Attack on milling as well as wheat

by Morton Sosland
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In line with bread-bashing and wheat-bashing that has occurred this year in a number of publications, there is now mill-bashing in a recent Sunday magazine article in The New York Times. Like so many of other pieces, the Sunday Times article, by Ferris Jahr, reflects a yearning for what is said to be the vanished quality of flour milled before steel roller mills replaced stone grinding in the 19th century. The “evil” the article attributes to milling is aligned with the damage done to wheat breeding, which it says aims at producing grain suited to the needs of mills producing flour lacking nutrients, taste and physical character that prevailed in a glorious ancient time.

Framed as an attack on industrial production blamed for destroying both the taste and nutritional value of wheat, the article relies on the views of its author and a single individual, Stephen Jones, who conceived and now directs something called the Bread Lab in western Washington. Mr. Jones aims to restore what he thinks are old qualities of wheat, with milling to produce a different whole wheat flour revolutionizing milling and baking. Not an advocate of returning to stone grinding, Mr. Jones would continue using steel roller milling, but would have the resultant whole wheat flour reflect grinding the wheat into flour without separation of bran or germ constituents.

It was only a short time ago that this page addressed the argument as to whether whole wheat flour may be properly named if it contains a re-mix of the major constituents of wheat or should reflect total grind. Having come down strongly on the side of making whole wheat flour in the most economical and efficient way, nothing in this new piece adds reality to the wrong-headed view of how to make the best whole wheat flour.

Hardly anything is more outrageous in the article than the concept that modern milling sacrifices (yes, that word) much of the original grain’s flavor, nutrition and novelty. It cites enrichment of flour almost as good evidence of this bad result. Pressure by both millers and “bread factories” was blamed for forcing wheat breeders “to make wheat more and more amenable” as well as to develop flour that could be transported across the country without worrying about shelf life. Local milling of flour is praised as desirable.

The article reveals that Mr. Jones is engaged in the commercial development of his Wheat Lab project. He has persuaded a few western Washington wheat growers to grow a purple-colored variety that is claimed to have higher levels of nutrients like iron while imbuing bread made from its flour with “maltiness, spiced caramel — a whole palate of flavors people would never expect.” His wheat lines are released for use by growers anywhere in the nation, but one suspects reception will be cool until something is proven and said about yield. Neglecting what a farmer might receive as benefits from producing wheat with the odd characteristics Mr. Jones relates is as farfetched as anything in the article.

The process by which Mr. Jones will mill his wheat, hopefully on a mill of commercial size, is described along with the process he plans, not for making regular bread from his exotic flour, but for baking sourdough loaves. Having Chipotle, the Mexican food chain, as a partner on his project introduces a commercial element that is lacking from Mr. Jones’ perception of what is wrong with present-day milling and baking. In declaring that a void exists in wheat milling and baking, his statements about how he sees the situation evolving does reflect a void, but in his absence of sensible thinking about the industry that he seeks to castigate. This is the industry that has done a better job than any other in providing millions and millions of people in the United States and elsewhere with tasty, nutritious food at a volume and a cost everyone enjoys.
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