Chad Robertson's 5 Essentials for Working with Whole and Ancient Grains

Expert Essentials

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The release of Chad Roberson's Tartine Book No. 3 this week has created quite a lot of buzz in the food world. Building on his previous two cookbooks, but especially Tartine Bread, No. 3 takes us on journey into the fascinating world of ancient and whole grains. Not a gluten-free journey, mind you, but a passionate, innovative exploration into the ways these long-forgotten gains can add flavor, texture and character to breads and pastries. Read on for Chad's five essential considerations for working with whole and ancient grains.

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"When working with whole grains," Chad says, "the standard thing for many people to do is to just swap out whole grain flour for white flour, but what you end up with is a very dense bread. I love an open textured bread, so while I can make a dense whole grain loaf, I really don't want to eat it. But if I make it in the Tartine style, with that moist, open texture, I do want to eat it. What I'm after are the flavors of whole grain but not that dense texture — this was the quest of Tartine No.3."

Chad goes on: "I'm trying to cast whole grain in a different light. Something that's kind of sexy, that you want to eat because it looks and tastes really good, as opposed to some kind of diet food. It's leaning towards pleasure, not medicine. Our breads are based on gluten but have these amazing flavors and texture from non-gluten or low-gluten grains."

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Chad Robertson's 5 Essentials for Working with Whole and Ancient Grains

1. Look for freshly milled flour. "With flour, it's important that it is as freshly milled as possible, ideally using a method that is as cool as possible, such as stone milling. Milling can heat up the grain which damages and oxidizes it. When a flour is freshly milled, the oil and germ are very sweet, you can taste all these amazing flavors. It's not unlike the difference between old spices and freshly ground spices. Flour will lose those flavors and aromas and go rancid over time. It's not that freshly milled flour is necessarily better or worse than older flour, but it is noticeably different. Freshly ground flour can be really, really lovely."

2. Think outside the box. "When working on the book, we used whole grains for bread in three basic ways. We used them milled into a flour, we soaked the whole berries (or seeds) until they sprouted and added them in, and we cooked them into a porridge and used that as a component of the dough. We actually didn't invent anything totally new, we just played around a lot, blending flavors and types of grain. Cracked grain vs whole grain, fermented or not, in a porridge or as a flour. We kind of deconstructed whole grains and then put them back together in a different way.

This idea that something has to be 100% whole or pure — what do you gain by that? My answer is nothing! I mean what's the point of trying to be 100% of anything, right? I have a friend who is a coffee roaster (Jeremy Tooker of Four Barrel Coffee) and we often talk about how there is a similar thing going on with coffee, too, where people have really gotten serious stuck on single origin beans. Which is fine, but why not also blend them and make something really unique? If everyone works with the same flavor profile, that same 100%, then things get pretty boring. Blending probably got a bad name because sometimes people use it as a way to cover up an inferior product but I've always blended my flours, especially after returning from France. It's more interesting to make your own unique loaf and add to the variety."

3. Use a young leaven. "A leaven is the portion of pre-fermented flour and water that will go into your final dough so that it rises. Whole grains ferment much faster because whole grains have all those micronutrients and vitamins that bacteria thrive on, so they don't need a super strong leaven. At the bakery, our leaven is quite young and not that sour. Most leavens are 8 or more hours old but we use leavens that are 2 to 3 hours old. They're very well suited whole grain bread as it helps to regulate the growth and allow for a longer rise."

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4. Pay attention to the weather. "When you're making bread, the most important thing is to be really aware of the environment around you and to adjust to it accordingly. Natural leaven is a living thing. If it's cold, the bread be slow; if it's warm then everything is very active. Even 3 to 4 degrees will make a difference. Bread is also really sensitive to the humidity level. We mix our doughs super wet, right to the very edge of hydration, so that if it's raining, we might turn out a flatter bread. We still have to remind ourselves of this in the bakery when something unexpectedly changes with the bread and we're like oh, yeah, the weather."

5. Sourcing and storage. "Right now, the best source for grains is Anson Mills. They're reviving heirloom grains and bringing back traditional crops, they have good farming practices and, most importantly, they mill under really cold temperatures. I don't know of anyone who goes to the lengths that they do. The flavors and aromas of their flours and grains are just incredible.

Here in San Francisco, we have Rainbow Foods which has a fantastic bulk section and a big turnover, so their grains and flours are always fresh. When I started doing this, I was aware that some of these ancient grains were going to be expensive and hard to find but that's how it is when you're at the beginning of something, just getting things started. Over time, it will catch on and things will become more available and the prices will go down. If you don't have a Rainbow Foods or something like it, it's not impossible to get your hands on a lot grains through the internet.

If you need to store them a while, keep them well sealed and in the refrigerator. Maybe the freezer if you really need to hold them. Definitely not in a warm place and definitely well sealed."

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(Image credits: Tartine Bakery; Dana Velden)

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