Craig Ponsford remembers the day, four years ago, when he stopped using white flour.
For the Gold Medal-winning baker from the U.S. national team — yes, there are gold medals awarded in world championship baking competitions and national teams, teams that Ponsford now coaches — it was a long journey. White flour was his bread and butter. He is known around the country for his French-style baking and as Ponsford likes to joke, “French whole wheat bread is really 98% white flour.” That meant that since Ponsford started baking 23 years ago, he always used white flour.
But, now, that’s all changed. At his three-year old bakery, Ponsford’s Place, in San Rafael, Ponsford uses exclusively stone-milled 100% whole wheat. And, while it happened, in part, by accident, Ponsford believes he’s just part of a larger change getting ready to sweep the Bay Area food scene.
That’s because what he learned — and what he thinks the food community needs to know too — was this: what we think of as whole wheat might not really be whole wheat.
For Ponsford, the whole grain revolution started without him even knowing it. Back in the late 1990s as part of the U.S. baking team, he began using the flour from a Northern California miller, Joe Vanderliet, based in Woodland. Ponsford didn’t know much about why the flour tasted better, but he knew it worked better for his breads.
Then, four years ago, after Ponsford was forced to leave Artisan Bakers, which he co-founded in Sonoma, he went to work for Vanderliet developing products. At first, Ponsford kept bringing in white flour to mix with the rye flour and the whole wheat flour — because that’s what he knew — until one day Vanderliet asked him why he was doing that, why wasn’t he just using Vanderliet’s flour.
Vanderliet was the boss, so Ponsford did what he said. He stopped using white flour and started using just Vanderliet’s stone milled whole wheat flours. (Vanderliet actually makes a number of flours ranging from pumpernickel to brown rice.) It was then — almost entirely by accident — that Ponsford realized all his conceptions about why whole wheat couldn’t be as good were wrong.
“[Vanderliet]’d been telling me all this stuff all the time, but I didn’t understand or listen,” said Ponsford.
To understand the issues with what is and isn’t whole wheat and why bakers have, traditionally, been loathe to use the flour, it’s necessary to go back to almost nearly the very beginning.
Before 1880, all grain was milled in small mills that used stones to mash the seeds whole, with the bran, germ and endosperm all together. The benefit was that you got fresh flour from nearby. The bad part was that it often was not finely milled, creating those images of thick, pulpy bread. It also went bad quickly, because once the germ is cracked open it becomes unstable and starts to go stale.
Then, came the invention of the roller mill as part of the industrialization of food — well, the industrialization of many things in the late 1800s.
The roller mill, which is what is currently widely used by large-scale commercial milling operations, separates the bran, germ and endosperm, then mills the pieces. When you buy white flour, you’re buying just the milled endosperm. (The germ is sold for Omega-3 fatty acids and the bran is added back into other things.) When you buy whole wheat flour, the milled parts are put back together and sold.
That has some people concerned.
“There’s a lot of information that says if you take it apart, you can’t put it back together again,” said Bob Klein, the owner of Oliveto in Oakland and the founder of Community Grains.
Klein started Community Grains when he began looking into what was in his grain and flour and found out he just didn’t really know.
“The grain industry is completely walled off,” he said.
Both Klein and Ponsford can get upset talking about how little we really know about what’s in our grains. While many people assume that putting the pieces back together to make whole wheat flour, per FDA regulations, means putting them back together in the same quantities, that isn’t necessarily true. Some regulations seem to suggest the three parts just have to be there period — in any quantity. Other regulations appear to lay out minimums, like 10%, for each. Often that can mean that only a small amount of germ is returned to the flour, because germ can make it go bad. Sometimes, it seems to mean different kinds of bran — not from grain — are added in. Typically, gluten is added to make the bread light and fluffy. And, all the stuff in between the germ and bran and endosperm, such as the aleurone layer, are entirely lost.
What exactly the aleurone layer does is unclear, though it seems that when it’s included it has some health benefits. But, that’s the point, said Klein: we don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know.
Even studies that have measured different health effects of whole wheat have used different definitions of whole wheat, different compositions, making it hard to know what any of it really means.
Starting Community Grains, Klein sampled stone-milled whole wheat flour and picked seeds from Italy and tried to understand what it is that really defines whole wheat. An international Whole Grain Summit basically decided there was no clear definition, said Ponsford, who was in attendance. And, Klein, too, eventually found his way to Vanderliet, who now supplies the flour for Community Grains products.
While being stone-milled is distinctly one of the differences from roller-milled flour, there are also differences in how grains are stone-milled. Vanderliet’s method, which he guards closely, keeps the flour from going bad and maintains a light consistency that works for high-end pastries and breads. (It has to do with temperature and water added to the seed to sprout it and the quality of the grain, said Ponsford.)
Oh, and there’s not a lot of regulation about what calls itself stone-milled either, according to Ponsford. Some things that say they are, simply aren’t.
That’s part of the challenge of what Community Grains and these grain advocates want to do. It’s not just a matter of finding the farmers and the millers and building the infrastructure, but also educating the consumers and creating a consistent understanding of where our grain comes from.
Klein’s attracted a wide mix of people to his cause. Ponsford works with Community Grains, as does scientist Harold McGee, Chad Robertson of Tartine, distiller Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, former Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard, and Nancy Silverton of Mozza. An ad hoc Science Committee includes Michael Pollan and Mark Sigenana, a scientist with the Oakland Children’s Hospital.
“This is huge,” promises Ponsford of the whole grain movement.
Once upon a time, people didn’t think about what kind of tomatoes they were eating, but then came the tomato revolution — starting in Northern California. Klein, too, believes whole wheat is the next big food issue people will start to pay attention to.
The biggest thing that will attract regular people to eating whole wheat will be the taste. With a variety of different flours, Community Grains is also trying to offer different flavors. And, with high-end chefs and bakers, like Yard and Robertson and Ponsford, using the whole wheat flour to make delicious treats, it’s sure to attract fans.
With more and more people avoiding gluten, it seems like an odd time to be pushing a grain-based education campaign. But, when the grain is milled whole the entire way and keeps all its parts — and no extra gluten is added — it seems to have a beneficial impact. Of course, that too isn’t entirely clear.
“People will tell me they can eat my pasta and they can’t eat white pasta,” said Klein, but it’s merely anecdotal. Ponsford said he also has some customers who are gluten-intolerant, but eat his products and buy all their breads at his shop. And, they love the cheese and fig pastry puffs (or maybe that was just me).
All that means whole wheat doesn’t just have to be good for you. It can also taste really good too.