If you’ve made the leap from refined white flours to whole grain flours in your home-baked breads, then you already know the flavor benefits that using more (or all) of the wheat berry can provide. A turn toward whole grain bread baking usually leads one down the road to seeking out freshly milled flours to best capture the fleeting aroma and flavor of the grains. And while there are loads of wonderful small-scale millers selling interesting and flavorful flours nowadays, there’s another option for the fresh-flour fanatic: milling your own.
Milling flour at home opens up a number of possibilities that are otherwise unavailable to a baker accustomed to working with commercially milled flours:
One: It optimizes storage. Unlike flours made from them, wheat berries are compact and store well for ages, so having a mill means you can create fresh flour whenever you need it, and the starting materials take up far less room. (One cup of wheat berries yields nearly two cups of flour—it’s like doubling your pantry space.)
Two: Variety. Your supermarket probably carries two or three brands of generic whole wheat flour. Having a mill means you can make flour from the wide variety of wheats available, each with its own unique flavor, appearance, and baking performance profile. And mills aren’t just for wheat. Just about any other sort of grain—rye, oats, spelt, quinoa, millet, etc.—can be run through a mill to make flour. (Not to mention seeds, rice, nonoily beans, and even dried herbs.) Having a mill of your own opens up a wide world of creative opportunities for bread baking and beyond.
But the most important reason to own a mill is this: flavor. Whole grain flours, because they contain the germ and its rancidity-prone oils, are highly perishable. Having your own mill means you can make a dough soon after the flour is milled to retain as much of the flavor of the grain as possible. I spoke to many home bakers already milling their own flour, and they each described the dramatic difference in flavor and aroma they got when they switched from commercial flour to freshly milled grains, using words like complex, nutty, wheaty, and nuanced.
How to select the best grain mill for you
The simplest choice for any home baker looking to mill flour at home is a hand-cranked grain mill, which is a cast metal device that resembles a manual meat grinder. It clamps to the end of your countertop and uses two metal burr plates to mill the flour. Hand mills will get you usable flour, but the process is laborious and slow-going, and the flour they produce can sometimes be more coarse than is ideal. One word of warning: Good versions can be as expensive as powered mills.
The average blender isn’t powerful enough to turn your grains into flour, but a heavy-duty one like a Vitamix can (usually using a dedicated “dry” blender bowl specially designed to process ingredients like grains, nonoily seeds, and herbs). It can produce finer flour than a hand mill if you run it long enough but can process only a few cups of grain at a time. It’s an expensive option, but if you own one of these blenders already, it’s a good way to start exploring home milling without investing in a bunch of new equipment.
There are also stand mixer attachments for grinding flour. KitchenAid makes its own attachment, which uses steel burr plates. And there’s the Mockmill KitchenAid-compatible attachment, which uses small millstones. (I’ll talk a bit about the advantages of stone mills over other styles below.)
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For ease of use and the ability to process larger quantities of grain at a time, serious home bakers will likely want to invest in a dedicated tabletop mill. There are several styles to choose from. Metal burr mills grind the grain between two roughened metal surfaces or plates (look at the underside of your manual pepper grinder to see a simple form of burr grinder). Burr grinders can do a decent job of producing flour, but they create a lot of friction and as a result tend to heat up quickly. (The KitchenAid mill attachment is an example of a steel burr mill.)
Impact (or “micronizing”) mills work by repeatedly propelling the grain against two tooth-covered stainless-steel heads that spin in opposite directions to each another. They produce a fine and evenly-textured flour, and they do not create nearly as much friction as burr mills. One drawback to impact mills is that, though they typically have an adjustable setting for flour consistency, the difference in flour texture between the finest and coarsest setting is often negligible. And while no mill is exactly silent, impact mills are definitely on the noisy side.
The Cadillac of tabletop flour milling is the stone burr mill. These are essentially scaled-down versions of professional stone mills with stone diameters measuring inches rather than feet across. The “stones” in these mills are usually composites made from a combination of abrasive particles (of actual or artificial stone) and cement. Stone mills are the slowest to heat up and can be run for relatively long durations without risk of negatively impacting the flour’s flavor or performance. The grind size on most stone mills is easily adjusted, allowing them to be used to produce everything from coarsely cracked grains to fine flour. Unlike steel burrs, stones do not wear out over time. And they are often slightly quieter than other styles of mill. (That said, no mill is silent, so be prepared to pause the conversation while milling your flour, no matter what style you choose.)
Tips for milling flour at home
Read the user manual for your particular mill carefully—and follow it as you begin to experiment, sorting out how to get the flour consistency that you desire from your particular device.
No matter which mill you’re starting with, though, I do have a few general tips to offer:
To get a fine, even grind, you typically want to run the stones or burrs as close together as the grain size and hardness allows. It is important not to let them actually touch each other, which will cause undue wear or produce stone dust that will ruin your flour. The trick is to learn to recognize the high-pitched squeal the mill makes when the burrs make contact and stay just shy of this point. Some home millers run the grain through the mill twice, first at a coarser setting and then again with the burrs closer together for a finer grind.
You also want to avoid heating the flour. Milling is a violent business, and some amount of friction is inevitable, regardless what type of mill you’re using. But overheating your flour isn’t. Heat not only destroys the nutrients and flavorful molecules in flour, but it can also degrade gluten-forming proteins, potentially leaving the flour useless for breadmaking. (There is some dispute as to how hot is too hot for flour—some sources say to avoid temperatures over 115˚F, others say the flour can hit 140˚F before much damage occurs.)
Flour degradation aside, there’s another good reason to avoid heating up your flour: All that heat will go straight into your dough and wreak havoc with fermentation, unless you let it fully cool down first. It’s simpler to keep the flour as cool as possible. One way to do that, other than being sure not to run the mill past the point that the flour begins to heat up: Chill the grains before you mill them to counteract some of the heat gained from friction. With some forethought, it’s easy enough to place the grain in a sealed bag or jar and freeze it for a few hours or even overnight.
How to store whole grains
Storing whole grains is as simple as keeping them cool, dry, and free from pests. Small quantities are best stored in jars or snap-top containers; larger amounts are best kept in 3- or 5-gallon plastic pails (often available at hardware stores) fitted with an airtight, easy-open screw-top Gamma lid. Stashed away properly, whole grains will keep for a year or more.
Which grains should you buy for milling at home?
Most supermarkets carry whole grains in 1-pound bags, though the selection may be somewhat limited. And just about any grain you might want can be ordered online in quantities small and large.
You also might be able to purchase them locally, either from nearby small-scale millers or directly from farms. Small millers are often happy to sell you the same whole grains they use to mill their flours. And where I live (in Massachusetts), we even have a “grain CSA” that lets you buy a share of a local harvest each year.
If you are milling wheat for bread baking, you’ll want to focus on hard red wheats, which contain substantial amounts of gluten-forming proteins. Winter wheat is planted in the fall, when it sprouts and then goes dormant during the winter months before growing again in the spring. Spring wheat is planted in the spring after the last frost, usually in Northern areas where winter temperatures are too harsh for overwintering wheat. (Both winter and spring wheats are harvested in the fall.) Hard winter wheat contains anywhere from 9 to 14.5% protein, and hard red spring wheat ranges from 11.5 to 18% protein.
Soft wheats (red and white), make flours usually destined for pastries, crackers, and snack foods. They contain 8 to 11% protein. You can use flour milled from soft wheat to make bread, but it will likely need to be combined with some amount of bread flour for adequate structure.
Hard white wheats have a lighter-colored seed coat, so the flours they produce are much whiter in color, even when a substantial amount of bran remains present. (Most of the white wheat grown in the U.S. is destined for Asian markets, where it’s used to make the bright white noodles and breads popular there.) Hard white wheat can contain as much as 17% protein, making it suitable for use in bread, though its flavor is generally considered less complex than most red wheats.
Durum wheat is the hardest of all the wheats, with a protein content of 10 to 17%. Most durum flour is used to make pasta, though it makes wonderful bread as well, thanks both to its distinctive pasta-like flavor and yellow color.
Rye is a distant relative of wheat, and does not contain gluten-forming proteins, so it cannot be used by itself to produce airy, lightly-textured breads. But it does contain sticky polysaccharides known as arabinoxylans that act somewhat like gluten to give rye breads structure. It is arabinoxylans’s ability to bind up to four times more water than wheat does that gives German and Scandinavian 100% rye flour breads their unique consistency and ultralong shelf life.
So-called ancient grains such as emmer, Khorasan (also known as kamut), einkorn, and spelt are all close relatives of wheat. (The Italian grain farro is synonymous with emmer and can be found in many supermarkets.) They all contain gluten to varying degrees and can be used on their own to make breads with a relatively open structure.
Barley and oats are distant relatives of wheat that are often milled and used in breads. Barley is more closely related to wheat, but neither of these grains contain substantial amounts of gluten and must be combined with wheat flour to make a decent loaf.
Corn can also be milled at home. Impact mills can handle popcorn (it can be used to make amazing polenta, actually), but it is generally considered too hard to put through a burr mill. If you’d like to make cornmeal or corn flour in your burr mill, you will need to start with softer-kerneled flint or dent corn.
You can even grind rice, beans, and herbs using a mill. In fact, the only dried foods you cannot put through a mill are oily ingredients like coffee beans, nuts, and oily seeds, which will quickly turn to a paste that will gum it up.
How to use whole grain flours
If you are used to baking with roller-milled white flour, making the shift to whole grain wheat flours can be challenging because whole grain flours are “thirstier” than refined ones (meaning they require more water to achieve a comparable texture), and the presence of hard, sharp bran interferes with proper gluten development. The simplest approach for beginners is to swap out small percentages of the white flour in your recipe for whole grain flour (while also increasing the water content in the dough to account for the extra absorption). In my experience, recipes can tolerate as much as 30% whole wheat flour without significant impact on texture
Once you know how smaller amounts of fresh-milled whole grain flours behave, you can start to experiment with higher ratios (and additional water). If you want to make breads using 100% whole grain flour, you are probably better off starting with a recipe that was designed that way.
On the other hand, it is relatively easy to use 100% whole wheat flour to produce things that don’t rely on gluten for structure; whole wheat waffles and pancakes are a quick and easy way to feature the flavor of freshly milled flour. And there are loads of cracker and cookie recipes that use 100% whole wheat flour. A number of great new books can be your guide as you start milling and baking with novel grains—I’d recommend Roxana Jullapat’s Mother Grains and Southern Ground from Jennifer Lapidus to start.
Fresh flour doesn’t have to mean fully whole grain flour: Another option is to remove the bran using a sifter. A standard kitchen sieve (which is usually around 30 mesh, or 30 wires per inch in both directions) will quickly remove the largest bran flakes. (The amount will vary depending on how finely your mill grinds the flour; but out of my mill, this represents about five to 10% of the total.) That still leaves quite a bit of bran behind, so for a lighter and more soft-textured flour, you’ll want a 40- or 50-mesh circular sieve, which can remove up to 20% of the total bran. Circular sieves like these are inexpensive and easily purchased online; be sure to buy ones 10 or more inches in diameter to allow for relatively fast sifting.
With the bran removed, the flour will behave closer to refined flour, though it will likely still need additional water to achieve comparable results. Save the bran for bran muffins, or do as they do in Genzano di Roma, the bread capital of Italy: Use it in place of flour to dust the exterior of your loaves of bread once they are shaped. The bran toasts as the loaf bakes, giving the crust a nutty flavor and a distinctive appearance.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious