F&W's guide to whole grains includes fantastic grain recipes that feature ingredients like farro, whole wheat, buckwheat and barley. It's also the best place to find the latest news on the healthy whole grain movement, from where to buy regional American grains and interviews with grain pioneers to tips on how to use grains for baking and kitchen ideas for those inspired to start milling themselves. You thought you knew flour, right? Well, guess again.
Across the country there are food innovators who are upending the way we think about flour, bringing to market a whole new—or, in many cases, revitalized—range of grains to bake with. It’s all part of a larger revolution, by communities of farmers and breeders, bakers and millers and distillers and chefs, who are opting out of the industrial approach to wheat and other grains in America, and, instead, working locally and sustainably. They’re recapturing the delicious diversity of the earliest grain crops in the U.S. and the world—richly flavored stuff like Near Eastern emmer wheat, one of the first domesticated plants; spicy rye; earthy buckwheat; sweet Native American flint corn. And they’re doing it, primarily, by keeping the grains whole.
Chefs like Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurants are using the grains’ whole berries in delicious preparations from soups to salads to pilafs and risottos. And bakers, who for years depended on the standardized nature of all-purpose flour, are getting to know the idiosyncrasies of a cornucopia of whole-milled grains. For them, it is the next frontier of the slow foods movement.
Just ask a baker as cutting-edge as Chad Robertson, the man behind San Francisco’s legendary Tartine Bakery and the author of the whole-grain baking book, Tartine Book No. 3: Modern Ancient Classic Whole. “The grain movement is very closely mirroring the coffee movement 20 or so years ago. Back then, we only had a few different varieties of beans to use, and fresh milling coffee was not as standard practice as it has become now,” Robertson says. But with the uptick in interest from food producers, who are building supply chains around these amber waves, “the grain movement will see growing diversity and availability of locally sourced, affordable fresh milled flours.”
Why is this so important to food lovers? Think about this: The all-purpose flour in your grocery basket is an industrial product. It has been manufactured from a modern hybrid, which, in most cases, has been chemically treated. It’s been ground using a technology that separates out the starchy endosperm from its oil-rich germ and bran, removing all of the wheat’s flavors and nutrients. It works so well for baking, in part, because it is high in the glutens that have become so problematic. It is white because it is bleached and, since it is bereft of nutrition, vitamins and minerals are artificially put back in. It is shelf-stable and reliable because it has been so very manipulated. It’s something that, as a food and as a concept, has become very difficult to digest.
So, pros like Robertson are, in the words of Dr. Stephen Jones, a Washington State University plant breeder who is on the forefront of the new grains movement, “kicking the commodity habit. We’ve divorced that system. We’re not in it. That lily white and high-extraction flour—it’s a soulless and faceless, conservative definition of what grains can be.”
The foods Jones is helping people like Robertson and Barber create are entirely different; they’re made from local, whole grains, freshly milled. Whole-grain food has the character of straight-from-the-farm produce.
“It speaks for itself!” says Eli Rogosa, the farmer, miller, and ancient grains expert behind Massachusetts’ Heritage Grain Conservancy. “It’s like a juicy, sexy heirloom tomato versus a supermarket tomato.”
For his latest San Francisco project, the Heath, says Robertson, “We have our own grain mill coming from Germany to showcase the nutritional and flavor benefits of fresh milling (and fermenting with natural leaven) grains for bread, pizza, pasta, and pastry.”
And once more big-name bakers and chefs follow suit, using their “bully pulpit,” as Barber dubs it, to call attention to the deliciousness of these grains, their clientele’s home pantries, too, will be changed forever. “Once we have fresh-milled grains, this thing will keep growing,” says Barber, “because, if you think it’s pronounced in fresh-brewed coffee, the flavor is ten times more in grain.”--Betsy Andrews