Story by Mary Reilly with Joshua Stumpf | Photographs by Elaine Papa
It’s a warm summer afternoon when I walk into Joshua Stumpf’s home kitchen in Amherst. The air is perfumed with the smell
of fermenting bread dough and a small cloud of flour floats gently in the air. Stumpf’s “day job” is that of baker at Rose32 Bread in Hardwick. His weekend hobby is, well, baking more bread.
I’m visiting him because he is one of a small, but growing, number of home bakers who have embraced getting as close as possible to his ingredients: He mills his own flours, most of them from local grain.
His enthusiasm for fresh flour’s benefits is catching. Stumpf explains that “Working with fresh, local flour is always different. You can’t assume a recipe will behave as written. You need to pay attention to your dough and learn from it.” The flavor, though, makes all the effort worthwhile. He continues, “Every flour has a different characteristic––some are nutty, some sweet, some add a toasty note to the bread.” This enhanced palette of flavors is what he, and many other professional and amateur bakers, are looking for.
Stumpf explains how lucky we Valley residents are when it comes to local grains. “When I first started baking [in Washington State] there was a lot of commercial interest in new and traditional varieties of grain, but most of them were not available to the public. Here there are so many farms growing grain and so many options to try.” He waves his arm to display his “library”––shelves laden with a huge variety of grains purchased at Four Star Farms in Northfield and through the Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA last winter.
The biggest obstacle to milling flour at home can be acquiring the mill itself. This isn’t difficult in practice––home mills are available online and can be found easily. But they can be pricey for a part-time baker ($300 and up for a stone mill). If you aren’t looking to add this piece of equipment to your kitchen yet, see the sidebar on page tktk for information about blender-milling, and local options for sharing mills and finding fresh-milled flour.
Stumpf owns a German-made Hawos mill. The process of milling is simple: He weighs out the grain he needs for his baking day, dumps it into the hopper, sets the desired fineness, and switches the mill on. The thrill of seeing flour spill down the chute is immediate. When I smell the fresh flour, it’s clear, even to my untutored nose, that the resulting bread will be fragrant, nutty, and a pleasure to eat.
Tips and tricks
Fresh-milled flours are a treat to bake with but they do behave a little differently than “store-bought” flour. Stumpf shares these tips for getting the best results:
When baking bread, an autolyse is essential. Autolyse is a French term for the act of letting your freshly mixed dough rest, for 10–45 minutes, to absorb liquid. A freshly mixed sticky doughy mess can often transform into a well-behaved dough just by being left to rest, covered and undisturbed. In general it is best to add your recipe’s salt and yeast after the autolyse is complete.
You must pay close attention to your dough. Stumpf explains that fresh flours are more enzymatically active than the flours we buy in the supermarket or in bulk bins. This can result in a faster rise, softer doughs (due to increased metabolism of certain proteins), and the need to add more or less water.
Every now and then you might get what Stumpf calls “puddles” or “bricks.” Puddles happen when your dough’s enzymatic activity is too high and the structure-forming proteins in the dough are metabolized too quickly. The dough will slump across your board or in your pan. A brick is what happens when you persevere and bake a puddle––bricks make good melba toast, or bird feed.
Mill the flour you need when you need it. It’s much easier to store whole grains than flour. Weigh or measure out the portion a recipe calls for and mill it then. It’s best to mill small quantities to avoid overheating (especially if you use the Vitamix method in the sidebar).
Experiment with your own custom grain blends. One of the benefits to milling your own is that you may customize the resulting flour to match your needs. If you’re making a piecrust, perhaps a combination of spelt and soft winter wheat might be the right choice; but for a hearty country-style loaf, you may turn to Zorro, red lammas, and a touch of rye. Have fun; even a “failed” experiment usually tastes pretty good.
Want more whole-grain goodness? Read on!