For decades, wheat varieties in America were bred primarily to maximize yields and improve disease resistance. But today craft bakers across the country are reaping the benefits of the steadily growing availability of heritage and modern wheats that are bred primarily for flavor and function. Craft bakers are working with what they can find to enhance the flavor of these breads, often relying on a blend of flours to achieve optimum results.

Bags of heritage Turkey Red wheat from central Kansas arrive at Ibis Bakery in Kansas City, Missouri, where the whole grains are milled on a 40-inch granite stone mill located inside Messenger Cafe, a 50/50 partnership between Ibis Bakery and Messenger Coffee Co. Just a month after opening in October 2017, Ibis already was milling 1,500 pounds of flour a week, transforming the freshly milled grain into beautiful 2-pound loaves of country, seeded and sesame breads and rich pastries such as kouign amann and sticky buns.

Chris Matsch, who owns Ibis Bakery with his wife, Kate, says their goal is to mill “100 percent of our flour. We’re using fresh mill for our bread program.”

Ibis Bakery works with local farmers in Kansas and Missouri, including 180 Farms in Sweet Springs, Missouri, an egg and meat producer committed to pasture-raised and antibiotic-free products. The farm grows some wheat for Ibis including Warthog and Appalachian White hard winter wheat. “We are interested in developing relationships with local farms instead of just consuming ingredients,” Matsch says. “We are hoping to participate in a localized farm economy.”

The scene at Messenger Cafe is similar to what is happening at dozens of retail bakeries across the country. Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recently joined the growing number of prominent retail and intermediate wholesale bakeries milling flour with its own stone mill. Zingerman’s brought in a 26-inch mill from Vermont-based New American Stone Mills to mill no more than 150 pounds of flour per week (Zingerman’s Bakehouse uses 1.5 million to 2 million pounds of white flour a year).

“It’s a humble start. The new breads we are creating are made with freshly milled whole grains and typically a combination of them. They are not all 100% freshly milled, but that’s where we are going,” said Frank Carollo, managing partner for Zingerman’s Bakehouse. “We don’t want to diminish what we’ve done in 25 years. But more new things will be featuring a combination of grains and freshly milled flours. Now we are buying the berries of local grains, milling daily and injecting freshly milled flours into all sorts of recipes. The flavor is out of this world.”

The Bakehouse converted to freshly milled Michigan-grown soft white wheat in its famous Funky Chunky Dark Chocolate cookies, and not a single customer complained. “Nobody has said a thing with our chocolate chip cookie. We have found better texture, better finish and a cookie that retains moisture better.”

Driving the movement

Flavor is quite simply playing a more prominent role in the world of craft bread today, explained Jan Schat, a professional bread consultant and former Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie champion for The Bread Bakers Guild of America’s Team USA.

There are more specialty ingredients and local grains for bakers to work with, and although some can get expensive, bakers are excited by the possibilities. Schat has baked breads that include a low percentage (10%) of a single varietal whole grain flour with wonderful results. He’s done so in classics like French baguettes, resulting in “phenomenal” flavors.

“Small additions of single varietals into liquid levains or poolish bring out interesting flavors. I find that to be exciting,” Schat says. “To me, it’s nice if you can transition people into better flavor and nutrition. It’s a world of flavor that is definitely worth pursuing.”

At the 2018 Wheatstalk organized by The Bread Bakers Guild of America, Schat demonstrated techniques for making breads with a variety of local wheats and whole grains. One challenge addressed in the class was that local wheat flours can be far more expensive, causing the final product to run higher in price than some customers may be willing to pay. Schat offered a suggestion: “I can use 10% of the expensive wheat, and I still get incredible flavor.”

Blending flours like a wine maker

For Josey Baker, who runs Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco, blending flours is now standard practice to achieve the desired results of making breads with complex flavors that appeal to an ever-growing fan base of Bay Area bread lovers.

Baker and his small team of bread bakers and pizza makers specialize in freshly milled whole grain sourdough as the backbone of their operation at The Mill, a bakery cafe they helped open in 2013 with Four Barrel Coffee. They stone mill all flours in the bakery daily and bake bread and pizza seven days a week. One of the shining stars is a bread called Red, White + Rye, which is made with red and white wheat flours and a small percentage of whole rye flour. The 1½ pound loaves sell for $6.99 apiece.

“Basically, all of our breads are made from blends of flours,” says Baker, who arrived on the San Francisco scene in 2005 after growing up in Vermont. “I blend for function, using as few flours as possible. What I want to make is delicious bread in as affordable way as possible.”

Bread shoppers care about transparency, variety, growing practices and other factors, similar to the progressions that have occurred in craft beer, wine and coffee.

“People care about that stuff more than ever,” Baker says. “I’ll be curious to see what happens over the next five to 10 years. What’s happening now in bread is really remarkable.”

Similar developments are happening across the country. Under the direction of head baker and partner Avery Ruzicka, Manresa Bread in Los Gatos, California, strives to source the best artisanal products available, from grains and cereals to produce and dairy, creating their best interpretation of classic bread and pastries using time-honored techniques, fermentation processes and baking traditions. Manresa Bread mills more than 90% of its flours in-house, sourcing organic grains from Camas Country Mill, Coke Farms and Blue Bird Grains. Having the ability to mill whole grain flour allows Manresa Bread to make products with deeper flavor, Ruzicka says. She uses about five local grains from within about a 100-mile radius. These include emmer, Kamut, corn, white wheat (Blanca Grande), red wheat (Patron), and rye.

Publican Quality Bread in Chicago works in partnership directly with Spence Farm, a biodynamic farm that raises about 10 acres of heritage wheat and some rye outside of Chicago. Publican’s head baker Greg Wade bakes his bread using ethically sourced ingredients from Spence Farm. Winner of the 2019 James Beard Award honoring the nation’s Outstanding Baker, Wade works with multiple varieties of wheat, rye and oats. They are a founding member of the Artisan Grain Collaborative in Chicago, a group whose reach has now spread through most of the Midwest. It is a group of farmers, bakers, millers, plant breeders and university extensions, all working together to create a stronger regional grain system.

“We are constantly testing new varieties over different soil types and climate conditions, performing bake and flavor tests among other programs with the end goal of more grain being grown and used in all culinary and even beverage applications,” Wade says. “By working together with everyone in the grain value chain, we are able to overcome a lot of hurdles that most of us wouldn’t be able to accomplish working alone.”

Preserving the wholesomeness of wheat

Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans actively preserves the wholesome properties of wheat by stone milling all whole grain flours in-house, providing high-quality product while preserving the dietary quality of whole grains like wheat, corn, rye and rice. Bellegarde is a wholesale bakery providing fresh flour and bread to more than 100 restaurants and markets in Louisiana.

“Within 48 hours of milling, our grains become bread headed out the door to customers. Because we know who grew, harvested, shipped and milled our flours, we have the special advantage of knowing the ins and outs of our products that would not be possible without our own mill,” says Morgan Angelle, one of Bellegarde’s head bakers.