This interviewed first aired on May 22, 2020.
As the pandemic hit, supermarkets started seeing a shortage of bread and bags of flour on the shelves. Industrial flour suppliers had 50-pound bags of flour for bakeries and restaurants, but when those closed, the large flour mills couldn’t easily adjust to consumers who wanted smaller bags. So, locally-owned flour mills have stepped in. Even a one thousand-year old flour mill in England restarted operations during the crisis. And as we reported, smaller mills in the Pittsburgh area, like Weatherbury Farm and Frankferd Farms, have been working overtime.
Amy Halloran goes by the moniker the Flour Ambassador on Instagram, and she’s written a book “The New Bread Basket” — what she calls a love story about grains and the people who grow, mill and bake with them.
When we caught up with Halloran at her home in Troy, New York, she was making waffles.
“These are spelt waffles,” she said, her pleasure obvious through the phone. “I’m using some spelt flour that comes from pretty nearby me. I have the great good luck of having a milling bakery called Sparrow Bush. My neighbors and I got together and bought a ton of flour. So maybe it wasn’t a ton of flour, it was about, you know, 400 pounds of flour.”
Here’s more of Halloran’s conversation with The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant.
LISTEN to their conversation
GRANT: So are the flours we get at the supermarket easier to bake with, will we get more consistent results?
HALLORAN: Yes. But the flour at the supermarket is the product of many, many farms. This is all natural food, even the homogenous blended flour in the supermarket has come from someone engaging with soil and getting a plant to grow. That unwieldy-ness of it being a piece of nature is tamed through the very big aggregating capacity of larger mills.
“It’s really bittersweet that it took empty supermarket shelves and the real horrors of this pandemic for people to notice fresh flour.”
But there is such skill and awareness in small craft millers. They really understand what we’re looking for in our kitchen. They understand that we are expecting a certain kind of performance and they’re shooting for that as well. What I tasted 10 years ago was from a different kind of beginning pioneering place, and I don’t think that that is a habit of these small flour mills anymore. I think the habit of these things is a very professional food that you can rely on pretty well.
GRANT: How did you get into flour?
HALLORAN: It began when I was a little kid. My mother taught me math on measuring cups because I was just curious about it. Then my dad handed over the griddle because I was really fascinated by pancakes. I just loved the taste of them, and I really loved the quick satisfaction. So pretty early on, I got to steer all of the family’s baked goods, although my younger sister did pie.
Then I got intrigued by flour 10 years ago because my husband brought home a cookie that had fresh oats and fresh whole wheat flour, and I could not believe the flavor. I thought, ‘oh, my G-d, I’ve been told as a home baker to buy the best chocolate, buy the best butter that I can afford, you’ll see the difference’. And I did see the difference, but I didn’t know that there was a difference to flours. I didn’t know flour could be fresh.
GRANT: You’ve talked about pancakes and waffles, But when you talk about the grains, what are your favorite flavors?
HALLORAN: I do really like the flavor of spelt because it’s super nutty. I also really adore in general white wheat. So, wheat has a bran coating that protects it until the seed is ready to grow. These [wheat berries] are seeds. And the bran varies wildly in expression, there’s white wheat, there’s even blue wheat. There are less tannins in the white wheat than in the traditional red wheats that are grown.
“There’s more flavor so people can dial back on sweeteners an awful lot because there is so much flavor.”
Tannins lead to flavor compounds that we really like, like in chocolate and tea, but it’s not so fun in your wheat. You can in the white wheat really taste a lot of different flavors.
GRANT: Would you provide some tips for baking with fresh flour, with whole grain?
HALLORAN: Adaptations that people need are that this is a little bit thirstier because of that bran, so it’s going to require more liquid of your baked good. That would be the same advice whether you’re using supermarket wholegrain flour or one of the fresh flour products from a small mill. Think of oil as a liquid. Think of the eggs in a baked good as a liquid, and even think of a fat as a liquid.
Also, there’s more flavor so people can dial back on sweeteners an awful lot because there is so much flavor. Make sure to use a little bit of baking soda and baking powder and an acid to get an extra boost of leavening. I can’t stress that enough.
GRANT: Since the virus hit, we’ve heard a lot about flour having a moment, that so many people are getting into baking. What do you think about this?
HALLORAN: I think that it’s really bittersweet that it took empty supermarket shelves and the real horrors of this pandemic for people to notice fresh flour. I’m really glad that small mills are rising to the occasion and filling in the gaps in the supply chain that are still happening. People keep sending me pictures of empty supermarket shelves. But I’ve been waiting for this discovery to happen for a decade.
“This interruption, not just for flour, but for all food, I’m hoping it’s creating opportunities for revision.”
I think it points to the lack of awareness of where our food comes from and the real barriers to small food producers going up against our very robust food supply system, where the price is set by, in grains, it’s set by an international speculative commodities market.
But if you think about the difficulties of re-regionalizing anything like there’s so many federal cushions that are given that it just prevents us from growing our own food supplies securely, or easily. And this interruption, not just for flour, but for all food, I’m hoping it’s creating opportunities for revision.