While I travel I find that I am quite often hyper aware of my surroundings. With squinted eyes, I make careful observations that cause me to make conceptual leaps that lead to budding theories about every new place. My open mind has always worked this way, and I am thankful to it for it affords me ready access to an endless supply of creative ideas and concepts. Allowing me to absorb the world around me and convert it into a useable database, I am super absorbent.
I was quite excited and surprised to find that same quality can be found in sprouted grain flour, which I first learned about at last year’s Grain Gathering in Mt. Vernon, and had stored in mind until I dusted off the idea at the Asheville Bread Festival.
Asheville sits in North Carolina at the upper edge of the South, a tiny blue dot against a largely red state. There are more beer breweries per capita in Asheville than anywhere in the country so it is not surprising that there are also a high abundance of artisan and cottage bakeries, bread simply being the solid form of beer. The Asheville Bread Festival has been going on for 13 years, running off pure passion for bread and the commitment of many innovators in the industry. Like bread, the festival is truly a labor of love.
I took a class on baking with sprouted grain flours from Peter Reinhart, the man who used to make a multi grain bread called Struan at Brother Juniper’s in Santa Rosa where I spent my so called formative years. Whenever my dad and I talk about bread, he speaks in fond memory of the times when he would treat us to this special Struan bread. I wish I remembered that loaf, but for now it sadly resides somewhere in my subconscious, hoping to some day be brought into the work force of my conscious mind. As the recipe is floating around the internet, it will probably happen soon. But back to sprouted grains.
If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients in a loaf of whole wheat bread, you’ll likely find the addition of sugar (or often honey) which is usually added to balance out the bitterness of the bran. What is amazing about sprouted flours is that the sweetness occurs as a result of he process of sprouting and because sweetness is a carrier of flavor, wheat tastes wheaty-er. The sprouted corn flour used in the Focaccia Peter Reinhart demonstrated tasted like corn right off the cobb.
Before sprouted flours became more available, the only way to make sprouted grain bread was a slow and risky science experiment that involved passion and persistence. While owning a bakery, I found it extremely challenging to be persistent with new ideas as I was often distracted by the full loaf of duties and obligations needed to keep the doors open. Instead, my attempts at sprouting grain resulted in a slimy outgrowth of putrid gunk I had a hard time imagining would ever become edible. Even though I am sure I could have come up with a system to make sprouted grain bread, I decided instead to table that project, and to my surprise, sprouted grain flours were eventually invented. Way to outsource.
What is also interesting is that sprouted grain flours are literally super absorbent, and usually require additional moisture to make the same dough. I thought this was fitting, given that sprouted grains are actually absorbed better in the body, which is better understood with a little background in grain science.
Although bread can be made out of several types of grain, we will use the example of wheat, better known as the seed of the wheat plant. Within that wheat seed is everything needed to make a new plant. Instead of letting it become a plant, we grind it into flour and make bread. However, there are key things to understand about the anatomy of the seed and how that affects the final bread product.
Here is a diagram of a wheat seed:
The outer layer is called the bran. The bran is the protective layer of the seed where all the fiber, vitamins and minerals reside. Flavor wise, it’s usually on the toothsome side, and if not processed properly, can add bitterness to the final product.
Inside the bran layer is the creamy white endosperm, which is essentially all of the carbohydrates and proteins the plant will use as nourishment in the beginning stages of it’s growth. By the way, this is where the two proteins are named glutenin and gliadanin otherwise known these days as “the bad guys” live. But really, like most people with strong (protein) personalities they are not bad guys, they are just misunderstood.
And nestled in the endosperm is the wheat germ, a small nutrient rich core that contains lots of B vitamins, healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamin E. The germ, is basically a baby wheat plant waiting to be born.
Grain processing is quite a bit more complex than I am about to explain. Basically, the entire wheat kernel is smashed into tiny bits either by a metal or a stone wheel, and through a series of steps, the bran, the endosperm, and the germ are separated from each other. If white flour is wanted, the endosperm makes up the flour. If wheat flour is wanted, the bran, endosperm and germ are reunited.
What is interesting is that in the milling process, some of the nutrients are lost, and so, about 100 years ago, the government started requiring that millers returned those nutrients back. However, the human gut is a very complicated biome, and many studies are starting to show that although these nutrients are technically present in the flour, our bodies can’t seem to use them. Other studies are even saying that these additions might be some of the reason people are having a sudden difficulty digesting bread, after 10,000 years of having bread be the staff of life.
Small bread producers have tried to get around the addition of extra vitamins by grinding their own wheat and leaving it whole to make a loaf of bread. However, the wheat germ, that smart little guy, also contains an anti-nutrient which ultimately (and the process is very complicated) blocks us from access to all those sweet minerals. So while grinding your own wheat you can avoid all those pesky additives, you are still not getting the full nutritional benefit from wheat. Which is very sad.
However, if the grain is moistened and allowed to sprout, the germ releases its enzymes into the endosperm and breaks through the bran, partially digesting the grain and making the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and proteins “bioavailable”. Plus as a bonus, sprouting removes the bitterness in bran that dominates whole wheat flour, is obliterated resulting in a beautiful sweetness that can only come from nature.
Which can only mean, using sprouted grain can make bread great again. Thanks Trump ;)