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Professor Stephen Jones develops wheat varieties designed for craft baking.

There’s a whole new world of flour out there. To find the frontier, look north to Washington State University’s Mt. Vernon Research Center, where bakers (including ours) gather every fall for Kneading Conference West to learn about the stunning array of locally grown and milled grains, and how best to use them. We sat down recently with WSU’s Stephen Jones, who explained why small-scale grain growing matters.

GCB: Why should bakers make bread with regional grains, and why should eaters care? Flour is flour, right?

 SJ: First, it supports regional farmers, the same farmers in many cases where you’re getting vegetables and greens. So you’re helping them (have a market for grains) and make grains part of their larger farming system, which adds organic matter back into the soils, breaks disease cycles and allows for animal integration in some cases.  Second, we’re capturing flavors that people hadn’t thought of. The flours themselves have flavors that were missed. Bakers say that Bauermeister, a wheat that we developed at Washington State, has chocolate overtones and a hint of spice. Red Fife is a go-to old wheat. Terroir is being picked up in these flours that are freshly milled in small local mills, such as the flour from Camas Country Mill (grown in the Willamette Valley and currently used by Grand Central’s bakers).

GCB: What are you hoping to do with WSU’s new Bread Lab? How does it change the landscape for craft bakers?

 SJ:  We want to help local millers know better what they’re milling, and if they need to blend (flours with different characteristics) for the baker. Commercial flours of high quality all have been blended to a certain specification for a specific use. That’s not being done by smaller millers — and some people don’t want that done, which is fine, but others do. Bakers need consistency and predictability to their flour, and we can bring bakers in to work with the (small) miller and wheat breeder side by side.  We have ovens, mixers and analytic equipment to test how these flours work for the baker.

GCB: How different are the new wheat varieties you’re testing?

SJ:. We have flours that have unique functionalities, unique flavors, unique colors, and qualities we’re not even aware of at this point.  No one else is breeding wheat for the craft baker – it’s typically bred for commercial industrial high speed mixing, and the bakers adapt their processes to that flour.

This year in our test plot we looked at 40,000 wheat varieties from about 12 different countries. We whittled that down to 2,000, and looked at how those work for the farmer, the baker and the miller. We make crosses the way they’ve been done since the 1800s. We don’t do any genetic modifying, we don’t do any corporate-driven research.

GCB: As a scientist, can you weigh in on the great interest in gluten-free diets, especially as it relates to artisan bread? Are artisan breads any different nutritionally?

SJ: There’s a few things people don’t know about gluten. First of all, there’s a glut of gluten on the market right now. Asia and Europe get their starch from wheat. When you take starch out of wheat, what’s left is gluten. That gluten goes into animal food to raise the protein, a lot of it goes into plastic-wrap bread. If you look at your bread label, and it says “sprouted grain,” check the label for gluten. Straight gluten is added to that, and that’s got to be doing something.

On the other hand, it’s very well documented that a long fermentation – the kind that true artisan bread undergoes – breaks up gluten and increases bioavailability of nutrients.

GCB: What else should people know about wheat and regionally grown grains?

SJ: Wheat has a place in meaningful farm systems. And if we realize that, we should reward the people who have it in their systems, and let them sell that crop locally and regionally along with their other crops.