Want to Make Bread? Get a Scale

Liquid measuring cup on left, dry on right. Get a scale for baking.

The current issue of Cooks Illustrated Magazine has an interesting test of the accuracy of liquid versus dry measuring cups. When measuring flour, the dry measuring cup was up to 13% off when compared to a scale. The liquid measuring cup was even worse–26% off.  When baking bread, even 13% could be the difference between a decent loaf and a hockey puck.

Surprisingly, measuring water wasn’t much better, even with the liquid cup, which was 10% off. The dry measuring cup was 23% off when measuring water. I’ve always felt a bit silly scaling water, but now I can see its importance.

For bread baking, I’ve been using an electronic scale for many years now and have had reasonably consistent results. Scaling helps me be consistent. Now if only our kitchen didn’t swing between broiling hot and drafty…
 

Three Days of Earth Oven Building Compressed Into a Short Video

We just finished a three day earth oven workshop taught by Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher. Many thanks to all who participated: Laurie, Brian, Leslie, Jenny and Connie.We’ve got to let the oven dry for a few weeks before we put on the final coat. But it’s basically finished. The base is made with traditional adobe bricks and the dome is cob.

Don’t worry, we’ll explain the process in future blog posts. Right now we’re too exhausted to write about it. In the meantime, please enjoy our highly compressed video version of the past three days.

Rules for Eating Wheat

Antebellum-Style Graham Wheat Flour from the Anson Mills website

Much of the bad press surrounding wheat in recent years is well deserved. Wheat and grain allergies may be some of the most common allergies known to medicine. I strongly suspect that the cause for these allergies may be in the types of wheat we’re growing.

Let’s start with some history. Humans have eaten and tinkered with grain genetics for at least 30,000 years, well before the development of what we now call “agriculture”.  But with each change in wheat genetics came new, unexpected outcomes. Those changes greatly accelerated in the last one hundred and fifty years.

  • In the 19th century farmers moved away from growing soft wheat varieties and shifted to hard wheat, which performs better in mechanized roller mills. 
  • In the mid 20th century Norman Borlaug launched the green revolution by developing new wheat varieties.
  • And now, Monsanto and Bill Gates are anxious to bring us genetically modified wheat. 

The problem? When you make radical changes to a complex system such as wheat genetics you risk unforeseen consequences, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans”. The unforeseen consequences may be the large percentage of the population with wheat allergies. I’ll admit that this is a hunch of mine not based on any peer reviewed study. But scientists have identified at least 27 potential allergens in modern wheat and researchers are looking at simpler forms of ancient wheat such as Einkorn to see if they have fewer allergens.

So what can we do to prevent wheat based black swans? I think we need a wheat equivalent of Michael Pollan’s food rules, so here it goes:

  • Acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the great complexity of nature. Thus, we should be conservative when it comes to plant breeding. Saving seed and developing local varieties are a good thing. Genetic modification is probably a huge risk. 
  • Breed wheat for flavor and disease resistance not shipability and ease of mechanical harvesting.
  • Our markets should have at least as many flour varieties as flavors of soda.
  • We should be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality flour.
    • Eat whole grains rather than refined grains whenever possible. The nutrients and substances we remove from whole grains to make refined white flour may contain substances that prevent allergic reactions.
    • Support local farmers who are growing older forms of grain (soft wheat such as Sonora and ancient wheat such as Einkorn). If you can’t find something local, mail order your flour. 
    • Consider growing grain at home as part of a rotational strategy in your garden. See Lawns to Loaves for inspiration.

    One source for interesting flour by mail order:

    Anson Mills

    If any of you know of other sources for heritage flours (either brick and mortar or mail order) please leave a comment.

    Is Modern Wheat Killing Us?

    Wheat field, Froid, Montana, 1941. (Library of Congress image)

    It’s been a bad decade for grains. Between publicity about grain allergies and fads such as the Atkins and paleo diets, a lot of people are shunning wheat, rye and barley. At a panel discussion this weekend sponsored by Common Grains I heard Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills make some compelling arguments that will forever change the way I see grain. It was, no exaggeration here, a paradigm shifting discussion. Some of the questions Spiller and Roberts raised:

    • Could modern hard wheat varieties, bred for the convenience of industrial agriculture, have the unintended consequence of increasing allergic reactions? Are older varieties healthier for us?
    • What have we lost in terms of flavor when we decreased the diversity of grain varieties?
    • Is sourdough bread a pro-biotic food? Could some of the allergy problems associated with bread be related to commercial yeast strains and the way commercial yeast processes sugar?

    I’ll spend the rest of this week taking a deeper look at these issues, including some practical suggestions about what we can do in our kitchens and gardens to bring back heritage grains.

    A Sonora and Kamut Wheat Field in Los Angeles County!

    Sonora wheat

    The Los Angeles Bread Bakers, of which I’m a co-founder along with Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler, have teamed with farmer Andrea Crawford, of Kenter Canyon Farms, to plant what I think may be the first wheat field in Los Angeles County in many years.

    Wheat used to be widely grown here, especially Sonora wheat, a drought tolerant variety originally bought to the Southwest by the Spanish. Along with Sonora, we planted an ancient wheat variety called Khorasan, better known under the trade name Kamut. An American airman obtained Kamut from a street vendor in Cairo in 1949. Researchers are studying ancient wheats like Kamut to see if people with wheat allergies can tolerate them better. We purchased both varieties (certified organic) from the Sustainable Seed Company.

    Discing the field

    The field was prepared by discing it with a tractor. We sowed the wheat by hand and then covered it temporarily with shade cloth to keep the birds out until the seeds germinate. The seeds were watered in with an overhead sprinkler, but the plan is to pray for rain. If it turns out to be a dry year, monthly waterings will be necessary.

    Mark, Andrea and Nathan sowing.

    Andrea plans on sowing in some red poppies to help keep the weeds down. If all goes well, a harvest party (get ready to thresh and winnow!) will take place when the grains mature. Sign up for the LA Bread Bakers Meetup (free to join) to find out when the harvest fest will take place.

    The wheat field covered with shade cloth.

    Speaking for the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, we’re really excited to be a part of this agricultural experiment. A big thanks goes out to Andrea and her son Nathan who have made this possible. We’ll post some updates on the blog as the field progresses.

    Note: A quick clarification because we’ve had some questions. The poppies that Andrea plans to plant are not Somniferum poppies (that’s a different kind of cash crop!). They are red poppies, also called Flanders poppies, Papaver rhoeas.