When we buy flour, or virtually any dry powdered product, it has passed through a process of milling or grinding to make it a powder - possibly both. In this article, I'm going to explain what commonly happens to grain to make it into flour. There is a basic understanding of some processes amongst consumers, but a great deal of misinformation also.
While there is language, there will be interpretation, and I'm pretty sure there will be different interpretations of my definitions here. But I'll bravely continue into the realm of definition, if only to try to illustrate a point.
Milling involves crushing. Flour is most commonly milled in a roller mill, which usually means grain passing through a series of pairs of steel rollers - which may be fluted or flat, progressively crushing the grain more finely as the rollers are positioned closer together. As the grain passes through the rollers, larger particles are removed and separated which won't mill - the chaff, the bran and so on - so you end up with lots of different things along the way to the fine white flour at the end.
Another common milling setup is called hammer milling, which also crushes grain, but does not separate it out like a roller mill does. The hammer milling action can also be used to create 'flakes'. Often, hammer milling is used in conjunction with roller milling.
Grinding is all about shearing the grain, rather than crushing it like a mill does. Typically, a stone ground flour has been ground down by heavy stones which rotate against each other - one is stationary and the other spins. Any separation of bran is done via a later process of sifting, as the grinding of grain tends to create many different sized particles which require 'grading' via a series of mesh sifters.
Which method is better?
I'm often told that stone grinding preserves more nutrient than roller milling, and so it is better to use stone ground flour. Unfortunately, this simplistic understanding is both true and false. A stone mill, when well maintained and used by a master miller, has the potential to create beautiful, hearty flours. If these flours are transported efficiently and stored properly, they will make beautiful bread too.
However, if the mill is not well maintained, or the miller is not well trained, the potential to destroy or damage the grain is very high indeed. I have seen a great deal of rancid stone ground flour in my time. I have also seen some pretty awful flour come out of stone mills.
Wholemeal vs Wholegrain
If you buy 'wholemeal' flour derived from a roller milling process, it is most likely to actually be white flour with flaked bran added back in. This is not particularly nutritious, or even honest. Legally, though, wholemeal flour must contain a certain percentage of fibre, and that's all a miller has to do - add or maintain that percentage. The same legal definition applies to bread as well. Wholemeal flours do contain more fibre than white flours.
Wholegrain flours are different - they are called wholegrain because they contain the whole grain - only the chaff is removed, which is the outermost husk of the wheat grain. If your flour is wholegrain, then that's what it is. It contains the bran, the pollard (the oily part of wheat), and the endosperm.
The prevailing wisdom has been that wholegrain flours are better for you. Certainly, they contain more nutrients. If they have been properly milled and handled, those nutrients may still be intact when you use the flour. If not, or if the flour has been on the shelf for a while, I doubt there will be much nutritional benefit available, and indeed, there is a real chance that rancidity may be present. If you are not sure, smell the flour. If it is rancid, you will smell something acrid - which is a strong, chemical smell.
Another advantage of wholemeal and wholegrain flours is their Glycemic Index is lower. This means that they are absorbed by the bloodstream more slowly, and so do not cause 'spikes' in blood sugar levels. This has become quite important, particularly with the onset of type two diabetes, and indeed in many other areas of health maintenance.
Consistency in milling
Just as the artisan baker needs to work with quite a few variables in order to create a reasonably consistent loaf of bread, so too does the miller. Stone milling is tricky because the stones themselves heat and cool very slowly, as they usually have a large thermal mass. This leads to changes throughout the milling cycle - when the stones are hot, they expand slightly, and while they are cold they are smaller. The miller has to be on top of things like this all the time, or their flour will suffer. But a skilled miller, like a skilled baker, can moderate the variables to produce a consistent product.
Flour milled in either a roller or hammer mill is going to be pretty consistent, as the technology removes reliance on skill to a certain extent. Many flours come from a combination of processes too, as a modern mill is more like a production line than a set process. The miller can create any number of products by using the milling processes in different combinations - there will be, for example, a steaming capability, as well as most likely a roaster for malting, and a hammer mill for flaking - all within the one production line. So they might make flour, breakfast cereal and chicken pellets all in the one mill.
These days, I use roller milled flour for white breads, hammer milled flour for wholegrain breads (hammer milling gives you a pretty consistent whole grain product, in many ways better than stone milled flour) and occasionally stone ground flours for specialty breads using khorosan (kamut) or spelt.
Organic vs Conventional flour - or is it $ vs love?
This is another area where this fool has trodden more than once, and over time has had a slight change of heart as a result. All the usual things apply in regards to organics - good for the earth, good for you an so on. But there is more to this story and I guess I have to venture there because it seems very few others will.
Once upon a time, I was a passionate advocate for all things organic. In theory, I still am. However, here in Australia we have made an industry based around certification, and to pay everybody to do their certification process to every stage of food production, we have chosen a percentage model.
This has meant that, as consumers, we pay percentage upon percentage - a percentage at the farm, a percentage at the transport and warehouse, a percentage at the processor, and occasionally a percentage at the retailer. So in twenty five years of being part of the organic food chain, I have seen prices rise in comparison to conventional produce, where we all expected them to fall as volumes and economies of scale kicked in.
You will find that at the supermarket there are indeed organic products which are price competitive with regular products, but these are almost always from an overseas source, where they have gone about the certification process differently - and of course may well also have third world labour costs to help keep prices down.
Meanwhile, the conventional farming industry - and in particular grain growers, as well as farm supply industries - have grown more environmentally aware. For one thing, pesticides have become smarter and less toxic. Biological control has become more widespread. Crop rotation - particularly on smaller farms - has become more well thought out. Fertilisers these days are more about creating soil life, rather than supplying the Nitrogen/Phosphorus/Potassium nutrient mix which was once standard.
Inversely, in order to supply larger and larger markets, the organic industry has grown to look more like the conventional one.
So there is a bit of a convergence going on. Organic has become more about marketing than production and environmentally sustainable farming. The corporation has largely ousted the little guy - and while that might be a good thing, it will ultimately stifle innovation and truly environmental farming.
Having said that, i would argue that with all its weaknesses, the organic movement has done much good, and still has good to do. But this ever widening supermarket expectation of 'organic' everything is perpetrating another unsustainable situation. As the Who said (for those young 'uns, founding fathers of pre punk): 'Meet the new boss - same as the old boss'. (with correction gratefully acknowledged by Jake Pattison - I was having an old person's moment)..
That's not to say that all organic, stone milled flour is not what it purports to be - but don't shy away from the idea that small is beautiful, either.
As consumers we can help, and are helping, change to occur, it's true - but we can also be aware that change comes anyway. Not all of it is good, but then not all of it is bad.
I remember driving home from Flemington Produce market in Sydney in the wee small hours, after smuggling out organic produce (which was illegal at the markets due to the bugs it contained) to bring up to the blue mountains for our food coop members. It was in the late 1980's. Ann, who was sharing the work that day, said to me "Imagine - when all this organic stuff ends up in the supermarkets in years to come, our work will be done." We both laughed, hopefully, at the unlikely event of this occurring. Of course, now it is in the supermarket, and there is still work to be done. Only the work has changed now.
If nothing else, we can learn to keep the bastards honest.