It is at this time of year when I am always struck with the entirely magical process that is bread making.
I spend hours listening to the whirring sound of our stone mill crushing the wheat berries and bringing them to their full enzymatic, vitamin-rich potential. The smell of our freshly milled whole wheat flour is like nothing else on earth – it is tasty and toasty, it is vibrant, it has an almost caramel candy like scent too it that envelopes me.
I love the feel and aroma of the crumbling yeast on my hands in the bottom of the bowl, the sweet sticky honey slowly pouring out of the pitcher, and the resulting gurgling, bubbling mass that is alive.
As many of you know, I began my career as a chef on the savory side – not a baker. Is it amazing to perfectly cook a rosy centered lamb loin crusted in fresh herbs or master the art of grilling the freshest of spring asparagus? Of course it is.
But how amazing is it that I bake every day with products that are still alive when they go in the oven? A loaf of bread is a living breathing organism that is kneaded by hand, proofed by eye and feel, and baked to a golden brown perfection.
Beginning in early October each year I am charged and blessed with the task of finding the absolute best wheat berries for every single Great Harvest Bread store around the country to mill into beautiful, delicious, life-giving whole wheat flour every single day. The wheat that goes into every single loaf of whole grain bread – over 200 bakery locations stretching from New Hampshire to Hawaii - begins in the fields of our family farmers in northern Montana and is tested and baked by me here in the lab at our headquarters.
Test bake after test bake, with no shortage of outright failures. Most lots just don’t measure up. No small task and no minor responsibility. However, when we find that perfect wheat – when I bake that perfect loaf that has superb texture, killer volume and a flavor that is so addicting you not only instinctively take another bite but would drive across town for – THAT is pure culinary magic.
What is it that attracts me to the art and alchemy that is baking whole grain bread? The sights, the smells, the sounds of the bread making process are innately romantic. I am taking a hard, dry, brown, kernel of grain that has essentially unlimited shelf life and through the stone-milling process I unleash its full potential that is at its nutritional and flavorful peak soon after. Did you know that I use incredibly flavored local honey from here in Beaverhead County Montana, pure filtered water that originates high up in the mountains, live yeast, and combine it with the freshly milled silky whole wheat flour to make all of these test loaves of bread. How cool is that?
One of the reasons the quality of our whole wheat berries is so important is because of what we DON’T put in the dough. Not much to hide behind when you are working with five simple ingredients. No conditioners, no stabilizers, no preservatives. Why do I love working with freshly milled whole wheat flour? Did you know that when whole wheat berries are refined into white flour we lose 68% of the minerals, 86% of the vitamins, 93% of oils, 22% of the protein and 75% of the fiber (Source: Oldways / The Whole Grains Council) That does not sound like a very good deal to me!
Like wine grapes grown in specific soil, our lots of wheat berries have different characteristics from different growers and even after just a few seasons I know that flour milled from one farmer or the other really does have its very own baking characteristics and specific “terroir.” *
It is a really amazing process we go through each year testing, baking, and tasting so that we can blend the best characteristics from each of our farmers into the best bread possible.
Simple is delicious, and whole grain baking, while not an altogether easy task, certainly relies on the simplest of ingredients and processes. Freshly milled whole wheat flour, naturally fermented, shaped into loaves and baked fresh for you and your family.
Baking whole wheat bread is unbelievably fun. It is hot, dramatic, and sexy. It is one of the most satisfying of crafts because what is created is truly the staff of life. It is best done to the thumping beat of great music while surrounded by friends. A passion for milling and baking is at the heart of each locally owned Great Harvest bakery -- using the wheat we hand chose here in Montana. Now THAT is pretty cool stuff!
*Terroir (from terre, "land") is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant's genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, heritage wheat, cannabis, and tea…Terroir can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.
Did you enjoy this post? Check out some of Scott's delicious recipes!