Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

Sonora Wheat at the Huasna Valley Farm

Ron Skinner

I had the great privilege this week of visiting the Huasna Valley Farm in California’s central coast run by Ron and Jenn Skinner whose visible joy is infectious. The Skinners grow Sonora wheat, an heirloom variety brought to the Southwest by the Spanish.

Sonora wheat is well suited to dry desert and Mediterranean climates. It produces a cream colored flour that was historically used for tortillas and posole. The Skinners served us some Sonora whole wheat biscuits that tasted as light as white flour but with a rich and complex flavor.

Jenn Skinner

To fight weeds (the big bugaboo of wheat farming) the Skinners plan on introducing Black Medic (Medicago lupulina) a leguminous plant that will fix nitrogen and out-compete unwanted weeds. The tall stalks of Sonora wheat will allow the medic to grow far below the seed heads. This is in contrast to conventional wheat farming with its short varieties and heavy reliance on herbicides. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” used Sonora wheat to create Sonora 64, an early green revolution wheat. Ironically, as we face an uncertain energy future, we may have to go back to the original Sonora wheat as it performs better in organic circumstances and needs less water than modern wheat varieties.

Ron shows off the combine.

One of the challenges the Skinners faced in farming just a few acres of wheat was figuring out how to harvest it. Large industrial farms use enormous and very expensive combines. Small and medium sized combines simply aren’t manufactured anymore. Luckily the Skinners found a vintage Allis-Chalmers combine across the road which Ron and his son disassembled and rebuilt.

I bought twenty pounds of Sonora wheat flour and a few pounds of wheat berries and am really looking forward to baking with it. I might even grow my own mini-Sonora wheat field this winter (you plant it here in Southern California in January for harvest around the 4th of July.

For more information on Sonora wheat see:

The Huasna Valley Farm website, particularly their informative newsletters.

Sustainablegrains.org has a Sonora Wheat tortilla recipe.

Slow Food USA has a page on the history of Sonora wheat.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers to participate in farm visits, baking classes and oven building sessions.

And a special thanks to LABB member Joseph Shuldiner for arranging this trip!

No-Knead Artisinal Bread Part I

You can make a decent loaf of bread with one of the many popular no-knead recipes on the interwebs. With just a little bit more effort you can make a much better loaf of bread with a “levain” (or “sourdough starter” in less yuppiefied parlance).

For about ten years, I used to bake the loaf I blogged about here and put in our first book The Urban Homestead. Lately, however, I’ve completely changed the way I bake thanks to meeting Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers.

I’ll post a specific recipe once my method crystallizes a bit more. In the meantime, this is the general way I’ve been baking. All the mixing and first fermentation can take place in a plastic tub or large bowl.

1. The night before I mix my dough I take some starter, add flour and water to create the “levain”. Starter is made by mixing dough and water and letting nature do her thing. I’ll blog about the process in detail in a future post. Right now I’m working with a starter that has the consistency of bread dough, but I’m going to switch to a more liquid starter to avoid the dough messes in the kitchen that cause marital strife.

2. In the morning I mix the final dough, carefully measuring ingredients on a digital scale. While I use a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, I’m trying to wean myself of its use. Kneading, it turns out, is unnecessary labor and can be replaced by simply folding the dough a few times during the initial fermentation period.

3. After mixing the dough I let it rest for around 20 minutes to allow flour and water to integrate.

4. Following the rest period I mix in the salt.

5. The dough rises for 2 1/2 hours. During this first fermentation period I pour the wet sticky dough out onto a work surface every 50 minutes and quickly fold the dough in half two or three times.

6. At the end of the first rise I shape the dough into either a batard or a boule. At some point I’ll make a video on how to do this.

7. Once shaped, the boule or batard goes into the refrigerator covered with a floured piece of canvas, in the case of a batard, or plopped in a proofing basked in the case of a boule. The dough can stay in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours. During this second, slow, fermentation period the dough develops a more acidic, complex flavor, plus it allows for more flexibility in terms of your baking schedule. When you want a loaf, all you do is heat up the oven, pull the bread out of the fridge and toss it in the oven. There’s no need, it turns out, to bring the dough to room temperature before baking.

8. To get a decent crust in a home oven I recommend baking in a dutch oven as in the no-knead method. Pre-heat both dutch oven and stove, toss the loaf in the dutch oven and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes remove the top of the dutch oven and continue baking until done (usually another 20 to 25 minutes).

A note on water: chlorine and chloramine inhibit starters. I have a carbon filter on our house water which I thought removed both chlorine and chloramine. However, I discovered that I got much better results when using bottled, distilled water. After pouring through multiple aquarium enthusiast internet forums (not particularly exciting when you don’t keep fish) I figured out that my cheap carbon filter removes some, but not all of the chloramine in our water supply. At some point I’ll do some tests to confirm this. In the meantime, I’ll stick with bottled water.

I should note that the road to bread baking nirvana is littered with hockey puck loaves and existential angst. Push through the wall of frustration and you emerge on the other side an alchemist, with the power to turn flour into loaves, lead into gold and Dan Brown into Shakespeare. Well, maybe not that last bit.

How Not To Bake Bread

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown are away on book tour while I’m holding down the fort in L.A. and looking after their chickens.

I figured that while they are away and not blogging much, I can step in and entertain you with tales of my epic baking failures. Sure, lots of blogs have pretty pictures of food and neatly typed recipes, but everyone likes a good tale of failure now and then.

Now, my neighbor Erik, aka Mr. Homegrown is quite the bread baker. He can turn out beautiful, tasty loaves of bread with ease. Down the street here, my loaves are quite the disaster. I’ve been wanting to learn to bake bread for a while and my experiments haven’t been going well. I’m hardly an incompetent cook. I can even bake cakes and cookies and other things leavened with baking powder or soda. But with yeast, well, I just haven’t figured it out.

I’m trying to follow the Mother Earth News ‘no knead’ bread recipe that you bake in a dutch oven. I’ve tried other yeasted bread recipes before with little success. Since this one is supposed to be easier, I thought this is the perfect bread for me! Apparently some folks gets great
results with it. Grumble. Grumble. I get chicken feed. Not that the chickens are complaining. They love this experiment.

One loaf flattened out completely in the bottom of the pan. I was able to glean some of the pretty tasty insides before turning it over to the hens. The next loaf I was determined to shape better. The dough was a sticky mess. It stuck to everything including plastic wrap, my hands, the bowl. I added more flour to deal with the stickiness but things still went wrong. I at least got something that looked more like a loaf than a pancake. But I think I cooked it too long. Again, I cracked it open, ate the soft inside of the bread and gave the rest to the chickens.


I tend to be a very experimental cook. I like to learn from my failures. Often things taste good but aren’t pretty, but after a few tries I can make them taste and look good. But not bread. It defies all of my time tested methods of how I teach myself to do things. I’ve been reading books on baking and they make my head hurt. How much protein is in the flour or what kind of enzyme does what is way beyond my comprehension at this point. So when the neighbors get back, in exchange for ten days of chicken- sitting, I’m going to have Mr. Homegrown teach me how to bake a darn loaf of decent bread. With none going to the chickens.

Mr. Homegrown here–happy to give a bead lesson, but I’ve had plenty of failures myself. One tip would be to use a scale when measuring bread ingredients. Another would be to make sure you’re not using old, dead yeast. Lastly, I know you’re sick with a sore throat and that’s the time to order take-out.

Tartine Bread

A whole wheat loaf fresh out of the oven at Tartine. It tastes as good as it looks.

As a bread baking geek I’ve set a goal of visiting the best bakeries in every town I’m in. Here in San Francisco, on our book tour, I had the privilege of waiting in the long line outside Tartine Bakery to buy a loaf of bread.

It was well worth the wait. Founded by Chad Robertson, Tartine specializes in naturally leavened breads with dark, thick crusts. Robertson’s technique involves moist doughs, no kneading and a long secondary fermentation in a refrigerator. Best of all, Robertson has adapted his methods for the home kitchen in a lavishly illustrated book Tartine Bread. Like the popular no-knead bread recipes circulating the interwebs, you bake your bread in a dutch oven, which simulates the steam injection of commercial ovens–the secret to a thick crust. But with naturally leavened breads such as the recipes in Tartine Bread, you get a much deeper flavor. Natural leavened breads, due to the higher acidity of natural leavens, also last a lot longer before going stale.

I agree with what Robertson says in the introduction to his book, that naturally leavened breads take only a little more effort than yeasted breads and yield much better results. When I return from our book tour I’ll share some other tips I’ve learned about how to bake naturally leavened bread.

Can you folks in Seattle and Portland suggest some good bakeries to visit? Leave a comment . . .

No Need to Knead

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers held their debut demonstration today thanks to the folks at Good. As you can see from the picture above some serious bakers showed up.

Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler

Teresa Sitz demonstrated her wild yeast no-knead bread. You can read her recipe over on the LABB Facebook page.

Wild yeast breads have a number of advantages over breads made with commercial yeast. Due to higher acidity they keep longer and have a tangy, more complex flavor. Some say they are better for you. I love the magic of creating bread with just flour, water and salt.

Thanks again to Teresa and Mark Stambler for sharing their expertise.

Happy Fornicalia!

Oven at Pompeii. Image: Wikipedia.

Oven at Pompeii. Image: Wikipedia.

Today (or roundabouts) the ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Fornicalia in tribute to Fornax, the goddess of the hearth and baking. And, yes indeed, it’s where we get the word “fornicate” — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. It’s either because prostitutes used to operate out of bread oven-shaped basements in Rome, or because the “bun in the oven” euphemism is a very old one.

I’m celebrating Fornicalia by reading a book by Jeffrey Hamelman Bread:A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes that Mark Stambler, a gifted baker in my neighborhood, introduced me to recently. I’ll review the book in length later once I master the recipes. Until that time, Kelly will be hearing the good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon euphemism for “fornicate” coming out of the kitchen as I  battle with my proofing issues.So, happy Fornicalia! Go warm up your oven and bake something.

Zhengyalov Hats

A Zhengyalov hat (sometimes transliterated as “Jengyalov hat” is an Armenian flat bread stuffed with a surprising set of mostly foraged fillings which, according to this website, include, “spring onions, green garlic, coriander (lat. coriandrum), nettle (lat. urtica), chickweed (lat. cerastium), sorrel, capsella, mint and a special herb called either [sic] carmantyuc (kndzmdzuk).” It’s apparently a popular dish during lent and originates from the Karabakh region.

Our neighbors at Tularosa Farms dropped off two Zhengyalov hats that they found at a local Armenian market. They were quite delicious, though to eat one straight off the fire, as in the video above, must be a real treat.

I wish I could find a recipe in English. Leave a comment if you find one on the interwebs or in a cookbook. In the meantime, I’m just going to watch that video over and over.

More information on Zhengyalov hats and the cuisine of the Karabakh region here.

Bread and Transformation

I’ve not tried Reinhart’s baking method (even though I once had one of his books out of the library), but I like this 2008 Ted talk on the alchemical symbolism of bread. If you’re either a baking or brewing geek like me it’s worth a view.

The baking method I’ve used for over a decade is from Nancy Silverton’s book Breads from the La Brea Bakery. You use a sourdough starter and at least half the flour must be white to get it to leaven properly. I’ve had great results, but would like to someday make a loaf entirely from whole wheat with a sourdough starter. Reinhart, in his book Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor claims to be able to do just that and not end up with a hockey puck. If you’ve tried his method (and gone through his very lengthy directions) leave a comment!