Big things take time.
Just ask Steve Horton. He's the baker who created and ran Rustica bakery in Minneapolis for 11 years, receiving national attention for his world-class baked goods. In March 2015, just as he was nominated for the third time for an elusive James Beard award, Horton bowed out, with no known destination. Bread lovers were on the edges of their seats.
Now Horton is back, with Baker's Field Flour & Bakery.
Last spring, Baker's Field was a dream. And ambitious dreams, like great bread, can't be rushed.
When he left Rustica, Horton had some big ideas about how he wanted to do things at his next business. He found a partner in Kieran Folliard, and a space in the Food Building, the über-local food production hub where the Lone Grazer Creamery and Red Table Meats make their cheeses and meats in northeast Minneapolis. The slogan there is "Farmed Near, Made Here."
Horton began to envision a bakery and milling operation that would fully realize his ideas about what bread should be. He figured it would take a year, so he started by grinding wheat and mixing it with water, and started the process of nurturing wild yeasts in the starter that would leaven all the breads at his new bakery.
That starter is working overtime now because Baker's Field has brought stone milling back to the Mill City, and is baking great breads.
Horton has joined a small, groundbreaking group of bakers and millers, scattered across the country in places like San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, who are making bread the old-fashioned way: pre-Industrial Revolution style. These bakers buy local grain, mill it and use it that day. It's an idea thousands of years old, but it's new. And it's disrupting the status quo.
Setting up to mill took months of work. Minneapolis largely zoned flour milling out of the city 20 years ago. Back in the day, floating flour particles and heat often resulted in fires, like the one at the Washburn A Mill in 1878. It took a serious safety plan and many meetings to convince the city to change zoning laws for the new business.
While all that was going on, Horton kept his starter fed and kept dreaming big.
Begin at the farm
Despite all the accolades, Horton wasn't satisfied with baking outstanding breads. He wanted a deeper relationship with the grains that went into it. He would work with farmers from the Upper Midwest to get the grains he wanted. Soft and hard wheats, whole rye, emmer, einkorn, Kernza, barley, corn and buckwheat are just the beginning.
"We'll be working with single-origin stuff. We won't blend our flours. Because we are a smaller operation, we will have the flexibility to try different grains, bake with the flour and see how it performs, and pass the information along to the bakers who buy the flour," Horton said.
He wasn't going to grind a few hundred pounds for his own bakery. At Baker's Field, he'd mill enough to sell the flour to other bakers and grocery stores, and spread the word about local grains. At capacity, he hopes to mill about 20,000 pounds of grain per week.
Those grains have to be cleaned and hulled, so he had to seek out small grain elevators to do it. But the most important part was the mill. He found a specialized stone mill that would keep the flour cool while grinding to preserve its quality.
"A mill with bigger stone and slower speeds gives better, more consistent granulation. It will make better bread," said Horton. "I really want to control what goes into the bread as far back to the source as I can."
He knows that all the labels of "local" and "sustainable" only carry a product so far. "It doesn't matter what the flour is if it doesn't make great bread," he said.
If you're wondering what the fuss over the mill is all about, it all comes down to some ancient chemistry. Whole grains contain the bran, germ and endosperm, and when ground slowly, the three parts mix and all the complex flavors and nutrients of the grain are preserved.
Even if the miller sifts the flour to remove some of the bran, the flour retains far more of the character of the original grain.
When big roller mills make flour, they remove the nutrient-rich bran and germ, and grind the less flavorful, less nutritious white endosperm for white flour, often at higher temperatures that damage some nutrients. For whole-wheat flour, they grind the bran and germ that were removed and mix it back in.
So a flour milled whole in a cold-stone mill is more flavorful, especially when fresh.
And the starter? Well, when you purchase yeast, you buy one single strain of micro-organism, bred to flourish quickly in a bread dough. When you make a natural starter, the "ambient" yeasts that are floating in the air, or on the grain itself, form a tiny ecosystem of many kinds of yeast, each one breaking down different components in the flour, creating many subtle flavors.
It's the ultimate in eating local, since the yeasts leavening the bread are part of the environment, and flourish in the local grain that they colonize. Then you bake them, and they leave behind a more digestible, more flavorful bread than you can get from a single yeast.
Perfection takes time
The artistry comes in when each style of bread is created. At Baker's Field, once the flour is ground, it might go into a bread whose levain (or natural leavening), built from that original starter, takes four to 14 hours to develop. Then the levain is mixed with more fresh flour, and allowed to ferment for another five to 20 hours, depending on what Horton is trying to get out of the grain.
That's all before a single loaf is formed, proofed and baked.
"We really want to highlight the balance between the flavor of the grain and the fermentation. Take buckwheat — it has a robust flavor, so to highlight that, we will minimize the fermentation. With a lighter-flavored flour, we will ferment more," said Horton.
Baker's Field began production mid-July, selling its first breads and flours at the Mill City, Northeast and Riverplace farmers markets, and select restaurants. Their flours will be finding their way into food co-ops and grocery stores, as well as the kitchens of bakeries and pizzerias. Find their bread at some co-ops (Eastside, Seward and Lakewinds, at present), as well as Draft Horse (the restaurant next to the Food Building).
These breads are worth the wait. Take the filone loaf, an Italian style baguette made from a sifted wheat flour. Tear into this crusty loaf and you will find a gloriously irregular structure, full of open tunnels and holes where that lively starter bubbled inside the dough.
If you take a look at those holes, the surfaces are shiny, with an almost opalescent sheen. This is the mark of a well fermented, well crafted bread. Take a bite, and the initial sweetness of wheat gives way to a gratifying tangy note, as chewy, stretchy bread bounces a bit between your teeth.
A 100 percent whole-wheat loaf is a bit less airy, with the same stretchiness and sheen inside the large and small holes making up the honeycomb throughout. Horton has played with the Elgin spring wheat that he puts in this loaf, adding a little barley malt for a bit of sweetness, then fermenting it for 24 hours to bring out the nutty, deep flavors of the wheat.
The 100 percent rye bread, where Horton amps up the amount of starter and gives the dough a long ferment, is a mouthful of intense flavors, the tanginess balancing with the spicy flavors of the rye.
For a richer bread, look to the Pan Open Top bread, a slicing loaf made in the style of brioche, made from sifted wheat flour, with plenty of eggs and butter. Sweet, tender and with that unmistakable tartness from the natural leavening, the bread has an even, almost cakelike crumb.
There's even a perfect hamburger bun, golden and shiny on the outside, and just puffy enough to sink your teeth into. Expect a varying lineup at the farmers markets, as Horton responds to customer demand and concocts new breads from the grains he receives from farmers.
If you've ever had whole-grain breads that seemed cottony or coarse, you must try these breads. See what bread can be in the hands of a bread savant who starts each loaf in the field where the grain is grown, making every decision based on what will create the best flavor and texture.
"It's a craft. In the day-to-day repetition, you get the craft and the nuance of how your hands shape the dough," said Horton. "The beats and rhythm of the craft are important. All the bakers will cross-train as millers. Everybody will mill, shape and bake. Bakers will mill for bakers."
The Mill City is back in business, and we've joined an exclusive club of cities with farm-to-table bakeries. Are you ready to be a member?
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of "Big Vegan," "The Whole Grain Promise" and "Great Bowls of Food." Find her at robinasbell.com.