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
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.”
Know your wheats
The whole-wheat family falls into groups depending mostly on how the flour acts in cooking. Some wheat berries are naturally white (they’re milder-tasting) and others are darker. All of these are grown in the West and milled into flours or available as berries.
BREAD WHEATS: Dough made with these strong, higher-protein wheats gets very stretchy, traps CO2, and produces bread with a soft yet springy crumb.
- Hard red. The most common wheat, with a nice full flavor.
- Hard white. An albino version of hard red.
- Red Fife. An heirloom with outstanding rich flavor and lots of elasticity.
PASTRY WHEAT: Weaker, lower-protein wheat that is ideal for cakes, cookies, pies, and muffins.
- Soft white. Mild-flavored and silky; also called whole-wheat pastry flour.
PASTA WHEAT: High-protein wheat that’s strong but not very elastic.
- Durum. The most common variety used for pasta; has a golden color.
SPECIALTY-USE WHEATS: Try these cooked as whole grains, or experiment with the flour in bread.
- Emmer farro. An ancient wheat, high in protein, with elongated, chewy berries. The flour isn’t very strong; mix with bread flour for baking.
- Spelt. Another old variety of bread wheat with a sweeter flavor and somewhat softer texture than hard red.
- Sonora. A softer, lower-protein white wheat somewhere between modern bread and pastry wheats; widely grown in California into the 1880s, it’s making a comeback.
Where to buy local, whole-milled wheats
Find them at farmers’ markets (go to localharvest.org), well-stocked grocery stores, your local mill, and these suppliers. Some stamp bags with expiration dates. In general, these wheats are good for up to one year if refrigerated.
- Bluebird Grain Farms. Red and white bread wheat and emmer farro. Sold in CA, OR, and WA stores and at bluebirdgrainfarms.com
- Bob’s Red Mill. Red and white bread wheat, pastry wheat, and spelt. Sold in many grocery stores and at bobsredmill.com
- Camas Country Mill. Red and white bread wheat, Red Fife, pastry, emmer farro, and spelt. Sold in ID, OR, and WA stores and at camascountrymill.com
- Community Grains. Red and white bread wheat, durum. Sold in San Francisco Bay Area markets and at communitygrains.com
- Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill. Red bread wheat, pastry and pasta wheat, and spelt. Sold in ID, OR, UT, and WA stores and at fairhavenflour.com