Pioneer Nan Kohler Brings Flour Milling to the City
As kids we loved to bake. Chocolate chips cookies were our specialty. We thought we were going to be the next Mrs. Fields. And then we realized we had no self-control and would eat all our profits. So we gave up on that dream and became occasional, mostly holiday-time, home bakers.
But we can still picture the Gold Medal All-Purpose flour bag we’d pull off the shelf every afternoon to whip up a snack to enjoy while watching Gilligan’s Island. We don’t even remember there being a choice of brands, let alone types of flour to use. As we got older and the world became more health conscious, we began hearing about wheat flour. And watching Food Network we began to understand there were bread flours. But even with this skewed sense of choice, we always assumed, flour was a tasteless binding agent you use to hold all the other yummy stuff together. And we were told more and more that it was really something a healthy person should learn to avoid. Until we met Nan Kohler.
Nan owns Grist and Toll, an urban flour mill in Pasadena, California. She opened our eyes to the fact that grains are like wine or coffee, with different flavors, aromas, colors, characters and textures. Flour can actually enhance the flavors in your baking. And whole grains can be good for you — adding nutritional value that we actually need in our diet! Who knew?
Passionistas: What are you most passionate about?
Nan: There are many things, so it's hard to narrow that down to something singular but they do all revolve around whole grain. And so I am definitely very, very passionate about changing everyone's perceptions of whole grain and what that means for baking. And on all different levels from an artisan sour dough loaf of bread to the fanciest type of French pastries.
Passionistas: So how does that translate into what you do for a living?
Nan: Well I am creating flour so it is just like making wine, roasting coffee beans, teas, everything hinges on the quality of that sourcing of ingredients. So it's really critical that I continue establishing long term relationships and collaborations with farmers and that we have a continuing dialogue on the types of grain and the diversity of grain that is being planted and how it's being grown. Because we're not used to thinking about flour as a flavorful ingredient. We're thinking of it as the body of what you're making. But all the different grains really do have dramatically different flavor, aroma, color, character, textures. So it's really quite complex. What you can do when you keep the integrity of that grain intact that's what gives you all of those different choices but everything depends on the quality of the grain to begin with.
Passionistas: So how did we become a country where flour just became this bland ingredient?
Nan: Well we decided we wanted white bread. So that really everything about what is grown, how it is grown, how it is milled and processed and handled is all in service to basically creating that white sandwich loaf of bread at the grocery store at a very, very cheap price. So older grains, the stone milling process that I use, those are disadvantages to creating the white bread, so they had to go away. And things had to radically change in order to give that to us.
Passionistas: We all have been taught for years that if you're going to eat healthy gluten products get whole grain. But what does that really mean and what is the nutritional value of these whole grains you are talking about?
Nan: Well it's significant. And we really have lost a lot of fiber in our diets by walking away from whole grain. I'm going to be really honest. One of the most frustrating things that I find in the marketplace right now is there's a lot of excitement about heirloom wheat, stone milling, whole grains, artisan bread baking, sour dough bread baking as Instagram is exploding. But there's not a lot of transparency with those names and terms. I remember hearing from the baking community that whole wheat if you wanted to make a whole wheat bread it had to be 51 percent whole wheat. The term whole grain is not really regulated. And actually that expectation on whole wheat is not correct. But it took me almost two years to be connected with the right people at the whole grains council to actually look at the FDA rules and regulations so whole wheat means whole — whole wheat. There can't be any refined white flour in a product that wants to carry the label whole wheat.
So for us in the real world it just is obvious that they don't have the ability to enforce that on the street at all levels. They do with Sara Lee and Eggo waffles. I did the experiment I said, “Okay, whole wheat means whole 100% whole wheat.” And I just started flipping over loaves of bread and boxes in the freezer section and sure enough they say “whole wheat.” If it says “wheat flour” that's sifted white flour. So there's a lot of smoke and mirrors out there and now whole grain is being corrupted because it doesn't have that written policy attached to it. Consumers who are definitely interested in health now and transparency in the food system can find it very frustrating out there.
A lot of home bakers who come to see me will say I'm using your flour, I'm using your formula and my bread doesn't look like the Instagram photo. Except that the Instagram photo that says spelt bread is only 10 percent spelt. I've had a lot of conversations with bakers that ask, “Well what percentages?” And I said well my answer is if you're buying a Cabernet Sauvignon how much Riesling do you want in that bottle? You don't. You're buying Cabernet Sauvignon. If you're buying Bordeaux. You understand it's a blend of the approved red grapes and things like that. So I think that ultimately we're going to have to get to some sort of real regulations on labelling. It's just a question of how. How long will it take to get there? But for me I'm the girl who started the #WholeMeansWhole.
Here more of Nan’s story on The Passionistas Project Podcast.
And visit the Grist and Toll website to find out more about the amazing whole grain products she is making.