The best bread is home-grown
[This article first appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times, and the photos below are all copyright Ron Nehrig. Click on images to enlarge.]
Bread is ubiquitous in stores, restaurants and bakeries. Yet most people don’t know what real bread tastes like. Ron Nehrig is keenly aware of the difference, because he makes his own loaves from whole grains he grows himself.
Ron lives in a house he built on a 15-acre property in northern Monroe County. A fine food aficionado, he approaches the challenge of making excellent bread with the same rigor that he employed before retirement as a computer engineer and IT specialist.
“I’ve grown a garden forever,” he observed, “along with a big area of wildflowers, sorghum, millet, Egyptian wheat and sunflowers that I grow for the birds.” As he spoke, countless juncos, finches, nuthatches and chickadees fluttered around the feeding station outside his living room window. “I’ve always grown winter wheat, oats and rye as cover crops, but I never thought to harvest it because I had no way to mill it. So I finally decided to harvest some for myself. Once I had a grain mill, there was no going back.”
Everyone knows that home-baked bread tastes better than grocery-store bread. But bread tastes even better when made from freshly-ground organic whole grains harvested from the yard. The toast that Ron served me was aromatic, fine-grained, and utterly delectable.
“There’s just no comparison with my flour and store-bought whole wheat flour,” he said. “The age of store flour means that nutrients have oxidized and fats are going rancid. And refined white flour has lost most of the nutrients that are necessary for our health. It’s not surprising that so many people are becoming intolerant of wheat.”
Research at Cornell has established that a whole wheat kernel contains health-enhancing antioxidants, just like fruits and vegetables. But refining wheat into white flour eliminates 70 percent of the vitamins and minerals and 83% of the antioxidants. Enriching flour only adds five of the thirteen nutrients back, and none of the antioxidants. Wheat kernels will keep for several years, but flour soon loses its quality. That’s why Ron mills his flour just before mixing each batch of fresh bread.
“Bread made with refined flour has become just a carbo-wrapper for other foods, instead of being a food itself,” he stated. “Wheat has gotten a bad name lately, but what we’ve been eating is just carbohydrates, only a portion of the wheat. It’s like eating only one small part of the cow.” (As a reporter I can truthfully state that although generally sensitive to gluten, I ate two slices at Ron’s home followed by three more slices that I took home, with no ill effects.)
Ron’s whole grain loaves are fine-textured and delicate because he sifts the fresh flour and removes the rough bran coating of the grain. He then sends that bran back through the mill two or three times before returning it to the flour. In this way he retains useful fiber without impairing the structure of the developing gluten strands during the kneading process.
The hillside below Ron’s house basks in light. A nearby pond supplies fish as well as water for his extensive garden. “I grow as much of my own food as I can, and eliminate as many environmental problems as I can,” he said. “I like to know the origins of the food I eat.”
The open hillside provides plenty of space for open patches of different grains to grow. Each patch yields anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds of finished grain.
Ron grows several varieties of corn, millet, spring wheat, winter wheat, oats, and Khorasan wheat (also known as kamut), a large-grained yellow wheat which may have originated in the Khorasan province of Iran. He harvests by hand using a kitchen knife and runs the seed-heads through a slow running hammermill shredder to separate the grain from the chaff. Working by hand in the summer heat, he often muses about how a farmer in the 1800s with a hundred acres would have processed his crop.
“People who have no room to grow can still mill their own flour and make wonderful bread,” he pointed out. “It’s very rewarding and satisfying to grow your own, but you don’t have to. Most of these grains can be bought at Bloomingfoods and Sahara Mart. Even Wal-Mart occasionally carries organic wheat berries in 25-pound bags.”
Mixing bread is not rocket science. The ingredients can be as simple as flour, salt, a dash of oil and yeast. He alters the ingredients slightly each time he bakes, and often adds homegrown corn flour, millet, barley, oats, rye, spelt, durum, sorghum, and other grains.
Wherever he goes, Ron preaches the virtue of real bread. And after tasting his exquisite breads, it’s easy to become a convert. An electric mill costs about $240 and takes up about the same amount of counter space as an electric mixer.
“I will plant grain as long as I can manage,” he summed up. “And not milling grain is a missed opportunity.”
For more information on how Ron Nehrig grows and harvests grain, copiously illustrated with his own photos, see http://www.RonNehrig.com/Gardens.html. Many of his favorite recipes are posted at http://ronnehrig.blogspot.com/p/breads.html.