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Is traditionally milled flour worth paying extra for?

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 15:03 UK time, Tuesday, 7 June 2011

If you knew there was a traditional grain miller whose flour was available at a local store, at around twice the price of the industrial roller milled flour you buy at the supermarket, would you pay the extra? We’re living in a time where everyone - bankers excluded - is feeling the pinch of a shrunken economy, job uncertainty and higher prices. So, is flour milled the traditional way an essential part of good baking for you or just a fancy pants extravagance for the overpaid?

Milled flour from Golspie Mill, Sutherland, Scotland

Milled flour from Golspie Mill, Sutherland, Scotland. Image credit: Dan Lepard

If you look at the Google map baker Andrew Forbes has put together you’ll see that a fair number of us in Britain live within driving distance of a wind or water mill. These corn mills - ‘corn’ is the traditional word for grain - are typically powered from a running stream, and through a series of complex cogs and wheels driving a large gritty stone that rotates slowly and turns the whole grain into flour. Whereas for roller milling, the way most of our supermarket flour is produced, the oil-rich wheatgerm and bran is usually removed first, and then electrically powered rollers grind the flour at high speed. This means flour is milled quickly contributing to its lower price.

Water mill at Golspie Mill, Sutherland, Scotland.

Water mill at Golspie Mill, Sutherland, Scotland. Image credit: Dan Lepard

Roller milled flour is often imported and sometimes blended from different batches, even though that isn’t mentioned on the label; whereas traditional cornmillers are simply the source: what goes in the top on the stone comes out into the bag you buy. It is possible to buy wholemeal roller milled flour, the sort you typically see at the supermarkets, but the components need to be recombined: the bran and germ ground separately and added back to the white flour.

Now my work makes me the worst person to ask, “Is it worth it?” I’m never short of flour, get given samples often, and to be honest have a deep unbridled respect and admiration for the traditional cornmillers around the world who live relatively meekly and work hard. But I like to think that if my life were to change then spending extra on flour would be a small price to pay for better flavour in my baking.

Weighing flour

Weighing up the options

To be fair there are strengths and arguable weaknesses to both flour types. Stone ground flour always has a darker colour and stronger bran flavour: perfect if you’re making a rustic bread loaf or dark crumbed cake, while pound cakes and scones become an “acquired taste”. The crumb structure becomes coarser and heavier, again good when that’s what you want: a chocolate brownie or a soft cookie benefits from extra density, while sponge cakes often loose lightness and delicacy. White béchamel sauce becomes brown sauce, and shortbread takes on a rich bran flavour paired with a dull beige colour.

In favour of roller milled flour you have the lightest textured breads and cakes that can look superb. As roller milled white flours are especially refined, containing very little bran, they produce very elastic dough compared to stonemilled flour. This tempts many bakers who like to call themselves ‘artisans', as the dough from roller milled flour is very forgiving. Yet to depend entirely on it makes a mockery of their artisan ideals.

Do you use traditionally milled flour in your baking? Or if you know of an artisan flour provider in your area, let us know.

Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Instinctively I would say yes, but when I look back at the short time (6 months) I have been hand making bread, I am ashamed to say that most of it has been with roller milled flour.

    This in the main is due to convenience but also in part education, as there is a perception (be it right or wrong) that breadmaking with this type of flour is more challenging and time consuming. Certainly new bakers such as myself are looking to achieve repeatable success in the first instance and in doing so their repetoires consist of mainly white flour based breads.

    Interestingly I did recently purchase a small batch of stone milled flour from the Pann Mill Watermill in High Wycombe with a view to extending my skills but unfortunately they only mill 3 times a year.

    Also their recipe booklet almost exclusively consists of cake and biscuit recipes so perhaps I am not the only one that finds the prospect of bread making with this type of flour a little intimidating!

  • Comment number 2.

    I live about 200yds from Daniels Mill, a traditional overshoot watermill. This is just outside of Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Wholemeal flour is on sale on site (guided tours also available) and as a keen amateur baker, only buy it occasionally but would say yes, it is worth the extra, as it is a different product. Bread from this flour can be bought from Catherines Bakery in Bridgnorth. Hh.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    I have recently started buying flour locally produced by Glebe Farm, Huntingdon and have been very pleased. It costs £5.20 for 3kg.

    http://www.glebe-flour.co.uk/glebe_farm_html5/aboutus.php

  • Comment number 5.

    Dan Lepard recently spoke at Crop to Crust a conference organized by the Society for the Protection Buildings Mills Section http://www.spab.org.uk/spab-mills/, the Traditional Cornmillers Guild http://www.tcmg.org.uk/ and the Real Bread Campaign http://www.sustainweb.org/realbread/
    that celebrated the role of the traditional mill in the local community as a source of local food, employment, community and renewable energy. Through a series of workshops, demonstrations and networking opportunities traditional millers and bakers shared their passion and conviction that the local mill will again be at the centre of the village community in 21st Century Britain.

    If you want to know more about traditional Windmills and Watermills contact

    Simon Hudson, SPAB, Mills Section Administrator,
    SPAB Mills Section, 37 Spital Square, London E1 6DY

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 6.

    Nino, I hear you, and don’t feel ashamed: roller-milled white flour has a “training wheels” element to it. As that sort of white flour is devoid of bran it makes a dough that is forgivingly elastic and resilient, so you can even be somewhat careless with you baking and still have a pretty good loaf at the end.

    Stone-milled flour often handles as if it has less gluten and extensibility, even if that isn’t strictly the case. The particles of bran and fibre through it - exactly the sort that add to the flavour, colour and make sourdoughs and leavens extra lively - cause the dough mass to tear more readily, both in rising or shaping, and then after in the oven. I approach dough made with stone-milled flour as if it has a personality, and a mischievous one at that. I expect it to behave unpredictably and therefore it doesn’t surprise me when it does. Do try more with it, but expect unusual things to happen.

    I don’t know Pann Mill Watermill; Glebe Farm I know, and they make very good gluten-free flour too I think; and Howard, I will check out Daniels Mill: I already feel I have a connection with it…

    Simon, you’re organisation does such good work I feel very honoured to have had the chance to speak at your event.

    Dan

  • Comment number 7.

    Some of the stone milled flours work and some do not. At the end of the day it's the raw materials tied in with the skill of a miller which will determine the quality and consistency of the flour.
    A modern mill will outperform a stone mill by a large margin in the amount of flour it can produce from a kernel of grain (modern roller mill can extract upto 83%) The flour will also be cleaner as roller mills in the break and scalp process use a scissor action to cut and scrape the endosperm from the grain. A stone mill will grind and crush the bran leading to bran powder in the finished flour. This bran powder has a detrimental effect on the finished product.
    The modern millers have come in for a lot of bashing from the traditional brigade over the last couple of years and a lot of it unwarranted. The modern day flour millers in the UK are a well run, hygienic, lean operation which manufacture massive amounts of flour on a daily basis utilizing some cutting edge technology. They do use some lower protein wheats which are blended into a grist to taylor make a flour for the customer.

  • Comment number 8.

    Directaction: I haven’t noticed much bashing of roller milling industry, perhaps we read different papers?

    I use roller milled flour frequently, in bakeries and in home baking, and in part depend heavily on it for its baking qualities. Especially with roller milled flours developed for specific baking purposes there is a consistency and reliability that small mills can’t match, and of course the expertise you mention.

    Established and successful larger brands can offer protection as they’re slightly more susceptible to consumer complaints via the supermarkets, and with some multiples bringing out “finest” versions of flours they, in turn, work had to make sure that the product has at least some “fine” values. Health and safety processes are likely to be more rigorous in large milling companies simply because of the money it costs to implement them, and the expectations the multiples have towards their suppliers safely.

    However…stonemilled flour has a flavour and character that isn’t matched by roller-milled equivalents. Use both, and have the best.

  • Comment number 9.

    I use flour milled by Yorkshire Organic Millers to produce my sourdoughs. Today i spoke to joe the miller while he was milling my flour, which will be delivered to me tomorrow. I'll bake with that flour on saturday and customers can buy the retail packs too. I pay more for the flour than other flours, this bread costs slighty more than my other breads, but flavour, quality, locality and a sense of baker/miller tradition out weigh the difference in price. The 1.5kg retail bags outsell all the other flours we stock by a mile.

  • Comment number 10.

    Great to read so many positive comments about traditionally milled flour.
    We've been restoring our watermill in West Wales for the last four years. A pretty steep learning curve but hugely satisfying, and we've been really encouraged by the support and interest we've received from everyone who's visited the mill and baked with our flour.
    We only produce wholemeal flours at the moment, but there are traditional millers out there making white flours to satisfy the most discerning bechamel sauce makers! Once our flour dresser is fully restored we hope to learn to do the same. Check out Maud Foster Windmill's white.

  • Comment number 11.

    Apologies for coming so late to this topic. For me, the wonderful smell when opening a bag of traditionally milled flour is worth the price tag. However, taste aside, I would economise in other areas to buy this type of flour because bread is such an essential part of our diet that I prefer to know that I'm buying good quality, and good nutrition. I can live with cheaper washing-up liquid, but not flour.

  • Comment number 12.

    I started making bread years ago due to my partner suffering after eating bread. At the time I struggled until I read a book by Daniel Stevens and I started to use flour from Shiptons. This week, I have had the joy of finding an organic miller, Yorkshire Organic Millers a couple of miles up the road from me. After speaking with Joe, I collected my flour from the farm, with the intention of using it on my next batch.
    I not only make bread at home, but now I know the miller who makes my flour! I can't express the joy at completing this cycle, a boy who grew up in North Manchester, who now lives in North Yorkshire.

 

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