In retirement I have become passionate about baking naturally fermented bread with freshly milled, whole grain flour. When I retired some 6 years ago, I had very concrete plans, none of which have come to fruition (yet)! Instead, retirement has taken me in 3 new directions: mentoring young professionals, serving on the board of the organization that provides services to my autistic son, and bread. Here I’m going to focus on the latter.
Why whole grain? Most of the nutrients, minerals, and fiber of a grain are found in the bran. When you remove the bran from the flour the result is something significantly less healthy and nutritious. Furthermore, by removing the bran you are removing much of the flavor. With whole grain, the full nutrition, minerals, fiber, and flavor are available.
Why freshly milled? Whole meal flour quickly goes rancid. When you mill just in time, the flour doesn’t have an opportunity to degrade. As a result, you get the full benefits of flavor and nutrition. Furthermore, when you mill your own, you can experiment with different grains. Each grain has its own qualities and flavor; by milling your own and selecting for the type of bread you want to make, you can make exceptional breads.
And why naturally leavened? This is typically, but not exclusively, sourdough starter (levain). Sourdough works by reproducing both yeast and acid-making bacteria through a process of fermentation. The lactic and acetic acids produced by the bacteria provide flavor and help prevent bread from going stale. Furthermore, fermentation appears to have a salutary impact on grain. To make a long story short, the relatively lengthy process of making bread with sourdough starter predigests the flour, making it much easier for us to digest. In contrast, commercial yeast not only does not contain these bacteria, but also accelerates the fermentation/proofing process, which makes for bread with less flavor and without the health benefits of slower fermentation.
So how did I get here? There were three pivotal events that informed my bread journey:
The first was reading Michael Pollan’s “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”. This is, without a doubt, the most transformational book I’ve ever read. The first two sections, on cooking with water and with fire, were interesting. But the latter two, on fermentation, both bread and other forms of fermentation, were inspirational. Pollan talks at length about the advantages of naturally fermented whole (or nearly whole) grain breads. I had to give it a try.
Second, in 2017, Jonathan Bethony opened his bakery, Seylou, in DC. A review in the Washington Post inspired a visit. I was blown away. Jonathan makes exclusively whole grain breads and they are awesome. Jonathan, who has become a friend, says that his intent was to open an ideological bakery. The ideology goes beyond just whole grain, to using local grains (to support the local grain economy) and milling them in house. I decided that if Jonathan could do it, so could I. I threw out my bread flour and jumped entirely onto the whole grain bandwagon. It took me a good 6 months to figure out how to do this effectively and be willing to share my results on Instagram, but I succeeded.
And third, in June 2018, I attended a “Grain to Bread Workshop”, sponsored by Mockmill, the company that makes the best stone mills on the market for home use. This was important in several ways: For the first time I was baking alongside and learning from much more experienced bakers. Second, it connected me with the community of artisan bakers, largely through social media. I’ve kept up with many of the participants and presenters at this workshop. My bread friends on Instagram and Facebook have become a constant source of inspiration as we share successes (and failures). And third, I acquired a new Mockmill.
Since then, my baking has soared. People now look to me for advice and inspiration. I have implemented a couple of workshops myself and have a couple more in the works. I’ve become active in a local non-profit, the Common Grain Alliance, which is creating links between producers and users of grains as it works to build a local grain economy in the Mid-Atlantic Region. I’ve published guidance on successfully working with wheats with weak gluten. This is a necessity if we are to use locally produced wheats, as our climate here (unlike in the drier parts of the Mid-West and West) is not conducive to producing the strong flours most bakers are used to using. Bread is now a big part of my life.
If anyone would like to see my breads, they can be found in my Instagram feed at @woodward7053.
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