It was Day 2 of a baking seminar at the National Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Ore., in a room filled with bakery equipment and fragrant with the scent of baking bread. Students from China, Colombia, India, Europe and the U.S. were elbow to elbow, wearing lab coats and taking turns forming whole-wheat steamed buns, using an industrial machine to flatten other dough balls into chapati. They had come to take home vital information on using whole-grain flours for bakeries.
But as the crowd watched, an instructor pulled out a batch of whole-wheat dough that had been proofing since morning, and he scowled. His dough wasn't right. As the crowd milled around him, taking notes and whispering, the Master Baker poked, prodded and folded his dough. Finally, he said, "I made a rookie mistake. I didn't measure the protein content of this new batch of flour. I'm going to throw this out and start again."
All eyes were upon him as he set about weighing his fresh ingredients. "It happens to the best of us, I suppose," he said with a grin.
It was a teachable moment.
For as long as there has been bread, there have been bakers hoping that theirs will come out right. Sometimes, the loaf springs effortlessly from the fire, full of open texture and toasty flavor. Other times, it lies on the hearth like a brick.
Chalk it up to chemistry. Protein and starch levels in flour matter, a point our instructor drove home in such an understandable way. It was the eternal frustration of a failed batch of dough, I am sure, that led to the first cereal chemist.
So what is a cereal chemist? If you have ever bought a box of crackers, a bag of rice, a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer, you've sampled the work of a cereal chemist. They are the folks in lab coats who analyze what is in whole grains and flours, so that they can make them work in recipes. They are also working to make all those foods healthier, tastier and less expensive.
With 7.3 billion people on the planet who need to eat, understanding cereal grains becomes more important every day.
Here in the Mill City, a 100-year-old organization is gathering to share the latest trends and advances in the work that brings grain to the masses. If you think you smell bread in the Minneapolis downtown skyways next week, it may be because the American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI) will be in town. They will discuss all things related to grain, including new trends to watch in the coming years.
Andrew Ross, a professor at Oregon State University in Corvalis, works at one end of the spectrum, analyzing and breeding grain, looking for varieties that perform in different foods. "Some of the qualities of a grain are genetic, but they are largely regulated by the environment, changing from year to year, or region to region," he said. So when the same wheat you planted last year turns out to be quite different this year, you need a cereal chemist. When you know what's in the flour, you can use it for the right kind of recipes, blend it with wheat from another region, or add what might be missing, so it will work.
After all, a batch of dough for a few thousand loaves is not something you want to throw away.
Back at the National Wheat Marketing Center, Gary Hou — instructor and technical manager — is handing out fat notebooks, filled with flour specifications and recipes. He's focused today on solving the particular problems that come with making whole-grain breads. In it, students learn about how protein and starch levels, and more, are analyzed before grains and flours reach the bake house. Whole-grain flours, with the bran and germ included, are heavier and absorb more water, so recipes have to be very specific. Manufacturers have access to flours that are milled more finely, and to enzymes and gums that make doughs work better.
Cereal chemist Bill Atwell in Champlin works with AACCI to publish the technical journals that cereal chemists use in their work. There are many ways to solve a too-dense loaf of bread, from adjusting the mix time to adding dough strengtheners and gluten, according to their handbook, "Wheat Flour." This book troubleshoots everything — from the color of the loaf, to the texture of the crumb, to the flavor and the shelf life. All recipes rely on chemistry.
At another stage in the grain chain, Prof. Devin Rose at the University of Nebraska Food Science and Technology Department is focused on making grain-based products healthier. "My research includes looking at the chemical components in the bran layer that can be good for the loaf, as well as for the people who eat it." Rose is also working on studies of the role that grains play as pre-biotics, and which parts of the grain encourage healthy probiotics to flourish in your body.
The inside scoop from all these grain experts is that you will be seeing more of certain foods in the coming years. Sprouted grains and flours continue to gain in popularity, in part because chemists have engineered ways to sprout and dry them on a large scale to preserve their added nutrients. Sprouted grains are higher in protein and soluble fiber, and lower in acids and on the glycemic index. Ancient grains, and less common grains such as teff, amaranth, sorghum and millet, will be showing up in more products. The gluten-free trend shows no signs of stopping, and more healthful products will be coming out in that arena, too.
Feeding the world is a challenge, and here in the breadbasket, we can take pride in the ingenuity and energy that go into the grains that help nourish people everywhere.
Robin Asbell is the author of seven cookbooks, including the new "The Whole Grain Promise." She teaches cooking in the Twin Cities.