Earlier this month, we went over to the new Eataly Downtown to get an overview of their bread program from third-generation Italian flour-miller Fulvio Marino of Mulino Marino and head baker Erin Flinn. It was an illuminating look at what they’re trying to do at the store—which has bread as its overarching theme—by focusing on smaller batches of slow-baked breads that are believed to be better for digestion and just taste really, really good. They’re also offering bread-baking classes so that you can get in on the doughy action yourself. Seeing as she’s the baking expert, we asked Flinn some further questions about what you should look out for when you’re buying flour to use at home.
Edible Manhattan: What are the most common misconceptions about bread that you hope to clear up?
Erin Flinn: We hope to help people understand that bread is a part of a healthy diet. Here in America people often think carbs and bread are “fattening.” We want people to know that eating bread, as in the Italian diet, is a healthy habit. We hope that we can inspire people to reconnect the idea of flour as a product of a farm, and to think about where their flour comes from in the way that they might with their produce. I would also encourage people to experiment with creating the own mother yeast at home. It sounds like a daunting task, but it’s actually very easy and can mean a huge difference in the flavor and quality of the bread they make at home.
EM: Why are the breads you’re making at Eataly, in smaller batches and slower, and supposedly easier for people to digest than more mass-produced breads?
EF: Commercially made breads are often made with the fastest, highest yield in mind. They are often made using high quantities of commercial yeast, and proofed quickly at warm temperatures. The breads that we’re producing are naturally leavened with our mother yeast and slow fermented. We produce bread that, once shaped, will go into our cooler overnight to be baked the following morning. This gives the natural enzymes present in the bread many hours to begin breaking down the starches in the flour. These enzymes make the starches easier for our body to digest. Our breads that contain the whole grain, including the bran, are also important for digestion. The bran contains fiber, which helps our digestive tract regulate itself.
EM: How important is using a great flour for bread-making?
EF: Just like using the freshest produce or the highest quality meats in cooking, the quality of flour matters in the final flavor and texture of bread. We (in America) are so used to buying flour off of the shelf at the grocery store—there is a disconnect in our heads between flour and the farm and mill. Here at Eataly, we use flours from two mills—Mulino Marino from Italy and Wild Hive from the Hudson Valley. Both pride themselves on using stone mills to grind their organic grains. Once milled, the flour is in its whole grain state. It can also be sifted to remove portions of the grain. The three main parts of the grain are the endosperm, the germ and the bran. A flour containing all three is a whole grain flour, and a white flour generally contains only the endosperm. The germ is often removed in commercially produced flour because it is the part of the grain that contains fat, which means that it lowers the shelf life and increases the risk of spoilage. But the germ also contains many of the nutrients of the grain, and bread made with flour containing the germ will have a higher nutrient value as well as better flavor.
EM: What makes for a good bread flour?
EF: A good bread flour is a fresh flour. I encourage people to find a flour that discloses when it was milled, and to use that flour within a few months. If they are only going to use a small amount of flour at a time, they can also store their flour in an airtight container in the freezer to extend the shelf life. Depending what type of bread they’re making, good bread flour is often made with a hard variety of wheat. This flour will have a higher protein content, which translates to a stronger gluten structure in the final product, which will be able to better hold on to the air that is produced as the dough ferments.
EM: What should people be looking for when they buy their own flour for home?
EF: I would encourage people to try baking at home with flour that they can trace back to a specific source. Look for a flour that tells you when it was milled, and that gives a “best by” date within a few months of when you are buying it. We don’t want to use flour that is sitting on the shelf in the grocery store for months, or that will be fine sitting in our kitchen cabinet for that long. It’s better to buy smaller amounts of fresher flour and use them up quickly. This isn’t to say that a person can’t make great bread from supermarket flour—that isn’t true. If that’s the only flour someone has available, I encourage them to still buy and experiment. The worst thing that can happen is they don’t have a great success on the first few tries, but making bread at home with love and attention to ingredients (or buying from a bakery that does the same) is the first step in teaching ourselves to recognize bread as a staple in a healthy, balanced diet.