Bakers Turn Local Grains Into Breadwinners

The regional grainshed is once again becoming New York’s breadbasket.

There’s something simple and comforting about a bag of flour.  Plunging one’s fingers into its cool, dry softness is a nostalgic pleasure, and one that is always reassuringly consistent.

That’s because pretty much every bag of flour is exactly the same—all-purpose, indistinguishable, interchangeable—and has been for a century.

Across the country, it’s the same nondescript flour we powdered our kitchen counters with as children in those first attempts at making cookies. The same we whisk into Sundaymorning pancake batters, bake into blueberry muffins and knead into pizza doughs. And, for many of us, it’s that same battered paper bag that’s been sitting on the shelf for a year.

But, these days, educated eaters are losing their appetites for anonymous commodities; clued-in cooks prefer specialty specimens over consistency and shelf stability. Which is why some local-food advocates are arguing that it’s high time to rethink that unassuming white powder—that a truly viable New York food system must grow its own grain.

“It all comes down to grain,” says chef Dan Barber. “Yes, because it’s delicious—a whole world of flavor that’s been ignored for the past 50 years—but also because it’s a critical missing link in any community’s ability to feed itself.”

In the 18th century, New York was the region’s breadbasket, producing wheat for consumption here and in neighboring states.  But as canal and railroad systems allowed for long-distance transport, cheap grain rolled in from the large, flat farms in the Midwest, and the small community mills dotting the Hudson Valley crumbled. Today some farmers are working to rebuild the Empire State’s grain industry, following the lead of farmers resurrecting local grain economies across the country, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania.

But plugging local wheat into a system designed to funnel it from the West is more complicated, it turns out, than building a local market for heirloom tomatoes, organic milk or even grassfed beef. The generational knowledge of growing grain on our terrain has been lost. New York is no longer home to regional mills that clean, de-hull and grind grain. And, despite today’s farm-to-table sensibilities, local flour is a hard sell.

Even farmers market mavens who seek out Sungold tomatoes, Lemon cucumbers and Silver Queen corn are typically innocent of the nuances of high-quality, stone-ground wheat flour—and those who buy a bag might find baking with it a challenge. One batch of regional flour often varies from another in gluten content, water absorption and texture. Small-batch stone-ground flours, with their quirks and variations, their slightly oily textures and their musky, unfamiliar fragrances, can be tricky for bakers raised on the consistent, mass-produced flour that has made precisely calibrated baking recipes the norm.  And, for professional bakers, inconsistent supplies of local grain have made bulk production difficult.

But against all these odds, New York’s grain industry is experiencing a renaissance. Growers are experimenting with specialty grains, which are in turn showing up in farmers markets, bakeries and restaurants.  A grain tasting organized by Greenmarket and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) at the French Culinary Institute in January drew a who’s who of the city’s baking elite—including representatives from Sullivan Street Bakery, City Bakery and Hot Bread Kitchen. Pasta made from emmer flour by chef Patti Jackson of I Trulli was especially delicious, as was a bread Sullivan Street’s Jim Lahey baked using Warthog, a hard red winter wheat.

June Russell, who manages farm inspections, strategic planning and regulations for the Greenmarket, was the force behind that tasting, and says local grains are gaining ground. Since last June, the Cayuga Pure Organics stand has sold wheat, buckwheat and rye flours, as well as cornmeals and whole grains such as emmer, barley and oats, all grown upstate.

“Chances are, we’re going to sell everything that can be grown this year, which is fantastic,” Russell says. “That signals to the growers that there’s a demand for it.”

For home bakers used to the consistency of supermarket commodities, small-batch flours require some adjustment—just as grassfed beef requires different cooking techniques than its corn-fed counterpart. But the variations in local grains, once you’ve learned to work with them, are precisely what make them worth the trouble.  The mass-produced Midwestern wheat in supermarket flour—even so-called whole-wheat flour—is a product grown for yield, not flavor.  It’s then roller-milled to chalky shelf-stability, stripping it of the wheat germ and fibrous bran that can give flour its character and nutritional value, then sifted and mixed to precise gluten levels.  When local farmers grow heirloom grains and grind them in small batches, the product is as different from that supermarket bag as a seedless White Thompson grape is from a juicy purple Concord.

Pastry chef Alex Grunert discovered that when he came to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and made the acquaintance of local grain: “Flour is not flour,” he says.

Of the flours Blue Hill buys from upstate farmer Klaas Martens, Grunert says, “It’s a complete different smell from when you just open a bag from a commercial company. Sometimes there’s an earthy smell, like a grain field. Then there’s the taste…. We’re using spelt, emmer, oats. Everything has their own character and their own flavor.”

Now he uses local grains and flours in many of his baked goods, including brioche and a golden beet cake he makes with ground freekeh, a green smoked wheat often used in Lebanese cuisine. The variability in gluten levels, texture and water absorption is a challenge, Grunert says—“Honestly, it just didn’t work out all the time”—but he likes to combine different flours to add depth of flavor and texture.

Blue Hill chef de cuisine, Trevor Kunk, serves Martens’s freekeh in a soup, pureeing the cooked grains with bacon, carrots and shallots. This spring he simmered emmer with nettles, spinach and fiddleheads. Kunk also sees the variability of local grains as an asset.

“I think that’s one of the greatest things about the grains,” he says. “They change year to year…. It makes them that much more interesting. Each grain is a little bit different in itself.” Martens, who has been growing organic grains with his wife, Mary-Howell Martens, on their Finger Lakes farm for over a decade, echoes this sentiment. “I think we’ve bought into a false definition of quality with the industrial food system, and that quality is uniformity. With uniformity you bring up the worst, but you also eliminate excellence.”

But when it comes to Northeast flour, the real miracle is loaves—that is, bread. Area farmers have had success growing soft wheat, the variety traditionally grown here, which is preferred for pastries, pancakes and cookies. In our climate it’s more difficult to grow so-called hard wheat, whose higher levels of gluten give yeasted bread its structure, producing the big air bubbles we’ve come to love in our loaves.

Some maintain that bread can be made from the Northeast’s traditional soft wheats. David Poorbaugh, president of McGeary Organics in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, bakes bread with his company’s pastry flour, called Daisy Flour. The loaves that come out of his oven don’t have the airy texture we’re used to nowadays, he says—but they’re delicious.

“Sliced bread is an invention of the 1900s,” Poorbaugh explains.  “Before that, you had a denser, more compact loaf, and you tore a bit off and dipped it in your soup or spread apple butter on it. These tall loafs today, half of them are air.”

Just two or three years ago, hardly anyone in the state was growing the hard red spring wheat favored for bread flour, says Elizabeth Dyck, coordinator of NOFA’s Wheat Project. But now some farmers are bucking conventional wisdom by planting heritage red fife and other hard red spring wheats; today she works with farmers growing 400 acres of organic hard red spring wheat statewide, and she expects a higher acreage of hard red winter wheat this year. That may not sound like much, but in a state where wheat production has dropped too low to even be counted by the federal government, Dyck says, “Those are hard-won acres.”

New York’s hard wheat flour has slightly lower gluten levels—around 12 percent, compared to the 14-percent flours of the Midwest, which are generally considered best for bread. But the strongest retort to arguments that New York can’t grow good bread flour is a slice of the “Ultimate Whole Wheat” loaf developed by Keith Cohen, owner of Orwasher’s Bakery on the Upper East Side. This domed loaf, which is on sale at Orwasher’s and at Cayuga’s Greenmarket stand, was inspired by Irish brown bread and features local whole-wheat flour from hard red winter wheat. It’s rich, nutty and moist, substantial and wheaty without being dense—a brown bread that evokes a farmhouse table, rather than a health-food store.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Cohen says of baking with local flours. “But for many years there wasn’t a great supply of it.  Recently it’s come to the forefront.”

He created a special starter to build the bread’s volume and structure, and taught the recipe to Cayuga’s bakers, who rent out space in his bakery to produce it. Sure, it might not be as uniform as what comes out of a factory, but Cohen says that individuality is part of its charm.

“If you want perfect,” he says, “you can go buy Wonder bread.”

No one is more excited about the growing popularity of local grains than Dyck, who has been working for years to revive the region’s wheat industry. But she’s aware that the region’s limited processing infrastructure means there’s a lag time before demand can be met. After January’s tasting, a baker asked where he could get 30,000 pounds of Warthog wheat. She had to tell him that only one test acre had been grown.

“I don’t want this to be just a flash-in-the-pan fad,” she says, aware that chefs and bakers could lose interest before local production can scale up. “The infrastructural elements still need to be worked out. That takes a little time. I’m hoping demand hangs on.”

Hudson Valley baker Don Lewis knows what it’s like to build one’s own infrastructure. When he started stone-grinding local grain a decade ago, he says he spent $30,000 on milling, sifting and storage facilities, and today he still has to drive almost four hours to get his grain de-hulled. But response has been so strong that Lewis is in the process of doubling his milling capacity and has opened Wild Hive Bakery and Café up in Clinton Corners, where he sells bread, pastries—and just-ground flour to bake your own at home.

“In my own case, I just did it,” Lewis says. “But, ultimately, from the education of the consumer comes the expanded demand of the future…. The demand always precedes the production.”

Klaas Martens learned long ago that demand drives production.  He and his wife began growing grains in Penn Yan, New York, in the early 1990s, mostly as cover crops, and were able to cash in on the mid-1990s organic milk frenzy, when dairy farmers needed organic grain and there wasn’t enough supply to meet the sudden demand. Since they began producing grain for human consumption, the Martenses have grown spelt, emmer, soft white wheat, buckwheat, hard red wheat and oats—over 600 acres, on top of their animal feed business.

Now it looks like the Martenses are again ahead of the curve.  But Klaas knows that a real regional wheat economy will require more than fashionable ideology. Farmers have to entice customers to put their money where their mouth is.

“It doesn’t really help to only like the concept,” he says. “You have to have tangible benefits, and they have to be tangible right away.”

Those benefits, Barber maintains, are nuances and depths of flavor that our collective palate has forgotten after decades of industrial flour.

“We’ve lost an ability to pinpoint iconic flavors through these grains,” says Barber. “To convince people to bake biscuits with 20 percent spring wheat, you have an uphill battle, because white flour is so sweet, it’s so fluffy, it’s what your grandmother did.”

There’s hope, Martens says, that we’ll rediscover flavors beyond what that battered bag of all-purpose on our shelf can offer.  But it will take some work.

“The baker and the farmer should be working together,” says Martens. “That’s how it happened for millennia. And now it’s happening again.”

Photo credits: David Hughes, Michael Harlan Turkell, Joshua Shaub, peden + munk

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Indrani Sen is a freelance writer, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, and an editor at the Local, a hyperlocal blog covering Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Her Web site is indraniclips.com.