the point is that they were able to survive.
Doesn't 100% whole wheat bread taste like cardboard?
Yes, if it's store-bought. But if you have a loaf of whole wheat bread lying around, go look at the ingredients. Are one of the first few listed "wheat gluten?" That's white flour. They put that in there because it helps the bread get its light-and-puffy feel and probably balances out the cardboardy taste of whole wheat. Whole wheat flour that you buy, and consequently what was used in your loaf of bread, is rancid. When the kernel of a wheat berry is broken down, the bran and the germ (which hold all the nutrients) break down very quickly, and the oils in them spoil as a result. Though I've read some conflicting information as to how long whole wheat flour can keep, I've heard that the nutritional value of whole wheat flour can diminish by almost half twenty-four hours after being ground. So not only is freshly milled flour much, much better for you, it also has a wonderful complexity to its flavor.
But I LIKE white flour!
So did I. Nutritionally, it's seriously defunct. It's been stripped of the bran and germ, which contain the nutrients, leaving the endosperm, which is the starch. No wonder diets such as the Atkins Diet were so popular a while back; eating bread like that really is putting a bunch of empty calories into your body. The prevalence of white flour in our society is really a result of the food industry's attempt to create products that will have a long shelf life, as well as the misguided belief from long ago that white flour was a food product for the elite. For a long time it certainly was, until the Industrial Revolution unfortunately made it more available to the masses.
Doesn't it take a lot of time to bake from scratch?
It's really a lifestyle choice. At this point, I'm used to working it into my schedule. I'd rather be baking than fighting my way through a crowded bread aisle at the store. And it takes more attention than time, really. You have to be careful not to let bread over-rise, especially when it's in the pans, right before you put it in the oven.
Where do you get the wheat berries?
Not at Walmart. This can be the tricky part for many people, but the good news is that if you find a place that sells wheat berries (more on the different types later), you can stock up because they keep for a long time if stored in a cool, dry place. More on storage later, too. Anyway, Bread Beckers has a co-op that delivers to many areas; you can research delivery locations on their website. Besides that, you can probably order larger quantities of wheat berries from a local health food store, and it will cost less per pound than what you pay straight from one of those little bulk food bins...though those can be nice in a pinch. There are also MANY Internet sources for wheat berries if worse comes to worse, though you may end up paying more. Another option is to try to find a bulk food store near you, such as a Yoder's or other Mennonite-run sort of place. We have one an hour away, and I think it's totally worth making a trip out there two or three times a year to stock up on wheat berries and other bulk foods. This is the least expensive source I've found, and I end up paying about 50 cents per pound for hard white wheat.
Isn't it more expensive?
There is an initial investment, and when I was trying to find a good price on a grain mill, even the used ones on EBay would go for almost as much as a new one...especially when you factored in shipping. So I sold my saddle in order to buy one, since I haven't ridden since high school. At first, I kneaded by hand (gasp!), but I actually recommend starting out that way so you can get a feel for what the bread should feel like when the gluten (the stuff that makes it rise) has developed. With a machine, you can over-kneed and your bread will fall in the oven. I then graduated to a bread machine, and used just the knead cycle. A few months ago, I received a Kitchen Aid Pro as a gift, and it's been great. If you have a big family, however, this machine probably won't be able to handle larger amounts of whole wheat flour. Springing for an Electrolux, Bosch mixer, or teaching one of your kids to be a champion kneader are other options.
Update: My Kitchenaid Pro handled 12 cups of whole wheat flour this week...that's four loaves of bread! Click here and scroll down a bit to see the photo!
At this point, our bread making equipment has more than paid for itself. I believe I calculated the cost of the grain mill a couple years ago, and figured it would pay for itself in less than a year.
But I work full-time and don't have time to bake my own bread!
I've been there, and unfortunately, it was not when I was into baking bread consistently. So I can't relate, exactly. I can relate, however, to being very busy. I think for people who work outside the home, a bread machine can be invaluable. Yes, it uses electricity and so forth, but so do my mixer and stove. And thinking about it more globally, it uses a heck of a lot less resources than an eighteen-wheeler full of bread, trucking all the way across the country to your local grocery store. Another option is to bake ahead of time on the weekends and freeze it. Heck, sometimes I do stuff like that!
Are you crazy?
You tell me!