Like the rest of American personhood, I’ve been baking bread during my quarantine.
But that’s not my news. I’ve been baking bread for over fifty years, and I’m on my second bread machine.
As a fledgling cooking teacher in the ’60s, I taught my students how to make dill bread in a coffee can, all the rage back then. That was when coffee meant Folgers, or Hills Bros. or whatever local brand came in a vacuum-packed can that resembled a small fire hydrant.
I haven’t figured how to make the recipe work in an artisan bag with an insulated lining you get with your fair-trade beans at your locally-owned and operated roaster.
No matter, when it comes to poolish and proofing, I’m a boss.
My new news, however, is the discovery of einkorn, Red Fife, Sonora, and a host of other heritage grains.
I’ve been around a bag of yeast or two in my life, so I know the difference between bleached and unbleached flour. I can tell the difference between whole wheat pastry flour and whole wheat with bran.
In my attempts to perfect a boule and baguette, I’ve purchased various clay pans and domes that I guard with my life lest someone wash them with soap.
Soap is to an unglazed clay pot like sand is to the gas tank of your car. You’d be spitting out soap bubbles.
But back to heritage grains.
The bread that you buy in the grocery store is made from flour that has been massaged many times by agronomists cross-breeding for shelf life and yield, among other qualities.
If you compare the DNA from today’s wheat to that of a heritage grain, you’ll see the family resemblance, but you also get the nose and ears from some distant relative you’ve never met.
A heritage grain, on the other hand, has the same DNA as the grain grown thousands of years ago. Untouched by human hands, as it were.
Why does this matter?
To home bakers, it matters a lot. We’ve had a variety of wheat available to us for decades. Hard wheat, high protein wheat, soft wheat used by southern bakers that produces biscuits that rise high as the clouds.
We use cake flours, all-purpose flours, and whole wheat flours, in addition to other grains milled for baking such as rye, buckwheat, and soy.
But when sheltering-in-place forced us to find new ways of entertaining ourselves, many shut-ins discovered the pleasures of baking their own bread.
This caused a run on flour and yeast as severe as the hoarding of toilet paper.
The reason for the shortages wasn’t obvious. Apparently, home bakers account for a small percentage of flour consumption. Suppliers didn’t run out of flour; they ran out of packaging for the small quantities suddenly in demand.
I guess if you wanted 500 pounds of flour, no problem, but don’t bother me with a measly 5 pounds. Or, so the millers were saying.
And when it came to yeast, well, it’s a live thing, and producers had to grow a new batch.
Underground sourdough starters began to show up on doorsteps and tacked to trees.
Five-pound bags of flour that typically sold for $3.99 in a neighborhood market appeared on Craigslist for $25 and up.
The dealings in flour started to resemble the tulip frenzy in the Netherlands in the 1600s.
I bought a bag from a shopper on Craigslist for six bucks and considered it a steal. A neighbor texted that he was going out of the city to snag some flour early in the morning before word got out that they had a new shipment. How much did I want? It felt like a drug deal.
Then a friend said her diabetes was out of control, and she had to get every carb out of her house. Doctor’s orders. Did I want her flour? She’d just bought a batch from a mill in Texas.
Of course, I was all in.
She left half a dozen two-pound bags of assorted flours with names I’d never heard of on my doorstep,
I started using them in my bread recipes with outstanding results. I was sold on artisan flours and mills.
When I used up my store of flours, I went to the website to restock. As an afterthought, I added an item to my order called einkorn.
However, when I made my first loaf of bread with the einkorn, treating it like any other whole wheat flour, I learned a few painful life lessons.
My baking friend who’d first introduced me to the artisan flours had mentioned that it tended to create a dense loaf, so I just balanced it with some white flour.
When I opened my bread machine at the end of the baking cycle, my loaf had a crater the size of the Grand Canyon.
So I did what any savvy baker would do, I looked up a recipe for bread made with einkorn flour.
This time I checked on it early in the process and saw a mess that resembled library glue. Using my years of bread making experience, I tossed in handfuls of flour until the dough took a familiar, satisfying shape and let the machine do its thing.
When the buzzer beeped, I took the finished loaf out of the pan. It landed on my counter with a thud like the rocks that Paul Newman pounded as a convict in Cool Hand Luke.
Now einkorn isn’t the cheapa$$ wheat like your grandmother’s cheapa$$ wheat. Let’s say it’s an investment. I winced at the total when I bought the flour, but, like most small-batch artisan goods, I knew you had to pay for quality.
I justified the hit to my budget by rationalizing that I’ve spent almost nothing on entertainment since my quarantine, so I could afford to splurge on my new habit.
But when I had to throw out two loaves of einkorn bread, my heart and wallet took a hit.
So I did what my father always told me to do in situations like this. When all else fails, read the instructions.
And that, my friends, is what made me the world’s foremost authority on einkorn wheat. Or, at least, a reasonable facsimile.
Einkorn isn’t just artisan wheat, farmed in small batches, and milled under ideal conditions.
Einkorn was first grown almost 10,000 years ago and it’s farmed today as it was then. Analysis of the last meal of Iceman, the mummified body of a man found in the Tyrol and most like murdered around 3400–3100 BCE, revealed he had eaten bread made of einkorn in the hours before his death.
Likely he or his significant other was more adept at baking with the grain than I was, however. He or she would have known that the first batch I made could not be used cup for cup in modern recipes. Nor would they have added more flour to the gluey mess at the beginning of the kneading process.
Heritage grains don’t perform in recipes the way mass-produced flours do. It’s not a hybridized grain to make its use appealing to contemporary bakers and growers. Its yield is less than modern crops, which doesn’t make for an appealing cash crop.
It owes part of its renewed popularity, though, to the fact that it doesn’t have the same type of gluten as modern strains of wheat. Hence, it’s more easily digestible, a boon to people with gluten intolerance problems.
It’s also a highly nutritious grain with a delicious flavor of its own.
Just because it doesn’t behave like our typical wheat doesn’t mean it’s difficult to use. It just needs recipes designed to produce breads, cookies, muffins, and pastries that highlight its unique properties.
You wouldn’t use the same recipe to cook a turkey as you would for a fish, so when baking with einkorn, you just have to lookup an einkorn link or check out a cookbook designed for einkorn recipes.
Typically, you need less flour and more liquid as the grain tends to be thirstier than all-purpose wheat.
When I researched recipes for my einkorn, I came across articles that advocated grinding my own flour. In fact, several mills that sell einkorn offer both flour and wheatberries.
That put me in a purist mood. Should I buy a grain mill? When I looked up prices on the Internet, I realized that, while I bake 98% of the bread I eat, I will use einkorn 3–4% of the time.
I like it very much, but for everyday use, it’s just out of my price range. Add to that a grinder and, frankly, while I like the appeal of freshly ground flour, I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to get my money’s worth.
If I had a problem digesting wheat, I might change my mind. I‘m sold on the idea of connecting with the past by using heritage grains, but I’ll let the mills do the heavy lifting, however, and get my einkorn or other grains ground as flour.
Einkorn and other heritage grains are small, regional crops and may not be available in your area. Here are some mills that sell einkorn online along with a recipe. I don’t benefit from the sale in any way. https://www.gristandtoll.com; https://bartonspringsmill.com; https://jovialfoods.com/recipes/zucchini-bread/
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