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Ancient Grains - An Introduction

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

To continue in our series on what makes good bread, we’ll take a look this week at ancient grains.

If you haven’t read it yet, check out part one of this series: “On Soil

Ancient and heritage grains loosely refer to any grain whose heritage can be traced back to a certain region of origin or a grain that is regionally grown. They have (for the most part) not been changed for centuries.

But first, what is common wheat?

Common wheat is the dominant crop of wheat grown throughout the world. It has been engineered to grow quickly in nearly any climate and type of soil. It is primarily a cross between emmer and a grass from the poaceae family. The advantages to common wheat are that it grows quickly and in abundance. The downsides are that it’s lacking both nutrients and flavor.

How are ancient grains different?

There are really three ways that ancient grains distinguish themselves from common wheat: flavor, protein and nutrients.

While saying that ancient grains taste better is true, even this does not fully answer the question. Different varieties of wheat have different flavors. And flavor in abundance! Consider a parallel to nuts or berries. While it’s true that there is a general nuttiness in any nut or a berry flavor, you wouldn’t say that a walnut and a cashew taste the same or that a blueberry and a strawberry are identical. It’s exactly the same way with grains.

There is an assortment of flours I use in my breads, cookies and other baking. These tend to vary depending on the flavor I’m after or how hearty or light I want the finished product to be; you wouldn’t want a pancake to be as dense as a loaf of sourdough! Here’s a quick rundown of what I use (all of which comes from Hayden Flour Mill).

Rouge de Bordeaux Flour - This flour is made up of a variety of high protein wheat, grown locally to the Hayden Mill since the 1800s and a hard red spring wheat. This flour gives bread a deep, nutty flavor and rich fragrance with notes of cinnamon and cocoa and a strong earthy aroma. The “hard” wheats have high protein and higher gluten which lend themselves to breads (rather than soft wheat which are better for cakes and desserts).

White Sonora Wheat Flour - White Sonora is one of the oldest wheats in the US. This grain is believed to have been brought to Mexico by Padre Lorenzo de Cardenas between 1640 and 1650. It then made it’s way from Sonora, Mexico and made its way up the west coast in the late 1700s with St.Serra and the California Missionaries. Sonoran wheat was the dominant crop in central California and Arizona through the mid 20th century. Due to attempting to breed White Sonora into a new strain of wheat, it fell out of favor in the 60s and 70s; the new variety grew well but lacked flavor. Luckily for us, there has been a large movement to bring back the heritage variety that, while it may yield less in a crop, makes up for it with worlds of flavor!

Rye - Rye is an incredibly strong and hearty grain. It is resistant to freezing temperatures and will grow in arid soil. There is evidence of it dating back to the 6th century BC and had made its way to central Europe by around 4500 BC. Though very low in gluten, it can be used as a bread flour and can be distilled into whiskey, gin and vodka. In the medieval period it was also used to thatch roofs!

Emmer/Farro - Emmer was one of the first grain to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent and, centuries later, was a part of the daily regiment for the Roman armies. After largely disappearing (it was abandoned for durum wheats that are easier to mill) it experienced a resurgence in popularity in the early 1900s.

The brief history shows where the major grains in my bread come from. This list is not exhaustive by any means! You’ll also find some malted barley here and there, as well as porridge (made from farro and white sonora) whole oats and semolina! I’ve also recently found a new source for sustainably grown, heritage masa that I’m experimenting with. It makes AMAZING tortillas and I’m hoping to roll out a blue corn cornbread soon.

To this up (for anyone still reading), I’m including which flour(s) I use in my regular bread offerings:

Sourdough Levain - Rouge Bordeaux, farro, rye

Sourdough bread - Rouge Bordeaux

Maple Oat sourdough - Rouge Bordeaux, rye

Baguettes / Pan de Campagne - Rouge Bordeaux, White Sonora, malted barley, farro

Workhorse Wheat - Queen's Creek Red flour, farro

Brioche (coming soon) - White Sonora

Next week we’ll get into why stone milled flour is one of the most important factors in having a good, healthy, flavorful bread. Stay tuned!

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