A Baker's Guide to California Grains and Flours

By David Kaisel, Capay Mills
September 28, 2018

As fall takes us into prime baking season, we asked our resident grain grower and miller David Kaisel of Capay Mills to share what makes California grains and flours so different and special. A member of the California Grain Campaign, Capay Mills’ artisan flours can be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

David created this quick “grainiac’s guide” to get you started baking with locally grown and milled flours, which are more sustainable, nutritious, and flavorful.

Commodity vs. Artisan Flours

Here are some basic differences between commodity flour and stone-milled, artisan flours you’ll find at the farmers market.

Commodity flour:

Commodity flour is produced through a heavily industrialized milling process designed to yield hundreds of tons of high-extraction (refined) flour daily. Industry millers are artists at blending wheats from many sources to produce extremely consistent flours in terms of color, strength, and baking qualities for large volume commercial bakers. However, due to multiple levels of aggregation between farm and mill, it is nearly impossible to trace the source of the grain milled in a commodity mill.

The distinguishing characteristics of individual wheat varieties blended to make commodity flour, such as flavor, color, and nutritional value, can be lost in the commodity milling process. It can contain additives to enhance or adjust dough and baking performance and improve the shelf life of stored flour.

Most of the grain’s flavor, nutrition, and enzymes that help digestibility are in the bran and germ, which are removed from refined white flour. Commodity mills typically reduce whole-grain kernels into up to 20 fractions that are sifted for different applications.

In contrast, stone-milled, artisan flour:

Artisan millers often work closely with farmers, and pay a fair price for their grain while confirming how sustainably it is grown. Identity-preserved flour means all the grain milled is traceable by variety and by location.

Milling varietal or heritage flours makes it possible to highlight the unique flavors and personalities of different grains. Emphasizing heritage grains brings badly needed genetic diversity and distinct flavor profiles into the equation.

Small mills rarely bleach or add conditioners or chemicals to the flour.

Artisan flour is more likely to be whole grain and thus more nutritious and flavorful, containing a high percent of bran and germ. Whole-grain artisan flour is likely to be much fresher than commercial flour (and thus has a limited shelf life).

A Brief Lexicon of Flour

There’s a rich and archaic vocabulary to describe flour. Flours can be designated by how they are milled, by how they are used, by color, or by whether the grain is intact. Here are a few important designations.

Whole-grain flour: Flour containing all of the grain’s original components (bran, germ, and endosperm), in the same proportions as found in the unmilled grain kernel. Whole-grain flour can be made from any grain as long as it contains all the components of the intact grain kernel. For example, whole-wheat flour is a subset of whole-grain flour, and refers to flour milled exclusively from whole wheat berries. Though whole-grain flours can offer higher protein and gluten than refined (or sifted) flours, high percentages of bran and germ impede development of gluten that make for elastic dough.

Refined flour: Flour that has been sifted to remove most or all of the bran and germ. Flour not labeled as 100% whole-wheat flour has had at least some amount of the bran and germ removed.

Straight flour: Traditional millers’ term for flour containing all the endosperm after the bran and germ has been removed.

Patent flour: The most highly refined flour, and deemed the highest quality flour by commercial bakers. It is made from the center portion of the endosperm.

Clear flour:  What remains of straight flour after patent flour is separated out. It is darker and coarser than patent flour, but with more flavor and nutrition.

All-purpose flour: 11.5-13% protein. It can be used for most breads and general baking. Commercial all-purpose flour is milled from hard red wheat, which is sifted to produce white flour. Always choose unbleached flour when available.

Bread flour: 12.5-15% protein. Commercial bread flour is usually refined patent flour, to provide maximum elasticity and elongation for yeast breads, pizza, and highly elastic doughs for laminated pastries (croissants) strudels and the like.  

Pastry flour: Protein as low as 9%. A fancy clear flour milled from soft white wheat. It develops less gluten than other flours, producing tender short pastries (cookies, biscuits, pie dough) and batters (pancakes, quickbreads, cakes, muffins). Heritage white wheat varieties, which often have lower protein than modern wheat, make exceptional whole-grain pastry flours.

OO flour: Less than 9% protein. Highly refined flour with very low ash (mineral content, indicative of the amount of fiber the flour) of < 0.5%, according to the Italian flour classification system. Low ash makes “Tipo OO” flour extremely elastic and strong despite its low protein. Easy to work, but little flavor or nutrition.

A Baker’s Guide to Wheat Classes and California Varieties

Here’s an overview of wheat classes adapted from the California Grains Campaign. We’ve also included some varieties you can try for yourself at the Capay Mills stand. The full guide can be found here.

Hard Red Wheat

High-protein wheats with strong gluten suited for breads, pizza, and laminated pastries. Usually sifted to remove the dark reddish bran and germ containing tannins and phenolics that add flavor and nutrition to whole-grain flours. California varieties: Summit, Yecoro Rojo, Joaquin Oro, Cal Rojo, Red Fife (heritage).

Available at Capay Mills: Summit (grown by Frog Hollow Farm). A modern hard red wheat spring wheat introduced in 2011, with good baking qualities and good gluten strength typical of red wheat. More richly flavored that most white wheats.

Hard White Wheat

Hard white wheats offer the gluten strength of hard red wheats, but with a more delicate and lighter bran that makes them ideal as whole-grain flours. Like hard reds, hard white wheats are suited for breads, pizzas, bagels, and laminated pastries. California varieties: Patwin, Blanca Grande, Clear White, Cristallo, Blanca Fuerte.

Available at Capay Mills: Patwin. A modern hard white spring wheat released by UC Davis in 2006. Patwin has darker bran than Sonora or Wit Wolkering, but offers good baking qualities and loaf volumes. Patwin produces consistent dough strength, and makes an excellent flour for blending or for use by itself.

Soft White Wheat

Soft white wheats produce a softer-textured flour that is usually (though not always) lower protein and primarily used pastry and cake fours. More delicately flavored than red wheats. California varieties: Alpowa, Alturas, Yamhill, Stephens, Sonora (heritage), Foisy (heritage).

Available at Capay Mills: Foisy. A soft white wheat developed in Oregon in 1865. Mildly flavored, with higher-than-average protein for a soft wheat. Should produce excellent batters and pastries, but strong enough for breads as well.

Durum Wheat

Durum wheat is a hard, amber-colored grain that is genetically distinct from common wheat. Durum semolina is a coarse flour milled from refined endosperm, and generally used for pasta. As a whole-grain flour, durum produces richly flavored breads, cakes and traditional Italian cookies. California varieties: Desert King, Kronos, Fortissimo, Durum Iraq (heritage), Blue Beard (heritage), Senatore Cappelli (heritage).

Available at Capay Mills: Durum (grown by Rancho Llano Seco). A robust, hard, golden-colored grain that grows best in Mediterranean climates, durum is related to “ancient grains” and genetically distinct from modern wheats. Its hardness and high protein make durum ideal for pasta, and it is used for breads, cakes and pastries in its native Italy. Durum’s bright color is associated with rich flavor. 

Heritage Wheat

Historical varieties of wheat that have been adapted over generations to suit local growing conditions and cooking tastes. Taller and less productive than modern varieties developed after 1950, heritage wheats bring needed genetic diversity, and are often more tolerant of poor soils and drought stress. California varieties: Sonora, Chiddam Blanc de Mars, Wit Wolkering, Red Fife, Foisy, Blue Beard Durum, India Jammu.

Available at Capay Mills: Sonora. Likely the first wheat grown in California, introduced by European explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Very light bran and germ produces a superior quality whole-grain white flour with balanced gluten and rich but light flavor.

Wit Wolkering. A medium-soft white landrace wheat from South Africa, related to Sonora. Very light bran makes it a great whole-wheat flour for flatbreads and naturally leavened loaves. Dough doesn’t darken on standing.   

Ancient Grains

The earliest cultivated crops, which co-evolved with human civilization. Genetically distinct from modern wheat, the gluten proteins may be better tolerated by those with sensitivities. Unique flavors and baking characteristics. Delicious as cooked whole grains as well as milled for flour. California varieties: Einkorn, Emmer (Farro medio), Some Spelt, Khorasan (Kamut).

Find Capay Mills at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays, and join us for back-to-back baking demos at the Foodwise Classroom on Saturday, September 29, at 10:30 am and 12:00 pm.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position or beliefs of Foodwise.

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