Dan Barber, Chef at Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is passionate in his belief that great cooking starts with great ingredients, and great ingredients start with great farmers. We asked him to share why locally grown, heirloom varieties of grains are well worth the effort. Learn how specialty grains can elevate finished dishes in his response below.
These days, we’ll stand in line at the farmers’ market for the perfect peach, or pay more for a grass-fed steak that’s raised the right way. But even with this new consciousness about where our food comes from, most of us still rely on conventional grains we buy from the supermarket. We cook and bake with the flour-equivalent of rotten produce — stripped of all flavor and nutrition. In fact, we’re used to dealing with flour that doesn’t taste like anything.
Milling your own means rediscovering the taste of grain. Why?
Most flours are refined – that is, they have been sieved to remove the germ and bran layers from the particles of endosperm, which is rich in protein and starch. In removing the germ and bran, the vitamins and minerals go away. And the flavor goes away too. Those oils in the germ are where many of the essential aromas are.
2. IT’S FRESH
Freshly milled grains taste different from the whole wheat flours you can buy in the supermarket. That’s because the additional aromas and nutrients you are getting from the bran and germ have a short shelf life. (Which is why most industrial flour is refined.) To really capture the flavor, you need to mill fresh — just as with coffee beans. That’s true for nutrients as well. One study showed that flour loses 45% of its nutrients within just 24 hours.
3. IT’S THE RIGHT KIND OF GRAIN, GROWN THE RIGHT WAY
Most whole wheat is still made from modern wheat varieties, which are bred for yield rather than flavor. So even if you’re able to capture all the aromas of the whole grain, it’s still not delicious. We’re using heirloom varieties that were selected for generations for their flavor. (And their nutrient density, too.) Think of an heirloom tomato versus the conventional hothouse version – you can taste the difference.
The grains are carefully selected and grown organically on Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens’ 1,400-acre farm in Penn Yan, New York. Rather than rely on chemicals, Klaas utilizes crops rotations and careful soil management to ensure resistance to pests and disease and build flavor.
Learn more about the different varieties of heirloom grains — and how to store and use them — in our Guide to Grains.