Grinding and Using Whole Grain
by Khoke and Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
When we think of growing grain, we picture vast fields of golden grain. A lovely sight indeed. But feels out of reach for most of us. Land, equipment, and learning curve can be a bit much on our own. It doesn’t have to be this way.
When I lived in Tennessee, I traveled to a lot of events selling the baskets that I made. This gave me the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people. At one event I met the band director of a local school, his students were performing at the street event. The conversation turned to neither baskets nor music but rather gardening. He said he grew some of his own grain in his backyard garden. It grew across one end of the garden and he harvested it by hand.
I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing. In this century at least. I was fascinated.
There are ways to hand thresh and winnow it. It is time consuming. But then, what is time? We have a finite amount of it, but it is ours to manage as we will. It is used best when we learn how to not just be alive, but to live.
Among the methods of hand threshing, the most basic is simply rubbing the heads of grain between your hands (leather gloves recommended). This separates the wheat from its hull. This works great for wheat or rye but oats have a hull not so easily removed.
Another way to process your wheat is to pour buckets of your grain heads on a swept concrete pad and then walk on it with soft soled shoes, rubbing it between the concrete and your feet. Be careful to not get too carried away or you can prematurely crush the grain. Rake your loose plant matter off to the side. Sweep the wheat and fine chaff into a bucket. Rework the wheat straw that you swept aside, treading it with your feet again to see if you can loosen any more grain. Rake aside again and collect the grain.
Once you are satisfied you have released as much grain as you can it is time to winnow the grain. You need two buckets, tubs or bowls and a good breeze or box fan. Put your empty bucket on the ground (preferably on a sheet in case some accidentally spills). Raise the bucket carrying the grain a foot or two above the empty one and begin pouring slowly. The grain is heavier than the chaff and the wind will blow the chaff off to the side missing the bucket. Repeat this process back and forth between the two buckets until the wheat is reasonably clean. You may have some hand cleaning to do, picking out the pieces that did not blow away. Now you are ready to prepare your wheat for grinding or storing.
When growing backyard grain, start with a small and very manageable amount. See how much it produces for you and then next year you will know if you want to do it again and how much you want to grow.
If I were growing grain in my backyard I would do it in wide rows. This would be about 8 rows, 4 inches apart, with the wheat spaced about 4 inches apart in each row. Give yourself an aisleway with another row if you want one.
Research your grain. Winter wheat and rye are planted in the fall. Spring wheat and “hull-less oats” are planted in the very early spring. Other grains can be grown as well, buckwheat, millet and more. Be mindful that you will have to find a way to hull barley, oats and buckwheat.
For those interested in finding their grain closer to home but not quite ready for the backyard, you can buy whole grain either through the bulk food source of your choice, someplace like Azure, or you can buy it farmer direct from someone local, provided someone locally does grow it and to a standard you are comfortable with.
Sometimes, if you can make it worth their while, a farmer can grow a specialty crop for you. This works best with the cooperative effort of multiple families.
You can also plant and grow a couple acres of grain. If it is easy to access the acreage with a local farmer’s combine, you may be able to hire him to harvest it for you. Arrange this long in advance so they can plan on it. Here in our area a person can hire a field to be combined for around $50 per acre. This price can vary by region and is subject to fuel prices which will certainly influence the cost of fuel not only for the combine but for how far the farmer has to travel. Keep in mind that it will take the farmer almost the same amount of time to do 10 acres as 1 acre. Combining a small acreage is more graciousness than profit for the owner of the equipment.
Why bother with whole grains anyway? Well, there are a lot of experts out there with data charts that can tell you a lot more than I can. However, I like to picture what my grandfather once described.
My grandfather used to say that whole food is a long train with many cars. He said food fresh off the organic stem was the whole train. Every time the train has to make a stop during processing it would lose a car (or more). Many of the highly processed foods found in the store had the train stop so many times on its way into the plastic wrapper that it lost not only all the cars but the engine too.
Grain harvested fresh from the field has all its cars still following the engine. This is assuming the grain was grown and harvested responsibly, otherwise it may be missing some of the cars at the get-go. From here the grain is stored, then ground at a high temperature in a high speed impact mill, where the starches, germ and bran are all separated, bleached, packaged and stored some more before finally baked or cooked. Then likely it is stored again in another package before it eventually ends up on the dinner plate. Hopefully, it has a little nutrition left when it gets there.
Wheat is well suited to long term storage when the wheat berry is intact. Once ground, however, it is best to not store it long term. It can begin to go rancid within a couple weeks. If you have ever detected a slightly bitter flavor from wheat flour this is what is happening. Ground flour, milled or bought in bulk, stores best in a freezer. White flours keep longer than whole grain flours. Whole grain flours have the life giving oils in the wheat germ still there whereas that is removed in the white flour. It is this oil that goes rancid.
We grind our flour fresh every week. This flour seems to be much more cooperative in the kitchen than flour that has been on the shelf a long time.
Hand Crank Grinders
There are a lot of hand crank grinders. It is said that the best grinders come from America, Germany, or Japan. But we have liked the Corona grinder from Columbia and the Diamant mill from Poland. These are both excellent for very different reasons.
When I was in my teens, my father bought an American made grinder from Retsel, a great Amercian company. It came with both stone and steel burrs. We found that the stone burrs seemed to get the flour finer. But if we wanted to grind something oily like peanuts, we had to use the steel burrs because the oily peanuts would gum up and ruin the stone burrs.
One thing us kids learned really fast was to never give the impression that we were bored or needed a job. There was always cornmeal or wheat to grind.
Khoke and I have and use a Corona grinder. This is an inexpensive yet good grinder that comes from Columbia. It is traditionally used to grind corn or beans. It can also grind wet things such as sprouts. We like to use ours for grinding our homegrown herbs and spices. Wait till you make homemade garlic powder! You will never be the same.
It is important to clean it well after using it on something oily or wet. I just wash mine in my dishwater, rinse it and then dry it in my oven. The heat warms the metal and dries it completely.
Pedal Powered Grinders
Although I have no personal experience with these, I have seen them and know it can be done. The handle of a hand crank grinder can be traded out for a pulley. A bicycle can be made stationary and adjusted to turn a pulley instead of a wheel. These pulleys are then connected by belt and the grinder becomes pedal powered instead of hand crank. Since our legs are so much stronger than our arms, one can grind much more with greater ease this way.*
*I know these are out there. Maybe someone has a picture of a pedal powered grinder to share with the rest of us.
When our grain comes in from the field it does not come perfectly clean. There are bits of plant matter, dust, chaff and a grasshopper leg here and there. Although the FDA approves a certain amount of this ground into commercial four, we’d rather not have it in ours.
Khoke prepares our grain for grinding by running it through a seed cleaner first. This is a boxy hand crank piece of shop furniture.
The cleaner has a hopper to fill with grain. From here its release to the shaker trays below is controlled by a lever. Three shaker trays, each on top of the other and shaking in unison, drop the grain through them and catch any large debris (usually plant matter). The grain drops on a tilted platform shaking in the opposite direction. This works the grain down to where it falls through a slot. The falling grain is met with air from a blower which blows the fine chaff out of the grain. This grain falls onto a tilted fine screen platform that allows any small weed seed to drop through, but the wheat scoots on down to the tub waiting to catch it.
A person can make their own manual seed cleaners by stapling screens to wooden frames. One of the screens needs to allow the grain to fall through and one needs to be just small enough to detain the wheat but release the dust and chaff. Then you just manually shake the screens.
For the final round you just winnow it and then handpick if necessary. If you have dirt balls in your grain the siftings will get it out; all except for the grain sized pieces. These will not sift or winnow out. They have to be hand picked.
Horse Powered Grinding
Khoke and I have our grinders hooked up to a horse power unit. At one end of the woodshop there is a row of grinders. The first one, painted yellow, is a grinder that was picked up at an auction years ago. This one is set very coarse and basically just cracks the wheat.
From the cracker it goes to a cast iron Diamont grinder that is set to grind a finer, yet still coarse grinding. Then it goes to another Diamont mill with ultra fine burrs and this one grinds the final grind.
These grinders can all run simultaneously with minimal effort from the horses. Often Khoke will run the corn cracker at the same time, a set of rollers boxed in with wood. Corn is fed into the hopper on top and comes out cracked from a chute at the bottom.
Most of our grinders have homemade hoppers that allow us to fill them with a fairly large amount of grain so we don’t have to babysit the grinders continually. They are refilled every 15-20 minutes. This allows a person to work on another project at the same time.
This system seems to do a better overall job and faster.
Wet vs. Dry Grain
How dry the grain is makes a big difference as to how fine it will grind. If the grain is not dry enough, or the air is extremely humid, it makes it much harder to grind. The final grind burrs get hot and can gum up. Due to lower humidity, it seems like we can consistently get finer flour in the winter than the summer.
When grinding corn I have noticed a big difference in moisture content. If I shell corn direct from the grain bin and try to grind it, at its best it is still coarser than I like to eat. Trying to grind it finer will gum up the burrs.
However, if I shell my corn, and oven dry it really well, it can be ground into a very fine corn flour. I actually like to lightly toast the corn. This makes a cornmeal with an amazing aroma.
I don’t recommend oven drying wheat. It is too easy to lightly roast it and when this happens the gluten is damaged and does not work as well as it should.
Horsepower Generated RPMs and the Grinder
I asked Khoke what the rpm was on the grinder(s). He didn’t know off the top of his head but thought he could figure it out. There are formulas for these things.
The shaft coming from the horsepower unit runs about 80-90 rpm, depending on how fast the horses are walking. The shaft has a 24 inch diameter pulley on it inside the shop. A belt connects the 24 inch pulley to a 4 inch diameter pulley running another shaft. This secondary shaft turns a 6 inch diameter pulley that v-belts to the 12 inch diameter pulley on the grinder.
To find the rpm on the grinder we start at the horsepower shaft. The pulley on it is divided by the pulley it belts to and this is multiplied by the 80 rpm on the HP shaft. 80 (24÷4) = 480 rpm. The secondary shaft is turning at 480 rpm.
To find the rpm of the grinder pulley we repeat the formula with the new numbers, 480 (6÷12) = 240 rpm. The grinder is then turning at 240 rpm.
Basically the shaft rpm is multiplied by the pulley on it and then divided by the pulley it is going to. But the formula is simpler to divide the pulley numbers before multiplying it by the rpm. This is to get the secondary shaft/pulley rpm
If your kids try to tell you they don’t need math to be a horse-farming adult, don’t listen for a minute.
Using the Grain
When you switch to using and eating whole grain regularly you will find yourself affected by the extra fiber. A person can rack up some frequent flyer miles to the bathroom. Visitors to our home, and also people new to eating whole grain flour products notice this. Sorry, it is not the water. It is the high fiber diet. This, ahem…. frequency, although inconvenient, is good for a person and certainly better than the compaction caused by highly processed fiber-free flours. However, the body does adjust to the diet change and the frequency subsides.
The freshly ground whole grain is literally whole. It has all the bran, wheat germ, starch and gluten. For some of the things I use my flour for I prefer less bran. So to make my flour finer I will sift it through a screen of some kind.
There are a number of sifters I have tried. The standard hand crank sifter generally has a fairly coarse screen and will detain only the coarsest bran. There are standard sieve screens that flour can be sifted through. These can be found in most kitchen supply outlets. Some have fine screen and some not.
For really fine flour I sift it through a fine screen fabric. I simply stretch the fabric over a bucket or bowl and clothespin it in place. Then I put a cup or two of flour into it and stir it back and forth until as much flour has gone through as possible. Then I scoop the bran out and set it aside. Another cup or two of whole flour is then dumped on the cloth screen.
This finely sifted flour works better for gravy, pudding, pastry and thickeners of any kind. It also works better in baked bread and dessert cakes.
When using whole grain flours, especially those that are really whole (with nothing separated or sifted out,) you need to make sure the flour is hydrated enough. When making white bread from standard commercial flour, you can just mix your ingredients together adding flour until the dough isn’t sticky and then it is ready for kneading, raising and baking. To do a bread dough this way with whole grain flour can be disastrous. It tends to make a very dry bread.
A popular bread making technique with whole wheat flour (with all the bran and wheat germ) is to soak the flour overnight. Measure the amount of liquid your recipe calls for, put most (but not all) the flour into it (no yeast) and let it “soak” overnight. This completely hydrates all parts of the flour making it tender and easier to digest. In the morning the yeast and remaining ingredients can be worked in and then whatever flour added to make the dough easy to handle.
There is a shortcut version of this that I do. My planning ahead skills tend to leave something to be desired. I measure my liquids and leave them cold/room temperature, add salt, sweetener, yeast, oil and about a third of the flour. I whisk it well and leave it set an hour or two. This allows the flour to hydrate without ever-activating the yeast. Then I add a cup of flour every half hour and work it in until the dough is workable but slightly sticky. I try to err slightly on the wet side rather than dry. Then I allow it to rise in a warm place the final time until it doubles in size, then knead it and shape it into rolls.
Note, when you have a cold house, yeast breads rise slowly. To warm the dough, pour some hot water in a bowl and then set the bread bowl on the water bowl. Don’t let the water level actually touch the bread bowl and don’t keep heating the water. You want warm steam not hot. Cover the bread dough with another bowl or a plastic cover of some kind. This holds the heat in and helps keep the dough from drying out.
In my experience, whole grain wheat flour tends to make a heavier yet more fragile dough. When my bread dough rises, I don’t let it rise quite as high as my white flour dough.
The whole wheat flour dough has all these bran and wheat germ particles floating in it that interrupt the chains of gluten. The more gluten you have activated the fluffier the bread. What tends to happen is the wheat bread dough rises to heights that its weaker gluten chains cannot support and it ‘falls’ or collapses. This can happen in the bowl, in the pan, or wait until it is in the oven.
A couple things can be done to help prevent collapsed loaves which end up dense, unsightly but certainly edible. First of all, a person can knead the dough more. Like a lot more. When you fold or punch the dough in kneading, do it 500 times. Not kidding. Kneading helps activate and strengthen the chains of gluten. What I tend to do is just not let my loaves rise quite as high.
One of the best results I have had making bread with whole flour is by making steamed bread rolls. They are always soft and moist. I can knead my dough a very minimal amount and still get rave reviews when I serve steamed bread. And it is easy!
You can also steam quick breads like biscuits, muffins and cakes. You just need a pot big enough to fit the pan you use. I use a 24 quart stock pot, but it does not need to be that big. I put an inch of water in the bottom of the pot and then set a bowl with an inch of water or a colander in my pot. This is just to give a place above the water to set my pan on.
While my water is heating I prepare my pans or plate with rolls shaped and rising in them. My favorite is pie pans. About anything glass, metal or ceramic should do.
Once the water is boiling well, then I set the pie pan on the colander (or whatever I have to keep the pan off the water). I don’t want the pan in the water. A person has to be careful not to get a steam burn! I am really good at remembering this afterwards. Oven mitts work really well.
With the water boiling and the pan in the pot, the next thing I do is drape a kitchen towel over the top of the pot before I put the lid on. The towel is to collect the moisture (condensation) that drips from the lid so your bread doesn’t get soggy.
I let my bread rolls steam for 20-30 minutes depending on how hard the water is boiling. Then I open the lid, and being careful not to burn myself again, tap the top of the rolls to see if they spring back with confidence, an indicator that they are done.
Steamed breads do not brown like baked breads. They look almost the same coming out as going in. Aside from whatever raising they did while cooking. It is also harder to overbake them. They don’t really dry out but they can develop a tough skin if they are really over done.
They only ways to really flop a steamed bread is to underbake them or to put the pan into the pot before it is boiling. Always have it boiling first. Otherwise you can end up with a weak dough that rises and then falls and runs over the edge into the water. I’ll pretend it didn’t happen to me.
For anyone trying steamed bread, there is no specific recipe necessary. Just pick a recipe you like and try it. Steaming does not work for pastries such as pie which really does need the higher temperatures and dry heat to develop the crust.
Steaming is a great alternative to baking when the oven is on the blink. It is a way to bake when doing campfire cooking. It also is very forgiving to people like me who hate kneading bread dough.
Another all time favorite is fried bread. Pick a favorite yeast bread recipe but only put three quarters of the flour in it. This is a quick bread and does not need to be raised to perfection. Let it raise about a half an hour. Stir the dough well and then I like to dust it with enough flour to keep it from sticking to my hands (but I don’t stir it in) and shape large spoonfuls of dough, flatter is better, and then fry it golden in the oil of your choice.
Once when my mother was visiting she brought her friend Cornelia along. Cornelia had moved to the United States from Germany a few years ago. As she was watching me sift the bran from my flour, she lamented how hard it is to get good whole grain flour here in the USA at a reasonable price. All our flour is too fine. She liked to cook a coarse wheat or oat flour for a breakfast porridge. I sent a bag of bran and wheat germ home with her.
This conversation got me to thinking about porridges though. I had never made one and had no recipe but I decided to try it. Most of my cooking is recipeless anyway.
I brought some milk up to a boil. Then I moistened some bran and wheat germ that I’d sifted out of the flour and whisked it into the hot milk. I stirred it while it cooked then lightly salted it and topped it with some maple syrup.
This ‘porridge’ was then served to my husband, my resident food critic and biggest fan. He liked it! It was a little coarse so now I add some whole flour back into it. If the milk has an egg or two in it then it reminds me of a coarse pudding. This is a breakfast we now both enjoy occasionally.
There are hundreds of uses for whole grain flours. We use primarily wheat flour and some corn flour. There are many great recipes and you will find what fits with you and your family.
There are countless cookbooks out there and there are quite a few now that support whole grain cooking/baking. Most recipes convert over fairly easily. A great read for anyone looking for information on every aspect of whole grains is The Essential Home-Ground Flour by Sue Becker. She includes many great recipes.
There are many great mills out there to grind your own flour with. You do not need fancy paint jobs or cabinetry, it is just more to contaminate, clean and of course to pay for. But yet, don’t go cheap. Check out reviews before you buy if you can.
In our own personal experience one of the grinders we recommend is the Corona Hand Mill. This should cost a person less than $100. The USA made Retsel mills are also very good, this may range between $200-$400. Retsel is having a hard time keeping up with the demand right now but they are worth waiting for.
Another high quality mill is the Diamant Cast-Iron Manual Grain Mill. This is a serious home investment with a price near $1000. These come with the handle on a pulley and we converted two of these in our shop to run off of horsepower. Growing and eating our own grain was a permanent lifestyle choice justifying the investment for us.
These can all be bought online but you can usually order them through your local home and garden supply store.
Just Start Somewhere
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A person does not have to have a hundred acres, 4 horses and 5 acres planted in wheat to begin their journey on this road. Waiting to start until you have it all together is a good way to go nowhere. Start where you are with what you have.
For some, that starting place is simply learning to cook from scratch. Another may begin making bread products or buying and grinding grain at home. Some adventuresome person may grow a wide row of grain in the garden. This is great to familiarize one with the life cycle of grain.
There are places to start for everyone who is interested. Once you start somewhere you can decide how far you want to go with it.