Saturday, April 1, 2017

Home-Milled Flour for Pasta

Since buying a KoMo Fidibus Classic grain mill last summer, I have purchased bags of different types of wheat berries and milled quite a bit of flour to make fresh pasta. In Cooking by Hand (2003), Paul Bertolli discusses the importance of making pasta with quality flour. He writes: “Pasta in its simplest form is grain moistened with water. Water, added directly or contributed by eggs, has little effect on the flavor of flour other than to help convey it, and eggs, which are themselves composed of water, play an understated if noticeable role in the taste of pasta made from them. Flour is the essence of pasta, all the more reason to consider its selection seriously.” (Emphasis added.) Bertolli continues and, to my mind, puts forth the best reason why a pasta maker should consider purchasing a grain mill to make flour: “Flour used very soon after milling produces the best, most fragrant pasta.”

Marc Vetri puts “very soon” into context in his 2015 cookbook entitled Mastering Pasta: “As soon as you crack a wheat berry, its flavor and aroma begin to dissipate. Within two days of grinding wheat berries into flour, nearly half of the flavorful oils—as well as many of the healthful nutrients—will oxidize. Within three days, 90 percent of the volatile flavor compounds in the flour will have been simply lost to the air.” Grinding grain at home assures fragrant, fresh flour. Home milling also opens up a world of possibilities by allowing the pasta maker to completely control a noodle’s flavor and texture.

Wheat varieties have different qualities that lend themselves to certain uses. The amount and quality of protein in a wheat berry determines if its flour better suits a soft biscuit or an extruded, dried pasta. When buying wheat, you will often find berry varieties described by color, hardness and season. You can select white or red; soft or hard; and spring or winter wheat. A pasta maker can create excellent fresh pasta with a broad range of modern and heritage wheat varieties. Ancient grains, such as spelt, farro and Khorasan wheat, also make excellent pasta flour. Buying a grain mill allows you to experiment with these berries and make different tasting pasta.

This post will briefly examine the how and why one might blend whole-grain flour (i.e., flour without any bran or germ removed) with refined flour (i.e. flour with its bran or germ removed). I discuss bolting (or sifting) whole-grain flour to remove different percentages of bran and germ when making fresh pasta (here).

Blending Flour

Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand contains 14 different pasta dough recipes. In a number of these recipes, Bertolli recommends blending freshly milled whole-grain flour with a refined flour. He writes: “Because whole-grain flour contains bran, which ruptures the gluten fabric, it must be ‘cut’ with white flour to improve the integrity of the dough.” When describing the characteristics of hard red winter wheat, Bertolli explains that although “it makes a very fragrant, course flour…[it]…must be blended with at least an equal amount of white flour in order to make pasta that does not fracture when extended and then cooked.”

The careful reader recognizes that Bertolli states “whole-grain flour…must be “cut” with white flour to improve the integrity of the dough.” (Emphasis added.) One can certainly use whole-grain flour straight from the mill to make fresh pasta without adding white flour. However, depending on your grain selection and mill grind, the pasta made with whole-grain flour will likely lack elasticity and plasticity (i.e., the ability to take and hold a shape). These qualities may not matter if you want to create a rustic, flat noodle. If so, 100 percent whole-grain flour may suit your needs. However, if you want to make a less rough and/or shaped pasta, then you will need to consider how to mitigate the impact of the grain’s bran (and, to a lesser extent, its germ) in your milled whole-grain flour.

Bertolli’s recipe for Farro Flour Pasta evidences his approach of blending to maintain the taste and aroma of whole-grain pasta without suffering some of its structural drawbacks. When he wrote Cooking by Hand in 2003, the market for specialty grain flours differed from what consumers can purchase today in 2017. In his Farro Flour Pasta recipe, Bertolli writes: “If you own your own grain mill, you may wish to grind your own farro flour, which presently is available only in whole form.” Now one can buy milled-to-order organic farro flour online. Bluebird Grain Farm in Washington State currently sells two different varieties of farro flour: einkorn (also known as farro piccolo) and emmer (aka farro medio). However, if you own a grain mill, farro pasta benefits from the taste and aroma of just milled flour. Here’s Bertolli’s recipe for Farro Flour Pasta for 4.

5 ounces whole farro, freshly milled
5 ounces Extra Fancy semolina
4 ounces cool water

Place the farro and semolina flour in a bread bowl and make a well in the center. Add water to the well and stir with a fork to combine. When the dough begins to form a shaggy mass, reach into the bowl with your stronger hand and alternately squeeze and push down the dough with your palm. Press any loose bits of flour into the mass. When the dough feels tacky and fully incorporated, transfer it to a clean, lightly floured surface and knead it for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it loses its surface moisture, is a uniform color, and springs back when depressed. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to hydrate for at least 1 hour before rolling.

Bertolli writes that “farro makes pasta the color of caffè latte with a subtle wheat taste.” This pasta also boasts a pleasant chewiness. And, for the record, freshly milled farro flour smells intoxicating.

A few notes. I like to work with grams so I convert ounces to grams when I make this dough. Five ounces equals approximately 142 grams; four ounces equals about 114 grams.

Some experts recommend freezing grain before milling because they believe the resulting flour smells and tastes better, and further, provides health benefits. In Mastering Pasta, Marc Vetri quotes Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills on this subject: “Milling temperature determines how flavor develops in flour. If viable grain is milled cold, the resultant flour retains fresh milled flavors and is considered ‘live’ flour because the biostructure of the viable grain is retained in cold milling.” I have also read that freezing grain may cause the grain’s bran to shatter which, in turn, can further impact a dough’s gluten fabric. I remain reluctant to go too far down this particular rabbit hole because so many variables affect one’s analysis: Type of grain; grain temperature; mill-type/technology; mill speed; grain feed rate; impact upon bolted vs whole-grain flour; etc. If I come across milling information that materially informs my pasta making process, I will report back.  

So, to prepare for milling, I first weigh out my grain. I have made Bertolli’s Farro Flour Pasta with both whole-grain einkorn from Bluebird Grain Farm and with farro piccolo from Anson Mills. I adjust the grind on my KoMo Fidibus Classic grain mill to Fein (fine) with the round grind marker 4 clicks to the left of the unit’s top left miter joint. From my experience, 142 grams of farro grain produces 142 grams of whole-wheat farro flour.

Although Bertolli’s recipe calls for hand mixing the dough, I have also made this dough in a Kitchen Aid standing mixer using a paddle attachment. If you opt for this method—which I prefer because I can gradually add water and gauge how the dough develops—add the farro and semolina flour to the mixer’s bowl, turn the machine to stir and very slowly add the water to create the dough. When making this dough, I found that I need to add just a bit more water—maybe a gram or two—than Bertolli recommends. In general, freshly milled whole-grain flour absorbs more liquid than store-bought flour because of its bran. When adding additional water to finish a dough, I suggest using a spray bottle filled with water so as to spritz just enough liquid to bring the dough together. This farro dough softens considerably during its one hour hydration, so use a light hand when adding additional moisture.

Finally, note that Bertolli blends freshly milled farro flour with Extra Fancy semolina (aka Extra Fancy durum). Farro’s low gluten benefits from a partnership with a wheat flour that contains high gluten levels. (The same holds true for other low gluten grains such as rye or with buckwheat seed, which has no gluten.) The pasta maker quickly learns that she needs to consider the quality of gluten in the grain milled when making pasta dough. For example, if you want to use a whole-grain soft white wheat, your dough may benefit by adding Extra Fancy durum or some other high gluten wheat flour. However, if you decide to bolt your soft white flour, adding a high gluten flour may not be as critical (because the dough will become more workable after removing bran and germ from the milled flour).

In summary, one approach to making fresh pasta with freshly milled whole-grain flour is to blend the whole-grain flour with a refined flour. Consider using a high-gluten refined flour to blend when using whole-grain flour milled from a grain with low gluten levels, such as farro or rye. Start by experimenting with a 50/50 blend of whole-grain and refined flour.