To Grind or Not to Grind?

Is grinding your own flour worth the effort? Or is it too much of a grind?

I was bit by the bread baking bug early in my amateur culinary career. First came the bread machine. Then came my discovery of no-knead bread. Soon, I was producing rustic loaves of cranberry-rosemary bread, and my ego began to inflate like a yeast-leavened boule. As my bread snobbery raged, I wondered how I could step up my game even further. Enter the grain mill.

There comes a time in every bread baking hobbyist’s life when they encounter the question: To grind or not to grind…your own flour, that is. My true desire as a burgeoning bread baker was to bake the perfect loaf of whole wheat bread, so the idea of grinding whole grains into flour intrigued me. I read about the virtues of home grain milling and was encouraged by glowing reports of delicious, healthy bread produced using freshly milled grains. Ultimately, I was persuaded to invest in a Nutrimill grain mill.

Still, there remained a grain of doubt in my mind as to whether bread made with my freshly ground whole wheat flour was indeed better than what I could have made with whole wheat flour purchased from the store. Sitting next to my behemoth of a kitchen gadget in the cold light of day, I began to think more critically about why exactly I was grinding my own flour.

I’ll begin with a brief flour primer:

  • What is flour, and how is it made? Flour is a powder produced by grinding grains, seeds, nuts, or roots. While we typically think of flour being made from wheat, there are actually myriad different types of flour. The process of making wheat flour starts with the mechanical grinding of wheat berries, which are the individual kernels of wheat. The different types of flour (e.g., all-purpose, whole wheat, etc.) differ by the way they are processed after the initial grinding (and can also differ by the type of wheat used).
  • What is the difference between all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour? If you’ve only ever baked with one type of flour, it was probably all-purpose flour (also called “white” flour or “refined” flour). To make all-purpose-flour, wheat berries (which are composed of endosperm, germ, and bran) are ground and processed to selectively retain the endosperm (the bulk of the wheat berry containing mostly starch and protein) while eliminating the germ and bran. This increases the shelf life of flour because the germ contains oils that become rancid over time. Additionally, removing the bran makes baked goods less heavy and dense. As more emphasis has been placed on the nutritional value of whole grains, whole wheat flours that retain the whole grain (endosperm, germ, and bran) have increased in popularity. Of course, enhanced nutrition comes at the cost of a shorter shelf life and an increased probability of producing doorstops instead of bread.
  • Do you have to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your own flour? Is threshing involved? When I tell people that I grind my own flour, they immediately picture me in overalls and a straw hat, slogging through waist-high fields of grain and violently threshing wheat stalks with a flail. (Or, at least that’s what I think they’re imagining between bouts of laughter.) While grain milling is not common to the modern American kitchen, it doesn’t require any type of wheat harvesting skills, either. Typical home grain mills are either of the hand-cranked variety or are electric mills like the Nutrimill. You simply purchase wheat berries from the bulk foods section at the grocery store or from a reputable source like Bob’s Red Mill, and you put them through the mill.

Here is a picture of freshly ground flour in the Nutrimill:

Now, let’s consider some reasons for grinding your own flour:

Taste: Grain milling devotees often point to the superior flavor of breads made from freshly milled flour. For example, the pamphlet of Nutrimill tips that comes with the mill claims, “The fresher the flour, the more nutritious and better tasting your bread or rolls will be.” As another example, the Great Harvest Bread Company attributes the superior flavor of its products to the fact that they are made from freshly ground, high-quality wheat berries. Employees at King Arthur Flour (KAF) actually prepared side-by-side loaves from either freshly milled flour or a bag of purchased KAF Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour and compared them for taste. While they judged both loaves to be “delicious,” the loaf made from freshly ground flour tasted “sweet” with “no bitter tang.” In researching why bread made from freshly milled flour might taste better, I came across two explanations:

  1. In the same blog post I mentioned above, KAF suggests that the bitterness of breads made from commercially milled flour is due to the rancidity that develops as the wheat germ is exposed to air during storage. Conversely, the germ in intact wheat berries is protected from oxidation.
  2. Alternatively, it could be that freshly milled flour and store-bought whole wheat flour are entirely different things. In a 2011 LA Times article, baker Craig Ponsford claimed that most of the whole wheat flours sold in grocery stores are actually white flour (i.e., wheat flour with the bran and germ removed) to which the bran (but not the germ) has been added back. Since the germ is the “tastiest part of the wheat berry,” he claimed, bread made from freshly milled wheat berries tastes better.

Of course, these two explanations are in conflict because the first assumes that store-bought whole wheat flour contains the germ (which is true in the case of KAF’s Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour), while the second assumes that the germ has been removed. (This Wikipedia article claims that many store-bought “whole wheat” flours have 70% of the germ removed to prevent rancidity.) I should also mention that hard red wheat berries, which are typically used to make wheat flour in the US, contain bitter-tasting tannins in the bran layer. So, we might expect bread made from either store-bought or freshly milled flour to be bitter from the tannins, unless the germ in the freshly ground flour can somehow counteract that inherent bitterness.

Nutrition: In addition to making claims about superior taste, grain mill enthusiasts often extol the nutritional value of bread made from freshly ground flour. The Nutrimill tips pamphlet asserts, “Freshly ground whole wheat flour offers the most nutritional value. Nutrients decrease rapidly after grains are milled.” So, what are the nutrients in whole wheat flour? We can divide them between the three parts of the wheat berry as follows:

  • The endosperm accounts for 83% of the mass of the wheat kernel and consists mostly of carbohydrates and protein.
  • The bran, which is the outer coating of the wheat berry, accounts for 14% of the mass of the wheat kernel and is mostly fiber.
  • The germ accounts for 3% of the wheat kernel’s mass and contains proteins, fats, and vitamins.

The argument that flour made from whole wheat (i.e., the entire wheat berry) is more nutritious than refined flour (from which the germ and bran has been removed) is a relatively straightforward one, although I should mention that refined flour is often enriched with vitamins that were lost during processing. The argument that freshly ground flour is more nutritious than commercially milled whole wheat flour is even more complicated. Those who claim that whole wheat flour loses 90% of its nutritional value within 72 hours after grinding (as stated in this article) are probably referring to the degradation of vitamins and therefore neglect the fact that a significant portion of the “nutrition” comes from the proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber. Given that some vitamins degrade fairly rapidly, the flour will obviously be the most nutritious immediately after it is ground. However, I am not convinced that the loss of vitamin content is a problem, at least assuming that our modern diets don’t rely exclusively on grains to fulfill our daily requirements for vitamins. (This blog post provides a nice discussion about the nutrition of milled flour.)

Creativity, variety: A strong (and much less controversial) argument for owning a grain mill is that you can make flours from a wide variety of grains (e.g., rice, barley, rye, oats, spelt, and dried beans, to name a few). By varying the types of grains you grind and the fineness of the flour, you can access new textures and flavors simply not possible with a limited selection of store-bought flours.

The Experiment

As you can see, it’s not entirely obvious whether grain milling is advantageous, especially from the perspective of taste and nutrition. I am not equipped to evaluate the nutritional value of bread, but the main reason I bought the grain mill was to make delicious whole grain breads. So, I decided to ask a simple question: Does bread made with freshly milled whole wheat flour taste better than bread made with store-bought whole wheat flour? An experiment was in order.

In this experiment, I baked two loaves of bread side-by-side. For both loaves, I followed a simple honey whole wheat recipe, but I made one loaf from freshly ground wheat berries and one loaf from purchased 100% whole wheat flour. Note that I halved the original recipe to make two small loaves.

Basic Honey Whole Wheat Loaf
(adapted from 100 Days of Real Food; amounts shown below are for a small loaf)

Ingredients

  • 266 g whole wheat flour (slightly less than 2 1/4 cups)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 177 g warm water (3/4 cup)
  • 2 T honey
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 1/8 tsp instant yeast

Directions

  1. Stir together all of the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Allow the mixture to rest for 20 min.
  3. Knead the dough by hand for about 5 minutes, adding flour as necessary so that the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers.
  4. Make a ball and put it in a covered bowl.
  5. Allow the dough to rise for 1-2 hours at room temperature. (If your kitchen is cold, you can warm your oven at the lowest setting and then turn it off and place the bread inside to rise.)
  6. Punch down the dough, knead as before, and shape the dough into a ball.
  7. Allow the dough to rise on a baking pan or tray for 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
  8. Gently slash the top of the loaf to allow for additional rising in the oven. Bake at 350F for 30-45 min, or until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 205-210F.
  9. Optional: Spray the finished loaf with a little bit of water after it comes out of the oven to soften the crust.

Observations from the baking process:

First, let’s review the opponents:

  • To Grind: I used my Nutrimill Grain Mill to grind hard red wheat berries purchased from the bulk bin at Sprouts Farmers Market. I ground the wheat berries immediately prior to making the bread. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Nutrimill flour.”
  • Not to Grind: I used a package of freshly purchased 100% White Whole Wheat Flour from Trader Joe’s. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Trader Joe’s flour.” (Spoiler alert: I realize I should not have used white whole wheat flour since I was comparing it to red wheat berries. More about that later.)

Both flours formed a dough after stirring. As you can see, the Nutrimill flour (right) made a somewhat drier initial dough than the Trader Joe’s flour (left). However, both doughs became soft and tacky during the kneading process.

After the first knead, the dough was shaped into balls and left to rise in covered bowls. The extent of rise was similar for both types of flour. The Trader Joe’s dough (front) was noticeably lighter in color.

The second rise produced loaves similar in size and appearance.  Again, the Trader Joe’s loaf (back) was lighter.

The baked loaves were similar in appearance, although the Nutrimill loaf (back) was slightly larger and darker in color.

Looking at the crumb, the Nutrimill bread (left) was less dense and rose slightly higher, while the Trader Joe’s bread (right) was more dense and shorter.

Taste Test: Part 1 – Blind Taste Test with Volunteers

One of my reasons for doing this experiment was that I wanted to justify owning a Nutrimill grain mill. Not only is it a relatively expensive kitchen gadget, but it also occupies a fair amount of real estate in my small apartment kitchen. Considering my bias, I realized that judging the bread myself would have been a conflict of interest. So, I enlisted a small army of hungry volunteers, namely my lab mates.

I decided to make it a blind taste test, so I labeled the loaves “T” for the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour and “G” for the bread made with Nutrimill-ground flour. As you may recall, the question that motivated this experiment was whether bread made from freshly ground flour tasted better than bread made from purchased whole wheat flour. However, I also realized that additional factors, such as texture and moistness, influence our overall enjoyment of a loaf of bread. So, I asked my lab mates a more general question: Which bread do you prefer, and why?

Here’s a summary of my findings:

  • Of the eight volunteers, five preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T), while three preferred the bread made from freshly milled wheat berries (G). I have included a table of their responses below.
  • The primary reasons people preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T) were related to its flavor and texture. Interestingly, two tasters commented that the bread made from milled flour (G) seemed healthier but was less preferable overall.
  • It seems the tasters who preferred the bread made from milled flour (G) were looking for a less sweet bread, excepting the taster who liked it because it seemed more sweet.

Taste Test: Part 2 – Jamie and Bill Sample the Bread

After seeing that my lab mates tended to prefer the Trader Joe’s bread, I was curious which bread Bill and I would prefer. After all, I am trying to justify owning a grain mill that I’ll use to make bread primarily for Bill and myself. Here are the results:

  • Bill: I gave Bill the blind taste test, and he preferred the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour. He said that, while the bread made from milled flour was softer and sweeter (which are good things to him), he didn’t like that it had a funny aftertaste that he described as “yeasty.”
  • Jamie: Since I made the bread and was familiar with how they looked and felt, I asked Bill to help me with a “blind a taste test.” I closed my eyes, and he fed me small pieces of the bread so that I wouldn’t be able recognize which was which by appearance or feel. I honestly assumed that I would prefer the bread made from milled flour since I had read so many good things about how grain milling makes unbelievably tasty bread. (You’ve probably already guessed what actually happened.) As it turns out, I strongly preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour because it had a delicious flavor I described as “nutty.” I judged the bread made with milled flour to have a “weird” aftertaste. When Bill revealed which sample was which, I was shocked.

Summary

In the end, this was an imperfect yet informative experiment. The blind taste test with volunteers revealed that bread preferences are highly subjective. Nevertheless, the generally preferred bread was made from Trader Joe’s 100% White Whole Wheat Flour. I’m guessing the “weird” aftertaste that Bill and I (and some tasters) didn’t like in the bread made from milled flour was the bitter flavor of tannins in the red wheat berry. And herein lies the critical flaw in my experimental design. In purchasing whole wheat flour, I neglected to notice that the Trader Joe’s whole wheat flour is made from white (not red) wheat berries. So, I was actually comparing freshly milled red wheat berries to bagged flour made from white wheat berries, which are an albino variety of wheat berries that lack those bitter tannins.

Now, it actually makes sense that I naively made the wrong comparison. Hard red wheat berries are readily available in the US, while white wheat berries account for only 10-15% of America’s total wheat crop. So, it makes sense that stores are more likely to offer red wheat berries in bulk than white wheat berries. Conversely, since consumers tend to prefer the milder flavor of whole wheat flour made from white wheat berries, white whole wheat flour has become very popular in stores. (Trader Joe’s doesn’t even sell whole wheat flour made from red wheat berries.)

Poor experimental design aside, I learned that Bill and I don’t particularly like bread made from red wheat berries, even when it’s freshly milled. However, I am not yet convinced that grain milling can’t make the most delicious bread ever. This experiment only strengthens my resolve to justify owning a grain mill. Stay tuned for: “To Grind or Not to Grind? Part II.”

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One thought on “To Grind or Not to Grind?

  1. Jamie–
    “And my ego began to inflate like a yeast-leavened boule”–absolutely best line I’ve read in a blog in years!

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