The seeds for civilization were planted 10-15 thousand years ago when humans began making the first agricultural implements. Grains such as wheat offered people advantages over other crops, as they did not easily spoil when stored, which resulted in food surpluses during good times and allowed communities to survive bad times. Because of this tendency to resist spoilage, these grains could also be carried over distances, allowing people to travel and trade with other communities more efficiently. As humanity transitioned to farming from hunting and gathering, the surplus food made possible due to growing grain allowed settlements, villages, towns, and cities to emerge.
A Brief History of Milling
One of the first developments in grain processing involved separating the outer bran and germ from the wheat berry’s endosperm, which is easier to digest. Although people most likely chewed wheat initially, archeological excavations of settlements from nearly eight thousand years ago uncovered human remains that do not show the wear expected to teeth from eating raw grains. Further, pairs of stones were found that indicate people ground these grains, a process called milling that reduces it into a meal or flour that can be more easily used for food.
These simple milling tools developed over time to incorporate levers, waterwheels, windmills and other inventions that helped people harness external forces such as animals, water, or wind for power to make the milling process more efficient. Grooves that directed flour to the grinding surface’s outer edge, along with sifting, allowed millers to reduce grains more efficiently and control the size of flour particles to produce finer flours.
Though the basics of the milling process stayed the same for thousands of years and wheat remains the most significant crop used for flour, the milling of ancient grains and other plants to make specialty flours has become popular and offers unique nutritional qualities. Equipment such as hammermills, fine grinders, air classifying mills, industrial flour sifters, and other machinery has largely automated today’s milling process, replacing the energy from wind or water once used to drive mills directly.
What is the Flour Milling Process?
Though it has advanced considerably, modern milling uses the same basic principles as those used thousands of years ago. Upon arrival at the mill, chemists analyze and classify grains according to their qualities, including protein content, using superior grades for making higher-quality flours. From there, the material goes through a series of steps to turn it into flour.
The milling process is largely the same for most grains:
- Cleaning: The grain is washed to remove contaminants like stones or seeds, which may damage milling equipment, and then transferred into conditioning bins for further processing.
- Tempering and conditioning: Soaked in water to more easily remove the bran, the grain then goes through a conditioning process to ensure uniform moisture content throughout, which keeps the outer layer from breaking when milled.
- Gristing: The cleaned and conditioned grain is then blended in a practice called gristing, which mixes together different batches of grain to make specific kinds of flour with certain properties.
- Separating: A series of rolls operating at various speeds split the grains open in order to separate the inner portion from the bran.
- Milling: Grains are then crushed into pieces by a milling machine and put through an industrial flour sifter that turns the grain into a coarse meal, where repeated grinding and sifting turns the meal into a fine flour; this leaves the grain’s germ and bran, which can be sold separately or blended together with the ground flour to make it whole grain.
- Blending: This produces different types of flours with specific properties, including whole grain flours.
Types of Specialty Flours
Most ancient grains have been largely overlooked until recently. Western civilization has heavily relied on wheat as the primary crop with which to make flour because it provided these societies with an economic advantage. Meanwhile, there are various cereals, seeds, and roots that can be ground into specialty flours.
Types of specialty flours and their properties include:
- Almond flour, when used in small amounts, helps enrich pastry and bread, assists with binding, and adds moisture and gives the end product an almond flavor.
- Amaranth flour – an ancient grain used by Greeks – often appears in Greek recipes.
- Barley flour offers an alternative to wheat flour in bread or pancakes, giving them a mild nutty flavor while also providing greater fiber content and fewer calories.
- Buckwheat flour works well for pancakes, offering a nutrient-rich alternative to wheat and giving food a nutty flavor.
- Chickpea flour – also known as besan or gram flour – is made from dried chickpeas and offers a highly nutritional alternative for thickeners, stove-cooked food, and quick bread.
- Coconut flour – made with dried meat from coconuts and containing fewer carbohydrates – Is sometimes used for baked goods in small amounts to give food a mild coconut flavor.
- Corn flour – made with finely ground cornmeal from whole kernels – can be used as a thickener, binder, or filler in numerous recipes, used in tortillas, stuffing, and quick bread.
- Millet flour is often used in sweetbreads or baked desserts.
- Oat flour made by grinding whole oats tends to add moisture to baked goods.
- Quinoa flour is a naturally gluten-free flour used for thickeners, bread crumbs, quick bread, and stove top-made foods.
- Rice flour – used for water-based recipes like soups and thicken sauces – can be made from either brown or white rice, and is useful for those requiring special diets or swallowing difficulties, as it is easily digestible.
- Soy flour makes a finely textured, nutritious bread with high protein content, so is used in many vegan recipes.
- Spelt flour – often substituted to make recipes vegan – is used in bread, scones, pastas, waffles, pizza, and other highly flavorful foods.
Though each offers unique flavors and textures, these specialty flours are not necessarily more nutritious, though some offer specific nutritional benefits, like being gluten-free or having higher protein content. Like wheat flour, these specialty flours can lose nutritional value if they are not milled properly with the whole grain, so it is important to use milling equipment and industrial flour sifters that can handle whole grain processing to the highest quality.
What is the Flour Milling Process for Specialty Flours?
The milling process used for making specialty flours is essentially the same as that for wheat flour, though the smaller size of some ancient grains means milling equipment may need to be customized. Additionally, since these types of grains tend to be grown on smaller farms, they are usually milled in smaller batches.
Colleen Zammer of the Bay State Milling Company says this about them:
“Ancient grains cover a wide array of cereals and pseudocereals. There are ancient wheats like spelt, einkorn and emmer that some call ancient and others call heirloom grains. Barley and rye sometimes fall into this category as well. These grains all contain gluten and therefore provide the structural benefits of gluten that traditional baked goods require but vary in terms of flavors, colors and even texture due to the different ratios of glutenin and gliadin.”
To retain high nutritional value with ancient grains, the whole grain must be milled to the desired particle size as with whole wheat flour. Additionally, pre-soaking can release enzymes that make the whole grains easier for the body to absorb while heating the grain before milling softens and releasing starch and other carbohydrates.
These nutrient-dense grains generally take more time to process as well. Some grains may also require allowances to keep ancient grains from becoming dry or stale more quickly, impacting shelf life and taste of end products made with them. Getting these things right requires a milling process customized for the specific grain milled, taking into account the material’s unique properties. This can take some experimenting to get the milling process for specialty flours just right.
Prater Industries: Machines for Specialty Flour Milling
Prater Industries can provide milling machines, industrial flour sifters, and whole systems for flour makers and other industries that process ancient grains and other organic substances to make specialty flours. As the size of ancient grains is sometimes smaller than those of traditional wheat, Prater offers custom-designed machinery and systems to suit your needs.