This heritage flour is special. Apart from its above-average mineral content, it has:
- a full, satisfying flavour without the dry dustiness of some wholemeals
- gluten that is naturally softer, less stretchy and more extensible (and arguably more digestible) than in common breadmaking flours
How come? It’s all down to the interaction of two factors – climate and breeding. (If you want to leave the ‘why’ for later, skip to Golden Rules below)
Wheat grown in countries with ‘continental climates’ (think USA, Hungary, Ukraine, Turkey) contains more of the proteins that produce a ‘tight’ elastic gluten network. This takes quite a bit of kneading, but it does deliver a dough that can hold a good deal of gas (carbon dioxide from yeast fermentation), which makes for a light, aerated loaf. In parts of the world with longer, cooler growing seasons and maritime climates (like Scotland), wheat tends to have proportionally more gliadin protein, the fraction that makes dough more extensible (stretches a long way without breaking) but less elastic (springs back when stretched). Bread recipes reflected the nature of the local wheats before industrialisation stimulated, and faster shipping facilitated, the global trade in grain that began 200+ years ago. So the French baguette or the Italian focaccia are essentially flat breads, made with local wheats that give an extensible rather than an elastic dough, which tends to ‘flow’ horizontally into a loosely aerated structure (great for soaking up sauces). Such doughs lack the elasticity and tightness required to battle upwards against gravity in a baking tin. Tins are, of course, designed do two things: to optimise the use of oven space, and to produce a close and even bread texture suitable for machine slicing and drip-free toast.
Much of the Eastern side of Scotland has a climate suitable for growing wheat. Some areas, such as the Black Isle near Inverness, are blessed with a particularly benign micro-climate with low(ish) rainfall and many hours of potential sunlight. It remains true that, in general, Scottish soils and climate will usually produce wheats whose gluten is on the softer, more extensible side. What this means for us as bread bakers is discussed below.
Time was when farmers would gradually improve their wheat crops by selecting the best looking plants from among what was a genetically diverse population (or landrace) that had adapted to its environment and proved its resilience over generations. The other way was to import new varieties from far afield, as the story behind the Scotland The Bread wheats suggests. A radical change came about when cross-breeding or ‘hybridisation’, first used in the 19th century but turbo-charged in the so-called Green Revolution from the 1960s on, enabled a much more precise identification (and concentration) of ‘traits’ such as gluten strength, disease resistance or yield potential. Modern ‘high-yielding varieties’, bred to exploit a package of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, produce big crops of wheat, which in some cases is also of greater breadmaking potential even than varieties that were ‘best in class’ 40 or 50 years ago and even when grown in the variable Scottish climate.
Among the downsides that have emerged from this breeding and growing approach, two stand out: the loss of nutrient density and changes in gluten proteins. At the centre of Scotland The Bread’s purposes is the search for more nutrient dense grains to reverse this accidental decline. The protein issue is tricky. Some of the ‘stronger’ gluten that has been bred into modern wheats seems to be associated with protein fractions (epitopes) that trigger intolerance and auto-immune reactions such as coeliac disease. Our Scottish heritage wheats may turn out to be more digestible precisely because they haven’t been aggressively hybridised. In other words, their relative softness and modest elasticity may be just what the doctor ordered – especially when combined with all the fibre in wholemeal and an innate fragrance that is conserved by fresh milling at low temperatures.
Baking with really freshly-milled flour (your bag of Scotland The Bread flour will have the date and time of milling on it) is a revelation in terms of flavour. It’s also good for nutrient retention, especially of vitamin-containing natural oils in the germ that can oxidise and go musty during prolonged storage. Clearly, neither of these major benefits figured in the historic custom of ageing flour, i.e. milling it and storing it for several months in the belief that this would strengthen the gluten proteins. Nowadays, most flour is inadvertently aged because of the demands of supermarket ‘shelf-life’ and long distance supply chains. If Scotland The Bread flours are your first opportunity to bake with very freshly ground wheat, you may indeed notice a fragility in the gluten that’s partly to do with its freshness. Perhaps it’s best to relish this as you might the delicacy of a home-grown heirloom tomato by comparison with the bruise-resistant tastelessness of most commercial offerings.
Golden Rules for baking with Scotland The Bread heritage flour
- Mix or knead gently and for less time than usual. It doesn’t take much energy to form the gluten network, and this network is more fragile than in a ‘strong’ flour, meaning that it may not hold the fermentation gases so securely or for so long.
- Ferment the dough slowly. Use cooler temperatures and less yeast than normal so that the carbon dioxide pressure from the yeast doesn’t blow the gluten bubbles apart.
- Sourdough is best. The by-products of lactic acid bacterial fermentation in sourdough actually strengthen the gluten at first, before eventually breaking the proteins down (which is good for human digestive systems challenged by wheat proteins, especially ‘strong’ ones). Since this gluten-degrading effect is negligible below 10°C, proving dough in a fridge overnight may be a useful strategy, especially since this firms the dough a bit, reducing the ‘pancaking’ effect at the start of baking.
- If not sourdough, best use some form of pre-ferment, either a sponge (flour and yeast fermented for 12-18 hours), or old dough (a small piece of actual dough of similar type kept back from a previous batch for up to a week in the fridge). Both of these methods provide a little acidity (good for flavour and control of natural enzymes) and a measure of lactic acid bacteria, but not as much as a true sourdough which is made without the addition of concentrated ‘packet’ yeast.
- Remember it’s wholemeal. Not much point growing grain with more good things in only to strip them all out at the mill. Although our cyclone milling process creates a fine flour, all the bran is still there. Bran, though both tasty and very nutritious when well fermented, tends to disrupt the gluten network, reducing bubble size and allowing gas to escape, leading to a closer texture. If that’s an issue, see ‘Problems?’ below.
- Celebrate versatility. These heritage wheats haven’t been aggressively bred to harbour super-elastic gluten proteins. This means that they are, by nature, ‘all-purpose‘, doing an equally good job for bread, scones, cakes and biscuits. Most of the latter, as well as such things as short-crust pastry and shortbread, are best made with flours containing lower levels of gluten. Your deft handling plus the natural softness of Scotland The Bread flours will produce ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ results, with the added benefit of flavours that modern flours can’t rival.
If you find that the bread dough made with this flour is hard to handle or the result a little too dense, here are some suggestions:
- Sift out some of the bran, using an ordinary kitchen sieve. You’ll leave enough small particles in to retain some flavour and quite a few nutrients, but if you don’t want to waste the bran (the bit with most of the key minerals like zinc and magnesium in), you can make a smooth dough with the sifted flour and then add in the bran at the end of mixing, or even use it to dust the outside of the loaf (for instance to stop it sticking as it rises in a proving basket). Bran fully releases its many nutrients and bioactive elements when it is fermented with lactic acid bacteria, i.e. sourdough. There’s a recipe for a fermented bran sourdough bread here.
- Add some ‘strong’ organic flour. Up to 25% of the total is probably sufficient to give some extra lift and tenacity without sacrificing too much flavour and nutrient density.
- Think about water content. Poor volume, crumbly texture and a dry crumb are often caused by using too little water in the dough. It’s tempting to keep the dough firm because it seems easier to handle and shape like that. But think of it from the yeast’s point of view. A dry tight dough is like a straightjacket that prevents the gas produced by the yeast from inflating the little balloons formed by the gluten network in the dough. Add a little more water – and the dough relaxes and can expand. Of course, a loose, lithe dough may not hold its contours so pertly during proving and baking. But who really wants a perfect shape that’s dense inside when the alternative is an open, chewy crumb that’s bursting with honest flavour?
- Enrich your dough with something that helps it hold together. It may seem counter-intuitive, but some natural ingredients (especially seeds) that are a lot bigger than bran particles can actually help to bind the dough structure rather than break it up as one might expect. Linseeds are a good example. Soak them overnight and not only will their many nutritional benefits be more accessible to human digestion, but they will exude a sticky gel that can transform a crumbly dough. The binding effect is noticeable even before baking so you may need to extend rising (‘proving’) time significantly.