Baking with unusual wheats

Thousands of varieties, all with different flavors and uses? It’s a whole new world of flour out there, where freshness and variety are revolutionizing the way we bake

Rebekah Denn

A walk around the Bread Lab makes it evident what a science baking really is. One countertop machine heats and dissolves starch to determine the suitability of the flour for bread. Another machine slices dough onto proofing squares that go into a contraption resembling an Easy-Bake oven. It puffs in air, seeing how far the dough can stretch without breaking. And a steam-injected oven test-bakes everything from pizza to sandwich loaves.

But bringing grains from seed to table is about more than science. It requires rebuilding a local infrastructure of farmers, millers, and markets that hasn’t existed since the 1900s in the coastal West.

The flours also need extra attention from bakers accustomed to following a standardized recipe. Some flours may need more moisture to make a workable dough; others might need less time to proof.

“We’re just at the beginning,” says Bob Klein, founder of Community Grains, an Oakland-based consortium that produces home baker–friendly flours and pastas and educates people about local grains.

Klein sees these flours becoming as prized as heirloom tomatoes are today. Local wheat is “like cooking with a new ingredient,” he says.

Ponsford says that until this point, his career had been pretty one-dimensional. Now he plays with different wheats and is getting to know farmers like Doug Mosel, in Mendocino, California.

“Doug mentioned there are a couple thousand varieties of wheat. Who knew? It’s fun.”

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