Erin Alderson on Milling Your Own Flours, a Label-Free Diet & Her New Homemade Flour Cookbook

Author Interview

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Does the idea of grinding things like wheat berries, black beans, and lentils into fluffy, bakery-worthy homemade flours pique your curiosity? Inspire passion? Make you want to run in the other direction?

Erin Alderson, the talented gal behind Naturally Ella and our very own Kitchn recipe contributor, has just published a cookbook devoted entirely to this topic — and to convincing us that homemade flours are not only a smart part of a label-free diet, but incredibly fun, too! It's called The Homemade Flour Cookbook, and here's what she had to say about it when I caught up with her last week.

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How did you get hooked on milling your own flour? Was there a tipping-point moment?

While I have been milling flour for years without even putting it into context of milling (making nut flours as well as oat flour from rolled oats), the big aha! moment came when I received a grain mill to review on my blog, Naturally Ella. I started playing around with all the different whole grains and legumes I already had stashed in my kitchen, and it felt like a natural extension of my cooking. For me, this is way beyond just milling wheat for bread — it’s about finding great uses for ingredients I already have on hand.

What's the advantage to milling our own flours vs. buying them at the store?

This is really threefold for me: flavor, convenience, and nutrients. While I’m excited that discussion around our food has seemingly gone mainstream, I’m disappointed that we feel the first line of description for a food is to label it "gluten-free," "skinny," or something of that nature. Like, eating quinoa is only for those following a gluten-free diet or nut flours are directly associated with the Paleo diet.

I think that if your diet allows for it, each grain, legume, nut and seed should be celebrated for their unique flavor and used appropriately. I don’t adhere to one particular diet but rather use whatever I have on hand and what flavor I think would be best. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying: I love the flavor of home-milled flours over those bought in stores.

Also, I was the type of person who would realize too late (usually partway through a recipe) that I had no flour in the house. Now, as long as I keep grains on hand (which I buy every time I go to the store), I’ll always have flour!

And finally, with so many items in our grocery store either being crammed with extra ingredients or touted as being "natural" or "healthy" because companies were able to put extra nutrients in them, I think it’s an amazing experience to be connected with my food on an ingredient and home-processing level.

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What do I need to mill my own flours at home?

There are actually a few household appliances you can use to mill flour. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the milling process, I recommend a cheap coffee grinder or manual grain mill. The coffee grinder can only be used in small bursts (10 to 15 seconds worth) of grinding, which I alternate with sifting to remove large particles. A manual grinder is great for everything and gives you a workout! Both options can be purchased for $50 or less.

Also, some appliances you might already have on your counter will work. Food processors are great for nut and seed flours, while a high speed blender, like a Vitamix or Blendtec, is great for pretty much any grain, legume, nut or seed. And of course, if you’re really into grinding grains and legumes, an electric grain mill is the way to go (but caution, don't grind nuts or seeds because the oil will clog the motor!). For more of a rundown, I have an entire post on this topic on my blog.

Besides grains, what else can we mill?

I think this is the really exciting part — it’s not just about grinding grain flours. Half of my new book is devoted to grinding legumes, nuts, and seeds. I think these flours are super interesting because of their extremely unique flavors and textures, and their ability to add a bit of protein in place of flour.

"Flour" and "Meal" — what do these different terms mean?

Personally, I draw a line in the sand with sifting. Nut meal is the end result of pulsing and breaking nuts and seeds into extremely small pieces while the flour is what you get once you sift the meal, leaving only a fine flour. It takes a bit of back and forth to get the flour — I often pulse nuts in a food processor for 10 to 15 seconds, sift, and return the remaining pieces back to the food processor, repeating the steps as many times as needed.

Some nuts work better than others in terms of flour. Almonds and pistachios make beautiful flours (in fact, one of my favorite recipes from the book is a lovely pistachio cake), while others, especially those with a higher fat content, make better meals, like pecans and walnuts. And just a word of caution, any attempts at grinding the nuts too long turns them into nut butter — it's definitely not the worst outcome, but also definitely not a flour or meal!

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Is working with freshly-milled flours any different than working with store-bought flours?

There can be a few differences. Most flours in the stores have had part of the grain, mainly the bran and germ, removed before being ground into flour, which results in a lighter flour. Grinding whole grains keeps all the parts (which is good because some grains have most of their nutrients in the bran), but also results in a flour that might be a bit more coarse. These flours result in doughs that might be a bit more difficult to roll out or that have a different texture in the final product than you are used to.

Also, it’s really important to weigh freshly milled flours. Some flours will come out a bit lighter and only pack down after sitting for a day or two. This can be really deceiving if you're only measuring with measuring cups. Of course, I’d suggest weighing everything anyway — weighing is more accurate and helps ensure that the recipe will work. It’s amazing what happens to the overall recipe if the right amount of flour isn’t used.

What's the best flour for beginners to start with?

I think oat flour only because it can be made in a food processor using rolled oats. I really love oat flour and will add it into many different baked goods in place of part of the traditional flour. Oat flour also makes great crepes, as well as pancakes and cookies (for which there are recipes in the book!).

What's your favorite flour to work with?!

This is a tough question only because of what I mentioned in the question above about the advantages of home ground flours — I love all the unique flavors that the different flours bring to the table. I’ll go through phases as well. It depends on what items I might have on hand on a given week. Right now, I love working with Einkorn flour because it has a lovely, balanced wheat flavor.

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Were there any flours that you discovered and fell in love with while writing your book?

I was a bit skeptical about the bean flours even though I’d been working with chickpea flour for years. I think the tipping point came when I made pasta out of black bean flour. The color was beautiful and unique, but the flavor wasn’t overly bean-heavy. The black bean pasta is one of my favorite recipes from the book, hands down. Also the gnocchi made from red lentil flour! (In hindsight, I think I’m just trying to make a pasta that I can actually say has protein in it!) And just recently, I made an awesome tofu using black bean flour.

Which recipe from your book should we make right away?

I think if you love the traditional grains, I’d say start with the black pepper pasta for savory and barley chocolate chip cookies for sweet. If gluten-free grains are more up your alley, I highly suggest the Gluten-Free Angel Food Cake (I worked on this recipe a lot — it’s a family favorite) and the grilled polenta (made from ground popcorn!). For the legumes, I’m all about that black bean pasta mentioned above and if you want to try something down the nut/seed route, go for the pistachio cake for something sweet or the pecan crusted green tomato sandwiches for something savory!

Thanks, Erin! Readers, tomorrow we'll be sharing one of the recipes from Erin's book. Check back in!

The Homemade Flour Cookbook is out now! Find Erin's book at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: The Homemade Flour Cookbook by Erin Alderson

Read more about The Homemade Flour Cookbook at Erin's personal blog: Naturally Ella

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(Image credits: Erin Alderson)

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