Flour Quality  

Fourth in a Series of Articles


Thom Leonard *

Thom Leonard is a baker and writer living in Lawrence, Kansas and working with Farm to Market Bread Company in Kansas City, Missouri.  He asked that we include the following in this article:

"I'd like to set the record straight.  At the time the I wrote this article for the Bread Bakers' Guild, I did my best not to editorialize, as the article was not meant to be an op-ed piece, but an informative article.  I hope it is that.   I do have opinions, hold them strongly, and don't mind if they're known.  My family has been in Kansas, "The Wheat State," for four generations.  Agri-business has not been kind to our land, water, or small communities.  I'm all for organic, small scale, community-friendly farming. "

 Thom Leonard, 8 February, 2000, Blue Moon Ranch, Lawrence Kansas

Organic Flour

Many bakers are using organic flour to produce their artisinal hearth breads. This has numerous advantages, and poses at least as many challenges. There is a definite marketing advantage for bread made with organic flour, especially in some markets. Organic agriculture is seen as being "Earth-Friendly," whereas conventional agriculture is often held responsible for groundwater pollution, erosion, and the destruction of the traditional family farm and rural society. Not only is organically grown wheat certifiably free of potentially hazardous contaminants, it is often grown on smaller, family-owned and operated farms and milled by smaller, independent, locally-owned companies. Many see this as a milieu worth supporting, although this small business scenario is changing as General Mills, ConAgra, and Bay State venture into the organic market. 

What is organic flour? A flour that carries the label "Certified Organically Grown" should have passed through a rigorously controlled, inspected, and documented pathway from seed to flour sack. There are several organizations that certify flour (and other foods). Known as third party certifiers, each has its own set of rules, but they all contain the same basic stipulations. The Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), Farm Verified Organic (FVO), and the Organic Growers and Buyers Association (OGBA) are among the most prominent. You should be able to obtain from your supplier a certificate form verifying your flour's "organic-ness."

It is not enough that a wheat from which a flour is milled be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides while it is in the field. The field itself must have been free of chemical applications for three years, and there must be a long-term soil improvement plan in process for the field. This will include crop rotation, fertility management, and erosion control. Insects and diseases must be controlled through approved techniques using approved material, not just for the wheat crop, but for all crops grown on the field over the course of several years. If prohibited substances are applied, the field will lose its certification, and three years must pass before any crop grown in that field can be sold as "certified organic."

Nor does the certification process stop when the wheat is harvested. Storage, both of the wheat and of the flour milled from it must be under proper conditions.  Inspection and documentation is required. Generally speaking, no toxic fumigants or other treatments can be applied to the wheat or to the storage facility during a certain time period before the organic product is stored.

Cost Considerations: 

Organic flour costs more than conventional flour. Part of this increased cost is due to actual increased cost of production, both of organic wheat and of milled flour. As a rule, more person hours are required to grow a ton of organic wheat than a ton of conventional wheat. It takes more time to care for the soil than to run a factory farm. Purchased organic soil supplements are more expensive than NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) fertilizer. 

Some of the extra cost is due to economy of scale: the market for organic flour is minuscule compared to the overall flour market. A mill buying a trainload of wheat is going to get a better price on shipping than a mill buying a truckload. It costs more to keep pests out of stored wheat using natural, non-toxic methods and materials than conventional "-cides."  If a mill is being used for both organic and conventional flour, there is a clean-up and isolation cost, borne by the organic flour. The inspection and verification process costs money. And because organic wheat and flour must both be kept isolated from their conventional counterparts, a separate infrastructure exists for growing, storing, milling and transporting these products. Often, a baker must buy organic flour directly from the supplier, which involves higher shipping costs or buying whole truck-loads if storage space is available for that much flour. Organic flour is often distributed by natural food companies; their mark-up increases the cost.

Finally, even if it didn't cost more to produce organic flour, there exists a "perceived value" that might work to keep the price elevated. 

How much more will you pay for organic flour? At the bakery where I now work, we pay more than twice a much for organic flour than we do for our conventional flour.  It is doubtful that many customers will pay nearly twice as much for a loaf of bread made with organic flour, but this does not have to be the case. If flour costs fourteen cents more per pound, the dough (at 68% hydration and 2% salt) would only cost about a dime extra per 20 ounce piece. If more time is spent on ordering organic flour, or if there are special storage considerations, these should be seen as extra costs. Fair pricing can be calculated from there, perhaps even adding a slightly increased margin for the "perceived value." 

In general, there is a sufficient supply of organic flour to meet current market demands in this country. Some organic wheat grown in the United States is usually sold in Europe where the demand is strong.  In some years, excess organic wheat is sold off by farmers into the regular wheat market, losing its certifiable identity. 

Organic flour does not necessarily make better bread; indeed, it may be difficult to find an organic bread flour that will consistently meet a baker's quality requirements. Organic flour from some mills in some years may be more variable than conventional flour. This is primarily due to a shortage of blending stocks - or to not blending at all. Because there is less organic wheat grown than conventional, there is less for the grain buyer to choose from.  In some cases, the miller only draws from wheat grown in the nearby region. An additional problem is that most smaller mills, organic or conventional, do not have extensive analytical labs. A supplier of organic unbleached flour might supply documentation of protein and ash levels for any given sample, but might not guarantee that levels will be consistent from batch to batch. 

Another reason why the performance of organic flour might be different than that of conventional flour could be the milling process. While some suppliers of organic white flour may contract with large millers who use conventional gradual reduction mills, this is not always the case. Some organic white flour is milled not in such mills, but ground with stones and bolted. The resulting flour may not have as much of the germ and bran removed. It may have a different proportion of starch particles damaged in the milling process. For those and other reasons, it may perform quite differently from roller milled flour. This is not necessarily good or bad, but such flour may require adaptation of formulas and procedures to obtain the optimum product. 

Until recently, much of the organic flour was sold on the retail market or to small bakeries which were more concerned with producing "pure food" rather than with making "good bread" to be judged by any external standards. And most of those bakeries specialized in whole grain products, often for devoted customers, and often laden with sweeteners and oils. Protein levels were often bolstered with the addition of vital wheat gluten. Many of those home bakers and "health food" bakers did not have a background in grain science or in baking. If their bread was inconsistent, it was often never noticed. The flour was seldom blamed. There were too many variables, and, in many areas, there would only be one source of organic flour, so there were no options available. 

With increasing interest in both good bread and in environmental quality, this situation has improved greatly in the past few years. There are several suppliers of organic flour that blend stocks to obtain consistent quality, and this quality can be quite good. Keep in mind, however, that flour must meet certain standards if to make good bread from it. Those standards should be the same for both organic as for conventional flour.  

Throughout most of this article, the term "flour" refers to a refined, unbleached white flour made from hard wheat. Whole wheat flour is quite another story. As with other flours, whole wheat must be milled from sound stock that possesses good milling and baking qualities. Whole wheat, though, must often have a higher or better protein content than that from which white flour is milled if the resultant loaves are to have good volume. Flavor is also more of a concern with whole wheat. With white flour, much of the flavor is a product of fermentation. (That is not to say that the wheat does not contribute flavor in white flour; it does.) With whole wheat, the bran and germ contribute major flavor constituents.

For many years, the organic market has been more concerned with whole grain flours and breads than with refined products, and this shows in the quality of many organic whole wheat flours. In addition to having good performance characteristics, much of it is carefully milled, and stored as briefly as possible, sometimes under refrigeration, which reduces the oxidation of fats in the germ. Some bakers actually choose to use organic whole wheat for its quality and taste, even if they use conventional white flour in their bakeries. 

Making good bread requires skill, knowledge, and practiced judgment, as well as ingredients possessing proper qualities. By limiting choices to those that are organically produced, the baker may discover that he or she is increasing the level of difficulty of making consistently good bread. Every baker should have a standard for a good loaf that every loaf is measured against. Each loaf should stand on its own, without benefit of the word "organic" on the label. 

To properly call bread organic, it is not sufficient that the baker use organic flour. The bakery's facilities and procedures must meet certain requirements, the bakery must be inspected, and the baker must keep accurate records. Are approved rodent and insect control measures used? Is there any chance that non-certified ingredients might find their way into the organic products, even as minor contaminants? 

Being certified by one of the certifying organizations can be expensive, although at least has a "cottage industry" clause designed to make the process more affordable for certain small producers.

If the bakery is not certified, it can still identify its bread as being "made with certified organically grown flour." But if the bread contains some ingredients which are not organically grown, the customer should also be informed of that fact. It is not necessary to identify non-certified ingredients in a negative way: for example, no need for "grown with toxic chemicals that will destroy the earth and cause cancer in laboratory rats." A simple statement of which ingredients are organic and which ones are not should suffice. 

Bakers choose to make bread with organic wheat for a number of reasons. Some are only interested in capturing customers for whom "organic" is an important product quality. In this case, bakers may choose to bake only organic breads, or just a completely separate organic line. Some bakers use organic flour because they like its performance and have found reliable, consistent suppliers. Still others support organic farming as a sociopolitical or moral environmental choice. All of these reasons, individually or in combination, can be used to create a marketing advantage - and good bread.  

*The Artisan thanks Greg Mistell,  Executive Director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America for permission to reproduce this series of article by Mr. Leonard.

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Last Updated on 02/23/2000 12:15:00 PM