Most bakers don’t think of flour as a local ingredient. Typically, bakeries procure flour from larger mills that contract with several farmers and blend the wheat from each. Few bakers have the option to buy directly from individual farms that mill their own wheat, and even fewer still have the time, space or access to local grain to mill their own.
Dave Miller is one such baker. As the owner of whole grain bread bakery Miller’s Bake House, Yankee Hill, Calif., he has been milling his own wheat since he started his bakery in 1992.
“For me, the overwhelming aroma when you smell fresh flour caught me first and made me take notice,” Miller says. “It’s a sign that something good is happening there. I did work with several bakers who were milling their own flour so it was never a question for me that I would do it.”
Miller procures bulk wheat and rye from two local producers a few times per year in 8,000- to 10,000-lb. batches. The grain is milled fresh all day long to be used in organic whole grain sourdough breads.
Miller dedicates 700 sq. ft. of his 1,200-sq.-ft. bakery to milling, with a 300-sq.-ft. mill room (to give the mill plenty of space) and the rest for storage.
The natural granite stone mill is outfitted with 39-in.-wide horizontal stones, a bit large for a bakery of his size, he says. The mill turns at 100 rpm, much slower than the 200 rpm factory-level standard. Miller checks it every 30 minutes to ensure the rate of feed and spacing between the stones are just right in order to control the fineness of the flour.
For a small bakery like Miller’s, milling grain in-house makes it easy to contract with a local grower, which enables him to support local organic farmers directly. It also helps him achieve consistent product, since he is baking with the same batch of wheat all year. He also is able to mix and bake within hours of milling, when the flour is at its freshest.
“I’ve done tests here where I let some flour sit for two to three weeks like I’ve heard people recommend, trying to see if there’s a difference in flavor or volume,” he says. “And there was no increase in dough strength or volume. The best quality flour is fresh flour.”
Miller acknowledges that in-house milling isn’t for everyone, especially since it’s hard for many bakeries to source local grain.
“Every bakery is going to approach it differently. If you’re a larger bakery and considering milling, where are you going to store it?” he says. “It’s just another headache to deal with. It works for a smaller guy like me, but you have to be fortunate enough to have good local wheat farmers. When I started in the 1980s, I don’t think bakers were asking for much information; they just wanted a certain protein level in the gluten. Now bakers expect more from their flour. They want to know where grain comes from and prefer that it’s from nearby. I see more bakers wanting to establish relationships with the growers, which is great.”