The topic of conversation today in the grain-based food business is the price of commodities — particularly flour. Never-before-seen prices for wheat and flour are causing bakers to rethink how they use and purchase flour.“Never”is a word I hesitate to use, but it is entirely appropriate in this situation.

If your bakery makes terrific-looking sub rolls, then you have typically purchased high-quality flour made from spring wheat. Spring wheat flour supplies the volume and texture your customers demand in the finished product. It also supplies the process tolerance you want in your production line. But, today in the world of flour buying, things have changed. As a bakery manager you must change the way you look at the world.

You cannot give up volume and texture on your finished product, but do you really need the amount of processing tolerance you are paying for? What about other ways to achieve that processing tolerance? So, you have always used 100% spring wheat. When you think about changing, the fear of the unknown starts to make you concerned, anxious and nervous about making changes. Change is the only thing certain on a given day, but it’s the thing many fear most.

So, how do you go about looking at flour changes in your bakery? A ratio review is one approach. If you
typically use 100% spring flour, then look at the blends of 75% spring/25% winter, 50% spring/50% winter, 25% spring/75% winter and finally look at 100% winter. You might think I’m crazy for suggesting 100% winter for a bakery that typically uses 100% spring. Well maybe I am, but drastic times require drastic measures. If you take a conservative approach, you will likely achieve modest savings in your flour costs. Push your comfort zone. Test your product to the point of failure. Then work to bring the product quality back to the point of acceptable. Painful approach? Yes. Out of your comfort zone? Definitely! Worth it? Only you will be able to answer that question in the end.

You do not need to travel the road of getting more from less alone. Many suppliers, both flour and ingredient, are waiting in the wings to help you. Do not assume that using more expensive ingredients is cost prohibitive. Do not let “sticker shock” on the cost per pound stop you from looking at a new ingredient such as an enzyme blend, gluten enhancer or DATEM. Be sure to put pencil to paper and determine possible savings in your bowl costs.
And what about the baker who uses a winter wheat blend? Well, it is not likely you are using a winter/spring blend to boost your absorption this year. It just doesn’t pay today. But what about a hard winter/soft wheat blend? Again, it may sound crazy, but hear me out.

Over the years, I have learned many things from my grain-trading friends. Watching the movement of wheat, where do the rail lines move and what type of wheat (spring, winter, soft, hard, etc.) is moving? Did I forget to mention the effect of price on the movement of that wheat? Oh yes, there is a huge differential between spring and winter. But have you stopped to notice the differential between soft and hard? “Not my problem,” you say. “I don’t purchase soft wheat — well at least not intentionally.” Well think again. If there is money to be made in the world of grain trading, then you, as a customer, need to be aware how it might affect you.

The standard for grade No. 2 hard winter wheat allows 5% wheat of other classes. So today, is it likely that “wheat of other classes” is soft? And if 5% is allowed, what level is really in there before an inspector notices? My contact tells me that it is likely more than 5%. Is it 7%? Or 10%? Your first comment may be “they can’t do that!” But the answer is that they likely are doing it, and you may already be using the resulting flour in your products. But are you getting the price break you should be if your wheat blend contains soft wheat?

Ask the question. Do the testing. Test as close to pure samples of soft spring and winter wheat flour as possible so that you can do the blending in your lab/bakery. This will allow you to determine what is functionally and economically best suited for your bakery, your product quality and your consumer.