Credit: Lucy Hewett

THE FOOD ISSUE: Ancient Methods, Modern Cuisine

Check out four of our favorite spots for old-fashioned baking

Four years ago, Megan and Dave Miller started up the Bang Bang Pie & Coffee food truck. It satisfied a craving many Chicagoans didn’t even know they had. Within a year, the Millers, with their business partner Michael Ciapciak, had a brick-and-mortar cafe in Logan Square. It became a beloved neighborhood institution, always crowded. There were plans to open a second Bang Bang location in Pilsen. And then, six months ago, the Millers abruptly announced they were selling out to Ciapciak and opening up a new bakery in Lincoln Square called Baker Miller that would concentrate on making bread, pastry, and, of course, pie using traditional methods. Oh, and they were going to start milling and selling flour.

To observers, it seemed like a bizarre, even foolish, move to give up a thriving business. There hadn’t been a commercial mill in the city of Chicago for 20 years. But to the Millers, it made perfect sense to become millers. They were less interested in making money than in making the best pie possible. That at first meant using leaf lard instead of Crisco and buying their fruit from a farm instead of the supermarket or a wholesale supplier. But why not go further? they thought. What about butter, sugar, and flour, the essential components of pie crust? It turned out that culturing their own butter and refining their own sugar wouldn’t be commercially viable. But there was flour.

The idea had been germinating, so to speak, for a few years, since Dave Miller read an article in Bon Appetit that proclaimed milling the next new food trend. “At first I said, ‘That’s stupid,'” Miller recalls. “But in the back of my head, it triggered a thought. How do you mill flour?”

Miller consulted with Jared Van Camp, the chef at Nellcôte in the West Loop, who uses a custom-made stone mill in the restaurant’s basement to grind locally harvested wheat into superfine flour to use in pizzas, breads, and pastas. It isn’t easy, Van Camp told him, nor is it cost-effective. It costs him ten times more to mill a five-pound bag of flour than it does to buy it from a restaurant supplier. But he thought it was worth it.

“It’s like peppercorns that are preground that you buy at the supermarket versus peppercorns that you buy whole and then toast and grind at home,” Van Camp says. “You can taste the difference.” In the case of house-milled flour, it gave his pizza crust, breads, and pastas a pleasantly nutty, earthy flavor.

From a culinary standpoint, this appealed to the Millers, who are interested in reproducing the taste of preindustrial food. “White flour is easy to work with,” Dave Miller explains. “It doesn’t taste like anything. It’s an easy base, and you can build things around it. But it’s hard to be original.” The more he talked to Van Camp and other millers, studied old textbooks he found on the Internet, and observed working mills including Pears Mill, a restored 19th-century specimen in Buchanan, Michigan, it began to appeal to him philosophically as well.

“We wanted to make more ethical, tasty pastry,” Miller says. “The practices of flour are insane. All the bran and germ are taken out. You need bran and germ to process gluten. Why the hell is no one talking about that?”

In the past, bran and germ were ground with the wheat berries into flour. But bran and germ also spoiled faster, which gave flour a much shorter shelf life. It was more practical for industrial mills to sift it out: hence the white flour we all use today. (The flour companies could also sell the bran and germ separately at much higher prices, which would allow them to keep the cost of flour low.) “Whole-wheat” flour is really just white flour with flecks of bran tossed back in, which alters the protein structure and gives baked goods made from it what Van Camp calls, for lack of a better term, a “shorter” mouthfeel.

Dave Miller demonstrate how to transform raw grain into Megan's great-grandparents' butterscotch pie.
Dave Miller demonstrate how to transform raw grain into Megan’s great-grandparents’ butterscotch pie.Credit: Lucy Hewett

Miller believes the elimination of bran and germ from flour, in addition to the now common practice of adding gluten to bread dough to make it softer and easier to work with, is the reason so many people now have trouble digesting wheat flour. Van Camp theorizes that the trouble comes from new strains of hybrid wheat that have been developed over the past few decades for easier industrial flour processing. (At Nellcôte, he bets customers who claim to have gluten allergies that they can safely consume one of his pizzas. Very few have taken him up on it, but those who have, he says, have reported no gastric distress.) Whatever the case, Miller is of the opinion that the more people use whole-wheat flour ground by small, artisan millwrights—”that’s the technical term”—the less need there will be for gluten-free baked goods.

The studying turned the Millers into flour evangelists. Instead of making flour just for their own use—at Bang Bang, they went through more than 20,000 pounds in one year—they decided they would sell it to the public. The bakery would be their test kitchen, a way to show their customers just how good real whole-wheat flour could be. The goodwill they brought from Bang Bang was such that there was a line out the door when Baker Miller finally opened in September.

Baker Miller uses only organic, non-GMO wheat, corn, oats, and beans that have been thoroughly tested for mold and toxins. (“It’s like charcuterie,” Miller says. “It will kill people if you don’t do it right.”) There are four petite wooden mills—each less than two feet high, three with a four-inch-diameter stone and one with a two-and-a-half—that sit on a shelf in the back of the store. Once you have the grain, milling is relatively uncomplicated. Miller pours the dried kernels into a wide, shallow hopper at the top of the mill. The grain lands on the platter-shaped stone. A motor-driven stone wheel spins a few millimeters above it like an LP record, pulverizing the grain, and then a puff of air blows the finished flour out through a tube into a heavy plastic tub. Miller can adjust the size of the grind, depending on what he plans to use the flour for. The finished product is soft and clumps together, like very fine powdery snow. It smells a little like commercial white all-purpose flour, but richer and grassier. “It feels so much more alive,” Miller says happily, gathering up a small handful.

There are two problems with Baker Miller flour. The first is that the protein structure is different from commercial flour, which makes it interact differently with other ingredients and might cause problems for a home baker. In a shop the size of Baker Miller, there would normally be six bakers; here there are nine to deal with the extra labor of finding flour blends that will work reliably for a nonprofessional. The second issue is cost. For now, a one-pound bag of wheat flour, oatmeal, or cornmeal costs $5. The Millers plan to remedy the first problem by offering baking classes at the store four days a week and, next year, a cookbook. For the second, they have no immediate solution.

“People will buy a pound of coffee a week, but not flour,” Miller says. “People drink coffee every day, but they don’t use flour every day.” If you compare it to a $19 one-pound bag of Intelligentsia beans instead of a $1.58 five-pound sack of white flour at Aldi, a $5 bag of Baker Miller whole-wheat does indeed start to look like a bargain.

It’s still elitist, though, and Miller knows it. Before he and Megan opened Bang Bang, they were on food stamps to supplement their restaurant-worker salaries. They hope they’ll be able to start accepting the Link card at the store soon. “Good flour is not a rich man’s food,” he says. “We want it to be accessible. People with the most need get the least nutrients. [White bread] is filler. Their stomachs are full, and it’s killing them.”

In the next few months Baker Miller will acquire a business partner and move the milling operation to a larger facility in some as-yet-to-be-determined corner of the city. Miller is sure milling is due for a revival, just like craft brewing, coffee roasting, and bean-to-bar chocolate making. It won’t be long before someone else sees its economic potential.

“Within the next couple of years, someone is going to make it a gimmick,” he says. “It’s integral that we’re first so the gimmick place doesn’t match this. The old way doesn’t matter unless it’s better.”