Wheat Flour

The Nafufians, hunter gatherers in Jordan, were making bread with wild cereal 12,500 BCE.  The master formula for ancient bread is to grind dried grain into a paste or flour, add water and yeast, let the stuff ferment, tear it in pieces and cook the pieces on a hot surface. People know how to grind and mill flour, and bake bread before the science was understood. The master formula for a loaf of bread is to make paste of flour and water and handle the paste until to becomes a mass of dough and put pieces of dough on the hot surface and bake it. 

The wild cereal evolved into wheat, which grew in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt (and North Africa) when the climate was wetter. Wheat has been grown in Western Europe, on the Eurasian plains and the North Amercan plains. Most bread is made with wheat flour. The supply chain for a consumer of flour or bread is farmer (land, seed, work, machinery) to mill (machinery to refine wheat to flour) to bakery to retail store to consumer. The interactions between actors along the chain have changed wheat, flour, baking and bread.

Wheat flour before the 19th century was usually whole wheat flour or meal. White flour became a standard miller’s product after the development of steel roller milling. White flour is highly refined – the bran and germ of the wheat kernel are milled out. White flour does not require refrigerated storage. It is shelf stable. White flour is nearly pure starch. White bread flour milled from high protein wheat (Canadian All-Purpose is bread flour) has more gliadin and glutenin, the insoluble proteins that bond to form gluten than white cake or pastry flour. Bleaching became legal in the US in the 20th century. It does not affect nutrition but bothers some bakers and consumers. White bread was once a high value product, and became a widely available commodity. European food scientists debated about the effects of industrial mixing methods on the quality of white bread. Consumers accepted the convenience and low price of sliced bread. Through much of the 20th century American bakers concentrated on making sandwich bread. Nutritionists criticized white flour in the 1930s. American regulatory decision makers required the enrichment of white flour with essential nutrients. Consumers became suspicious that mass-production white bread lacked culinary or nutritional quality. Some independent bakers used baking technique to produce better white bread.

Wheat can be classified based on millers’ descriptions or botanical taxonomy. Wheat evolved, under the direction of plant breeders into varieties of a short grass that produces high carb seeds. Farmers grow cultivars of annual wheat. Organic agriculture criticizes the wheat monoculture and the use intensive chemical fertilizers. Millers want wheat that they can mill into white flour. Bakers want white flour that can be mixed and baked into white bread.

Whole wheat baking was a counterculture idea in the 1960s, rather than a restoration of traditional baking practices. That part of culinary history is remembered through cookbooks from that era such Edward Espé Brown’s Tassajara cookbook. The pioneer bakers had to learn about leavening and other baking methods. Some were vegetarians, enviromentalists and spiritual thinkers. They were often interested in authentic and natural products. Some follow traditional regional styles for flatbreads, which had efficiently used grain, fuel and time. Their methods were often trial and error; they were skeptical or unaware of food science and culinary tradition. Recipes from vegetarian, vegan and nutritional/health oriented recipes tend to produce brick-like loaves. Peter Reinhart has a chapter in Whole Grain Breads (2007) on how he learned to bake before he started Brother Juniper’s Café/Bakery in Santa Rosa, California in 1986. He describes the 1960s and 1970s as a preamble to an American culinary awakening. Independent artisans or craft bakers used methods including use long or cold fermentation to make very tasty loaves with whole wheat flour. Industrial bakers responded to demand and opportunity with their interpretation of whole grain baking producing brown bread, which is usually a white flour multigrain bread. The methods of artisan bakers did not scale to industrial baking. Millers do not waste high protein wheat to mill whole wheat flour. There is an abundance of steel roller milled whole wheat flour available. It is not as shelf stable as white flour, but more stable than traditional whole wheat flour.

A home baker and an artisan baker can make whole wheat bread with starters, soakers, sponges, barms and sponges. This gives the loaf time for preliminary fermentation which adds flavour. It also allows for more gluten formation which starts when flour and water are mixed. Bakers hydrate whole wheat flour more intensely that bread flour. Sugar it is hygroscopic and weakens (relaxes) gluten. Small amounts relax gluten for flow and rise much. With time and hydration, loave with whole wheat flour, water and sugar will form gluten and shape up and bake into loaves that crown up. A commercial baker working in with pans will not have time or space to let loaves rise slowly and could enhance whole wheat dough with vital wheat gluten and enrich the dough with sugar. These recipes may use about 6 g. (less than a tablespoon) of gluten to 300 g. of whole wheat flour. In bread machine recipes, gluten may run at a tablespoon and sugar(s) to 1 ½ to 2 tbsp. per cup of flour.

Stone ground whole wheat and “organic” whole wheat flour is available but it is less stable and more expensive. It is usually made with basic market wheat, and seldom made with identified varieties of wheat.

“Farm to table” cooks (e.g. Dan Barber, The Third Plate) and plant breeders (e.g. The Bread Lab at Washington State University) try to find good wheat that can be grown sustainably. The Bread Lab is a resource for recipes and techniques to bake with “unsifted” whole wheat flour. It has recipes for an “Approachable” sourdough whole wheat loaf on its Unsifted page and Bread Lab Collective page.

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