Grains, ancient and modern

by Laurie Gorton
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Some of the most increasingly popular non-wheat flours are classified as ancient grains. This list includes flours milled from amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff, most of which are gluten-free and considered whole grain.  Each offers unique flavors and textures.

“These flours are great for their protein and mineral qualities,” said Pete Asta, R&D manager, Ardent Mills. “If gluten-free is not the goal for the end product, we encourage our customers to add just 5 to 10% of any of these ancient grain flours to conventional bakery items, including bread, cookies and crackers, to make multigrain claims and boost nutritional profiles.” Bakers can even flag the product as “made with ancient grains,” he suggested.

Mr. Asta explained that when blending these flours with wheat flour, water addition might need to be increased because they tend to hold more water than wheat flour. Bake times might also be a bit longer.

“Because these flours typically do not contain gluten, when added to conventional bakery recipes, mix times might be shorter,” he added. “It is possible that a stronger flour or additional gluten is needed to maintain product quality.”

When bakers work with ancient grains, they will want to identify the end application and desired characteristics. “The baker can easily manipulate the flavor, texture, color, appearance and nutrition of their finished products by mixing and matching ancient grain flours,” said Susan Kay, manager, product applications, Bay State Milling Co. “For instance, we found when teff flour is used in a sourdough, the resulting aroma and flavor notes are those of dark roasted malt or cocoa.”  

One of the newest grains to enter the wheat-free flour scene is canary seed, which until recently was cultivated exclusively for feeding birds. In early January, canary seed was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in human food, receiving Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status. It was also approved under Health Canada’s “novel food” rules, which require pre-market safety evaluation, as does FDA’s GRAS designation. Canary seed is a crop primarily cultivated in Canada.

“With the achievement of this milestone, we’re hopeful that the food industry and consumers will begin to adopt this nutritious, high-protein, gluten-free grain,” said David Nobbs, chair of the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan. “Up until now, production potential has been limited by the size of the market for birdseed.”

Canary seed flour can be used to make bread, cookies, cereals and pastas. Whole seeds can be added to nutrition bars and sprinkled on buns in place of sesame seeds. While canary seed is gluten-free, those individuals with a food allergy to wheat may also be allergic to a protein in canary seed. Health Canada recommended that foods containing canary seed be labeled with a statement such as “This product contains canary seed, which may not be suitable for people with a wheat allergy.”

There are many non-wheat flour options available to bakers to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Bakers must never forget, however, that nothing compares to conventional wheat flour in performance because gluten uniquely provides doughs with a balance of elasticity and extensibility that no other single grain can match. When selecting and blending flours, be creative and focus on ingredient functionality. It may take three or four different ingredients to get to the desired result. But your consumers will thank you, even the highly selective millennials.
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