When it comes to baking, consistency can prove to be quite the challenge considering the seemingly infinite number of variables one has to consider: Things such as room temperature and humidity, water temperature, proofing time, even inconsistencies from one oven to the next, all affect the outcome of your loaves, or “boules.” Many standard flours such as All Purpose or Bread Flours have been used enough by professionals and home cooks alike, that one can determine relatively quickly what needs to be done in order for their full potential to come through. Kernza, on the other hand, has yet to stand the test of time. There is no “catalogue of standards” so to speak, on the cooking properties of this wonderful perennial grain. Therefore, there are a myriad of opportunities for experimentation! The purpose of this test, and the many tests to follow, is to contribute one piece of the puzzle at a time to the collective knowledge surrounding Kerna and its application in the culinary arts.
So... our first experiment, and first contribution to the puzzle: How coarse should your flour be? Now, there is a lot of literature out there in reference to this sort of thing, but the majority of it is in regard to more common flours: A.P., Bread, Cake, etc. Our goal was to see if these standards hold true to Kernza flour, and in the process, dial in our own milling standards at the Pantry. With this experiment, we are testing the general baking properties of Kernza flour milled to five different particle sizes. How did we determine our particle size? Simply by turning our mill adjustment dial clockwise to a number of five predetermined distances: the greater the turn, the farther apart the milling stones are, and the coarser the grind. Our “turns” ranged from 1/8th of a turn (coarse) to 1/32 of a turn (very fine). This gave us flours somewhere between 00 and semolina. All in, we had five different coarseness levels to play around with measured by turn distance. They were ⅛, ¼, 3/16, 1/16, and 1/32.
Alright. What to bake? Fortunately we have a few tried and true recipes from our friend and cookbook author, Beth Dooley, that were perfect for this sort of experiment. We went with her Kernza Bread recipe: a yeasted loaf that incorporates an addition of whole wheat flour. This recipe contains all of the steps necessary for a classic bread loaf, making it ideal to determine any inconsistencies in each step of the process. The recipe is posted.
As one can see, each loaf was relatively similar. However, a few key differences emerged throughout the process:
Mixing: When combining the flour and wet components of the dough, we noticed a clear divide between the three coarsest flours (1/8th, 1/4th, 3/16th) and the two finest (1/16, 1/32). The coarse flours were “less thirsty.” In other words, they struggled when it came to absorbing moisture. As a result, the dough did not reflect the guidelines of Beth’s recipe: In the mixing phase, one needs to add flour, up to a certain amount, until the dough becomes “too hard to stir.” Because the coarser flours struggled to absorb liquid and hydrate, the dough remained loose and, and very tacky. The finer flours, however, did not need extra flour to mimic the properties of the recipe; the dough came together very easily.
Kneading: Similar obstacles also came to light during the kneading phase. To remain true to the recipe, the dough was never kneaded past 10 minutes, and in that time, once again, the three course doughs never achieved the smooth and less tacky dough structure the recipe called for. In fact, the two most coarse flours required a substantial amount of added flour in order for the dough to form any structure whatsoever. As you may have guessed, the finer flours were able to do this.
Proofing: This phase saw the least deviation across each sample; each loaf was able to proof to twice its size. The only variation revealed itself when the coarse loaves spread out laterally a little more than the fine flours. It should be noted that this variation was miniscule and difficult to detect in the end product.
Tasting: When it finally came to tasting each sample, there seemed to be two prominent characteristics that had an inverse relationship to each other: dryness, and crumb density. As the samples increased in fineness (smaller particle size), the loaves became increasingly more dense and less dry. The “¼” loaf was almost too dry, but the crumb was soft, light, and a little crumbly. On the other end of the spectrum, the “1/32” loaf was very toothy and dense, yet moist. Too much of either of these two characteristics were considered unpleasant. Therefore, it is no surprise that the “3/16” and “1/16” loaves were determined to be of the highest quality, as they had an exceptional mix of moisture retention and crumb density!
Issues: As seen in the photos, the “1/16” and “1/32” loaves haven an interesting crumb. It looks as though the crumb itself separated from the crust. This is known to be a phenomenon called “flying crust,” and it could be a sign of over proofing. When a dough is over proofed, excess gas builds up inside of the loaf, so much so that it can no longer be contained. During the bake, this gas leeches out of the crumb and gets trapped under the crust revealing a separation. With this in mind, a second test was performed to eliminate potential proofing inconsistencies. This time, however, only the “3/16,” “1/16,” and “1/32” flours were tested as they had the most desirable traits. The second trial was a success! Each loaf proofed correctly, and the results were noted.
Final conclusion: In the end, the winner was a close call. Again, the “3/16” and “1/16” loaves had the most desirable characteristics: Pleasant crumb density and moisture content. Those two components paired with the delightful aroma and flavor of Kernza yielded an amazing loaf of bread! The deciding factor eventually came down to which dough best mimicked the steps of the recipe, and that dough was the “1/16” grind. With this flour, each step matched very well according to Beth’s process, and the end result was a very pleasant eating experience!