In the fall of 2013, l I got to dive into King Arthur Flour. From a little hello at the county fair – where my son displayed a poster about how wheat grows in different soils – I learned that the vice president of the company lived in the neighboring county. A few emails later, and I had a tour of a mill lined up for a trip to Kansas.
Before I fell in love with regional flours, I was devoted to King Arthur. Their flours are high quality and very consistent. If my husband ever brought home another brand I’d get huffy, rather than happy he did the shopping.
I still recommend King Arthur as the best supermarket flour to stock in your kitchen. And I like the thoroughness of their cookbooks. So I was pretty excited to see one of the mills that grinds for King Arthur Flour.
Kent Symns and Marcia Walters gave me a tour of Homestead Milling in Eastern Kansas. Kent gave me a lot of information on hard white wheat – white being the color of the bran, as opposed to the more common red. Red bran contains more tannins, which add bitterness to the flour. Which is why the mill features hard whites.
They also grind red wheats on their stone milling system. They have 4 Meadows Mills, a type of mill manufactured in North Carolina and used by many small scale mills and milling bakeries in America. Other mills that create King Arthur flours use different milling equipment.
Kent and Marcia brought me to Bob Kaufman’s farm, where he was cleaning stored wheat seed to prepare for fall planting.
This was all in Kansas, a place, like most places, that is easier to name than describe. The sky and land seem part of one big umbrella – everything is open and flat, and there are not many trees. Outside, the wind is big. How anyone or anything – people or wheat or other plants – lives here and thrives in these challenging conditions, I do not know.
The population of the state is tiny, less than 3 million people. About a fifth of the US wheat crop is grown here, around 400 million bushels a year. That number was less this year, because of continued drought in the western part of the state.
Even with reduced production, Kansas is The Wheat State, so named because a variety called Turkey Red, when planted by emigrating Mennonites in the late 1800s, changed habits of wheat production. Most wheats planted at the time were soft wheats, the kinds that are milled for pastry flour. But because Turkey Red grew well in Kansas, and milling technology advanced to handle hard wheats, the course of bread in America changed.
Homestead Milling was kind enough to ship me 5 pounds each of white and red whole wheat King Arthur flours. These flours are going into my son Felix’s bread baking experiments, which began when I helped his class at school with King Arthur’s Life Skills Program.
The program hands out flour – all-purpose white and white whole wheat – yeast, bench scrapers, and a baking pamphlet to students. In schools that are large enough, the company sends an instructor, too. The students bake bread, and give some of it to charity.
I loved being able to show three classes at Felix’s school pictures from Homestead Milling, and talk about my interest in wheat. The teachers and I gave a history lesson in bread, talking about things I like to discuss: how planting wheat and barley helped us shift from hunter gatherers to settled agriculture and civilization.
Here’s the recipe we used in the classroom. Some of the kids, which are a mix of third, fourth and fifth grades, baked bread before. Some went in blind, and left ready to bake more.
Like Felix. He is playing with flour now, and I wish he would follow recipes, but he is more keen to experiment. So we are playing with compromises. Learn one recipe a week and riff on that? No fun. How about learning about ingredients? That one appeals to both of us. I can talk about flour till the stars come out.