Mixing up Change, Part 3
November 29, 2007
By Cliff Leir
The finale in the tale of West Coast baker Cliff Leir’s adventures with Red Fife.
Editor's note: In his previous column, Cliff Leir wrote about his introduction to the heritage wheat variety known as Red Fife and recounted some of the processing challenges he encountered when baking with the grain.
Apparently, if wheat gets too much moisture on it after it finishes ripening it can go through a process where the enzyme levels increase dramatically in an effort to get ready to sprout. If it's spring or fall in a field and the kernel of wheat is getting ready to grow into a wheat stalk then that's great, because those enzymes will start to break down the starch in the kernel so that it has more nutrients available to help that fragile young wheat plant fulfil its genetic purpose. However, if you are a baker in a bakery and not a farmer in a field, and you have flour made from wheat that was damp at harvest time and the enzymes had started to increase, then dried (halting the enzyme development), then re-hydrated upon mixing into dough, that enzyme development continues at an accelerated rate, causing a breakdown in starch structure. Some enzyme development is necessary to produce good bread as it breaks down starch and aids in fermentation. If you start with enzyme activity that is too high, then the longer a dough ferments the more it will break down. If your dough breaks down too much, then it is unable to hold carbon dioxide gas that is also created during fermentation and your loaves will end up flat, almost like pancakes.
This didn't quite occur to me at 3:20 in the morning though or over the next frustrating week. I finally determined by reading “The Taste of Bread” (by Prof. Raymond Calvel, a must for any serious baker) again that it was due to hyperdiastacicity, and could be remedied with shorter fermentation time and 15PPM of ascorbic acid (pure vitamin “C”). Ascorbic acid is a fairly natural, healthy additive that helps to retard enzyme development, as well as being a general dough improver that completely disappears during the final baking. Reducing the fermentation would give the enzymes less time to “eat” protein chains and compromise the structure of the dough. After another week of experimentation and concern that we might not have any customers left, we changed our schedule and started producing more or less consistent loaves. Our customers remained supportive. I started overhearing conversations at the library and at the pool about the mill and “Red Fife.” We had a harvest celebration and public tasting of varietal breads, and people were actually lined up! Maybe bread culture is happening.
Not that it was all dreamy. Our bread sales spiked and then settled back down just a little higher than before. Sometimes someone would forget the ascorbic acid, or the mill would go awry, but everyone got a much better understanding of something taken so often for granted in the bakery: flour.
With any production line, a consistent final product relies on consistency in the materials as well as the humans carrying out each step. The nature of nature is that it has variability, so wheat (and therefore flour) is going to vary from field to field, year to year. Large mills are able to blend different lots of wheat in order to give bakers a more consistent flour to work with. Working directly with farmers and smaller lots of wheat means that it is more in the hands of the baker to adjust their dough to produce consistent bread.
Fortunately, depending on the size of your bakery, even a “small” lot of wheat may last from several weeks to the entire year. Wherever you get your flour, you should be able find out the protein percentage and falling number. The protein percentage will give you an idea of how much gluten-forming protein potential there is in the flour or wheat. Around 11.5 to 13 is good for white flour, add one to two per cent for whole wheat. It is important to understand though that these numbers will tell you the quantity but not the quality of the protein. Falling number is determined by using a standardized instrument that heats and mixes 25ml of water with 7g of flour in a tube for 60 seconds. At this point, a rod is dropped into the slurry and timed till it hits the bottom. The number of seconds it takes to hit the bottom is the falling number. The more amylase (an enzyme present due to sprouting damage in wheat) present the more the flour will break down the slurry, making it thinner and allowing the rod to drop faster to the bottom. A good falling number would be between 250 and 400. If it has a low falling number your dough will probably start to fall apart before it is baked and if it is too high you will have low enzyme activity and therefore sluggish fermentation. This test does not show the activity of other enzymes or their effect over extended times on a dough. The most important thing is doing your own bake test. This should be done under production conditions with records kept of all your observations, including times, temperatures and descriptions throughout the process. It is not as intimidating as one might think and after carrying out several tests you should start to develop more of a language and eye for describing the details involved. I think this is invaluable for bakers wanting to better understand flour, whether they are working directly with a farmer or working with flour from a large mill.
As I finish writing this article, Marc Loiselle and his family are about halfway through their harvest. An exceptionally dry August this year has resulted in an early harvest. He has sent the first of the crop of to be tested for protein and falling numbers. With not a trace of rain near harvest, the falling number should be fine and the near drought conditions in August should have pushed the protein up as well. I look forward to doing a bake test! Marc still has a good portion of last year's harvest left. While this has put a financial squeeze on his farm, it has allowed him to build up a larger inventory for a more stable supply of wheat for interested specialty bakers. He, along with other farmers of Red Fife, have now formed a co-operative to help with marketing, as well as the ability to blend crops (if needed) while still being able to offer variety-identified heritage wheat. Together, the 22 Prairie Red Fife Organic Growers Cooperative members have sowed about 1250 acres: all in Saskatchewan except for four acres in Alberta and four in Manitoba. Some members got hit hard by the weather and aren't harvesting any Red Fife. We'll see over the next number of weeks what the final harvest ends up being. The challenge these farmers are facing now will be connecting with interested bakers and distributing this grain that has come so far. A number of the farmers, along with myself, will be meeting again at Terra Madre in Italy at the end of October with other progressive food producers to try to work on these problems. I hope that through forums like this magazine, as well as in our own cities, we can try to work on these issues here at home as well.
Cliff Leir sold his half of Wild Fire Bread and Pastry in the spring of 2005 and is now building ovens and baking bread for his family and friends while planning his next bakery opening in summer 2007 in Victoria B.C. Last year, Marc Loiselle and his family harvested 140 metric tonnes of Red Fife. Cliff is still working with Marc and other farmers and bakers to strengthen farmer-baker relations. Contact Cliff at: email@example.com with comments or questions.
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