Monday, July 7, 2014

How we make cornbread

Or rather, how we make the basic ingredients for cornbread.

I'm of the opinion that we would all be better off if we more closely interacted with the resources we consume. This isn't always a popular opinion, but just imagine how much more carefully we would use our water if we had to haul it by hand, or even just stand and keep an eye on the day-tank as we minded a switch for the electric pump that fills it.

That same thinking goes towards the foods we consume and to that end we grind our own wheat flour and cornmeal around here. I know, sounds nuts, but that's the way it is. . .
Anyway, around here a batch of cornbread means getting the hand-mill out and dragging the pails of organic, non-GMO corn and wheat berry's down from a high shelf.

Some hand-mills have a permanent place in the kitchen, but we don't have enough room for that. Besides, milling grain is a bit messy, mostly a fine dust drifting around, so we keep our mill in a cupboard and use it right there on the workbench where the mess can be blown out the door with a few shots from the air-compressor.

The mill is a fairly simple thing, though I'm sure the guy who has to cut those spiraling, tapered slots in the two steel grinding plates doesn't think so. There's a hopper on top with a slot in the bottom of it, a shaft passing through that slot with the hand-wheel on one end and the rotating grinding plate on the other with a few bits in between. For smaller grains there's an auger and a short spring and for large grains a long spring that goes on the shaft with no auger. A few keys fit into a slot in the shaft to keep all the bits where they belong and an adjusting wheel threads on the end of the shaft to set the distance between the fixed and rotating grinding plates.

Here the hopper is filled with wheat berries, which is the entire wheat kernel minus the hull. One pound of kernels will obviously yield one pound of flour minus the little bit that blows away during the process, but 1 cup of kernels, corn or wheat, equals about a cup and a half of finished product. I know, doesn't make sense. I guess the lighter particles of the end product fluff more than the heavy kernels.

With the grinding plates set to a coarse grind the first pass is cranked through the mill. Unless you have arms the size of a normal person's thighs, grinding in a couple passes eases the effort needed to crank the mill down to moderate instead of 'holy crap!' and helps keep the heat generated by the process to a minimum. (Heat can start to degrade the vitamins and other goodies in the wheat.) The first pass is relatively coarse and looks more like cereal than flour.

Then you tighten up the mill faces to almost touching for the second pass. Don't let the mill faces touch or you'll wear the steel away which is bad for the expensive grinding plates and adds a little too much iron to the flour! It took me about 10 minuets of slow steady cranking for each of the two passes though we normally only make 2 cups or less at a time, not the 6 cups I'm making here.

We aren't interested in matching the super refined texture of store-bought flour so this is as far as we usually go, but if we want finer flour then the batch goes back through the mill at least one more time but it will take 1.5 to 2 times more cranking per pass. And we don't tighten up the grinding plates for additional passes either since they're already about as tight as they can get on the second pass. Just the act of running the flour through the plates one or two more times will make it finer. If we were planning to make pastries or pie crusts we would then sift the flour for the final product. (What? You didn't think your grandmother used that hand-powered sifter for fun did you??)

Here the last of the results of the first pass are about to exit the auger through the grinding plates to complete the second pass.

The corn we use to make cornmeal is yellow dent, often called field corn. We buy certified organic, non-GMO that's already been cleaned but in an emergency you can go to the local store and buy a bag of deer corn too, or you can even use pop-corn, though using Redenbocher will get expensive in a hurry!

A lot of people think you would use sweet-corn to make things we're going to eat ourselves rather than feed to the cows but that's not the case. All the chips and tortillas and anything else with corn in it that we buy from the grocery store are made with yellow dent. Sweet corn is for eating off the cob, freezing or canning.

The large corn kernels don't fit through the auger very well so the first pass is done with the long spring installed instead, it's coils are all that's needed to get the large kernels through to the grinding plates.

And since we set the plates so they're doing little more than cracking the corn on that first pass, it's easier cranking than the wheat and only took me about 5 minutes for this batch. Then the auger goes back in and the corn is run through the mill for a second pass with the plates set just a touch looser than for pass two of the wheat. We like our cornbread to have a little more texture to it than Wonderbread.

The finished product is loaded into airtight glass jars and if not used up that day, put into the freezer. But our goal is to use what we grind within a week since the moment you crack the whole-grain kernels the vitamins and natural goodness start to oxidize.

Because of the way the flour or meal falls from  our grinder we use a wide, rectangular container to collect it and from there use a large spoon to move it either back into the mill's hopper or to the quart canning jars we use for storage.

It just so happens that those large Styrofoam cups sold in some convenience stores fit the mouth of the quart jars just right and make perfect no-hands funnels once the bottom is cut out. We've been using this same cup for a couple years now.

A little dis-assembly and a few shots of compressed air are all the cleanup necessary and we're ready for next time. Usually we grind smaller batches than shown here but today we're making several pans of cornbread for an upcoming potluck.

For this big batch, from the time I got the stepladder out and dragged the pails of corn and wheat down to the time everything was all put back where it belonged was less than an hour. Normal 2 cup batches take half that. If there are two of you working at it, by the time one has the oven preheated and the other ingredients collected and ready to go, the other can have the freshly ground flour and cornmeal sitting on the counter.