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A person holding a handful of grains from a large orange bucket.
Food & Drink

A Look Inside the Grain Renaissance

alternatives to conventional modern flours

It took a pandemic and stay at home orders for me to finally attempt breadmaking, and apparently, I wasn’t alone in that endeavor.  Google reported an uptick in people searching for “bread,” there were flour and yeast shortages across the country, and according to Adweek, King Arthur’s Flour sales jumped more than 2,000% during March.  It is unclear what exactly sparked the baking frenzy – perhaps it was the free time that had been thrusted upon many of us, or the fact that filling our homes with the scent of freshly baked bread was comforting. Regardless of the cause, Americans were channeling that energy into “stress baking” and in doing so, stumbled upon alternatives to conventional modern flours – heritage and ancient grains.

“We had a small retail presence before COVID,” explains Fran Fischer, owner of Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Most of their business came from local bakeries and restaurants who were already familiar with the benefits of working with heritage and ancient grains. But when COVID hit and flour became scarce, home bakers across the country, many of whom were first time buyers, were introduced to the unique products that Castle Valley Mill has in stock.

Generally, they only buy local grains from nearby farms, but the demand for flour was so high, the Fischer’s had to start sourcing from farms elsewhere. “We purchased 42,000 pounds of Redeemer wheat from Canada and we sold out within a month,” says Fischer. 

Redeemer wheat is considered a heritage grain which, simply put, means it’s too old to be a mass market grain but it’s not old enough to be considered an ancient grain. What sets heritage grains and ancient grains apart from modern grains is that they are not genetically altered to meet mass market demands. As a result, heritage and ancient grains tend to be more nutritious, studies have shown that these grains have a simpler gluten structure making them easier to digest, and have more flavor. 

Though the supply chain of flour has stabilized, interest in Castle Valley Mill’s other products have steadily increased. In addition to heritage grains like the Redeemer wheat, they also offer ancient grains; einkorn, the oldest wheat variety known to scientists; spelt, a flavorful and protein-rich alternative that’s perfect for pastry baking; emmer, a farro variety that can be used as a flour or cooked like a whole grain; and rye, a grain popular for breadmaking, brewing and distilling. 

"...I have never baked better loaves in my brief career as a pandemic baker."

According to Fischer, most home bakers who are now buying from Castle Valley Mill’s ancient grain line are adding them to hard wheats to make bread – I am among this group and I must admit that I have never baked better loaves in my brief career as a pandemic baker. My einkorn sourdough came out with a deeply nutty flavor and turned a beautiful orange hue thanks to the grain’s carotenoid properties, an antioxidant that’s often found in carrots, kale, squash and sweet potatoes. Meanwhile, my loaf of spelt sourdough was lighter in color and in texture and had a sweet earthiness to it. 

“People are becoming more interested in where their food comes from, how it’s grown and what’s in it,” says Fischer. Castle Valley Mill which has a history that dates back to the 1700s, is not only using grains from the past, but they’re using equipment and techniques from the past as well. Much of the mill is constructed from restored machines from the 1800’s, some are early 1900’s, and some pieces are modern – there are even components that are 3D printed! “We are honoring the ingenuity of the past and maintaining it – keeping it going – keeping the mill from deteriorating,” says Fischer. “We are a family run business working with local farms, but if the food wasn’t good, none of this would matter. This food is amazing. It hasn’t been changed in any way. It’s got all of its vitamins and nutrients still in it. It’s got all the flavor. It’s a beautiful and exciting experience to try them!”

Don’t call it a comeback

The resurgence of ancient grains started long before COVID-19, but Alex Bois, owner of Lost Bread Co. in Philadelphia, doesn’t want you to think of it as a “comeback” so to say. “I’ve always kind of viewed it as less about reviving old grains and more about being the best possible stewards that we can of land and culture,” says Bois. “With these so-called ancient grains, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding them and what really constitutes an ancient grain and a modern one. We are less interested in the nuances of that debate and more interested in exploring the diversity of grains, the regionally important grains available to us, and how we can create a healthy agricultural system.” 

Bois and his team aren’t rediscovering “lost bread” in a literal sense. The name Lost Bread refers to the French dish Pain Perdu, or what we know of as French Toast. The idea of taking something old, not letting it go to waste, and using it in an innovative way that’s delicious, is at the core of Lost Bread’s mission.

These grains were never dead and gone. Lost Bread is working with grains that farmers have already been growing in the Mid-Atlantic region. These grains already had historical ties to the area, so if anything, what’s being revived is the public’s interest in these local crops. Think of it as creating a local level supply chain that reintroduces people to grains that have been part of our food system for as long as we’ve been cultivating these crops here. The consumption of this food benefits everyone involved, from the farmers to consumers who get to enjoy a local product that’s culturally significant and also nutritious. “We’re really interested in the idea of how we can feed people efficiently and deliciously and nutritiously all at once with grains that are historically important to this area,” says Bois.  

“Grain is the most overlooked ingredient of this industry as a whole,” says Lex Ridgeway, Lost Bread Co.’s pastry chef. “There’s this whole flavor complex to each of these grains that no one really thinks about it. There are so many different flavor profiles and qualities to each of these grains that it is really exciting but overlooked at the same time.”

grains in pastry applications

As a pastry chef, Ridgeway’s mission is to use these grains in pastry applications to make interesting, thoughtful and nutritious pastries. Each of these grains have different qualities, so it took a lot of time and trial and error for Ridgeway to figure out how to bring these unique qualities to life in her pastries. “It was interesting learning how to use these grains in addition to the fact they were freshly milled so you had to use them differently than how you’d use something that’s been sitting on a grocery store shelf for a while,” says Ridgeway, touching on the point that Lost Bread mills a lot of the grains they use in house.

Her favorite grain to make pastries with is spelt, which is a softer grain with less capacity for gluten strength despite it being a wheat variety. “It also has this nutty, grassy, earthy quality to it,” says Ridgeway.

Despite having a background in pastry, Ridgeway didn’t have much experience with bread or ancient grains until joining the Lost Bread team. Before jumping into pastries, Ridgeway had to become experienced with breadmaking and how to work with different grain varieties. “Everyone throws bread and pastries together, but they are so different,” says Ridgeway. “There are so many core rules for bread that don’t apply to pastry. Bread behaves differently due to a variety of conditions like hydration, how much it needs to be worked, how long it needs to rise, and how what kinds of grains you are using will impact the final product.”

the magic of bread

To make bread, all you need are four basic ingredients: flour, salt, water and a leavening agent, like active yeast or perhaps a sourdough starter. It seems simple enough, but the chemistry involved in breadmaking is borderline alchemy. So much of the magic of bread happens on a molecular level. Kneading the dough strengthens the gluten proteins of the flour, the starchy sugars feed the yeast which releases carbon dioxide during fermentation which creates bubbles in the dough and allows the bread to rise before its baked.

Variable factors like folding and kneading techniques, along with the conditions of your kitchen at the time you start making the dough can greatly impact the final result. “You have to work with the dough, the dough doesn’t work so much with you,” says Ridgeway. “Every single thing you do to the dough from the ingredients to the mixing to the fermentation to the shaping to the baking. Every single thing you do to it matters and it’s cool to see the process from start to finish. There’s a lot of problem solving.”

On its surface grain may seem like a simple ingredient but it’s definitely one you shouldn’t overlook. Because even the simplest ingredients, when sourced mindfully and used fresh, can bring flavor and depth to any dish.

Written By Kae Lani Palmisano Food Writer & TV Host Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.