​​Baking With Fresh Milled Flour – Troubleshooting Guide

​​baking with fresh milled flour
Published on
10 October 2022
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

I typically find topics to write about in three ways; 1) by looking at what bread-related questions are searched, 2) because something interests me, or, 3) I think an article will help you guys make better bread. This post is different somewhat, it’s based on some troubleshooting I did over email. The subscriber was struggling to make bread with freshly ground wheat and wanted some tips.

See, whilst baking with fresh milled flour is very appealing, it comes with challenges that buying pre-milled doesn’t provide. So in this article, I’m sharing the troubleshooting process we went through together, and expanded it, to include other scenarios. By following this guide I hope you will improve the quality of the homemade bread you make with freshly milled flour. We fixed her issue, so maybe we can fix yours too!?

What makes using freshly milled flour so hard?

When you get a new sack of wheat grain, you’ll notice that it’s probably different to the last. Each sack of wheat is different and possibly doesn’t possess (but not necessarily) the ideal qualities for bread making. When baking with freshly milled flour you can’t follow a bread recipe for the first time and expect perfect results. You’ll need to make tweaks to suit the flour you are using, particularly the amount of water you use as different flours absorb varying amounts of water. But there are other factors that change between grains, such as the amount of kneading it requires and the type of proteins and starch it contains. All of this means you have to take a bit more care when making bread with fresh flour vs packaged flour.

How To Make Bread For The First Tim...
How To Make Bread For The First Time With A Simple White Bread Recipe (START HERE)

How to bread made from freshly milled flour taste light and spongy

Before we properly troubleshoot your issue, here are a few tips you can try that might just flip a disaster into a triumph.

Mature your flour before using it

In years gone by, flour would be left a few weeks before use so that it can “age”. This maturation process allows moisture to escape the wheat, whilst also exposing it to oxygen. Flour oxidation enhances the ability of the gluten to hold shape and trap gas.

Doing this is a bit of a game-changer, however, I understand that idea of freshly milling and then not using it for several weeks kinda removes the point of home milling. So to mature flour without having to wait, you can add an oxidiser to your flour. This might sound scary, but the most popular one, ascorbic acid has no health effects and is used by many flour mills across the world. You’re only going to use a tiny bit, anyway, and when I say tiny, the US legal limit is 0.0002% of the weight of the flour! Potassium Bromate is another, but it does contain serious health risks, so best stay away.

Use less (or more) water in your recipe

Freshly milled flour will contain more moisture than flour that’s been bagged and left to sit on a shelf for months. Excessive water in bread dough makes the dough harder to shape, retain shape, and accelerates yeast activity(it will rise faster). Therefore you’ll probably need less water in your recipe than a standard recipe states. There are some tips on how to add the water to your dough to obtain the perfect water-to-flour ratio later on.

Increase your recipes fermentation/proofing time

Gluten protein in whole wheat flour takes longer to hydrate than in white flour. The make-up of the flour is also more complex, making it less ideal for making bread, compared to white baker’s flour. Because of this, a slow rise is beneficial if you make bread with freshly milled flour. This will allow time for the gluten to unravel into long strands that will form a robust structure. It’s creating this environment in your dough that can really make the difference as you’ll notice that the gluten captures more of the gas produced by the yeast, and therefore your dough will rise higher.

The benefits of long rising are increased when the rise is split into two. Try a total rising time of around 3-4 hours, split into a 2-hour first rise and after the dough has been shaped, follow with a second, 1 – 1 ½-hour final rise. You can also extend the rising time further and use prefermented dough or sourdough to increase dough maturity.

There are a few ways to slow the rise of bread dough. The most common methods are to use less yeast or adjust the doughs proofing temperature. A temperature around 24-26C is perfect for the first rise, as it’s warm enough to activate the yeast, but so warm that the dough becomes too gassy before shaping, and who likes that?

For slow-proofing bread, I suggest using 1.6-1.8% fresh yeast to the weight of the flour. For active yeast, use 0.8-0.9%. For instant yeast, use 0.5-0.6%.

Note: See my baker's percentages guide if you don’t understand the percentages term used throughout this article.

When dough rises, ethanol is produced by the yeast. This occurs because of yeast fermentation, a way yeast can produce gas when oxygen levels are depleted. Where dough is left to rise for several hours, organic acid bacteria begin to multiply in the dough, which also ferments to produce organic acids. Ethanol and organic acids offer many benefits, but notably, they strengthen gluten, enhancing its structure and ability to stretch. So, not only does the gluten have time to develop into a more effective structure in a long rise, it also improves its ability to capture gas by the development of organic acids and ethanol. When dealing with home-milled flour a longer first rise can make a big difference.

Is freshly ground flour better for you?

By freshly milling wheat to make flour you’ll produce flour with maximin natural nutritional value. However, most countries fortify flour at the mill with minerals. When milling flour at home, you won’t be adding these minerals, but the nutrients that exist in the flour won’t be damaged through staling. So in the round, it’s hard to provide a definitive answer to which is better! See the comments section here where the conversation gets quite in-depth (and heated!)

Match gluten development with the length of the rise

Increasing fermentation activity is a sound reason for extending the length of the first rise. But, for this to occur you’ll need the yeast to respire anaerobically instead of aerobically, as with oxygen, yeast produces double the amount of carbon dioxide and doesn’t produce ethanol. So when extending the rise to benefit from the fermentative activity, you’ll need to reduce the amount of oxygen that gets incorporated in the dough. To do this you’ll want to knead less, knead gently and, rely on stretch and folds during the first rise to develop the gluten. Another method is to utilise a preferment, which we’ll come onto later in the article.

Sift the big bits of bran out

Larger pieces of bran pass through when milling. Whilst bran is excellent for nutrition and flavour, its brittle texture makes it hard to build a strong dough structure.

The large bran chunks get in the way of the gluten trying to interlink and also pierce holes in the structure, letting gas escape. Gas retention ability is significantly reduced when there is more bran in the flour, leading to fewer volume gains during proofing and from the oven spring.

Although it can be painful to remove all that goodness, in the interest of making bread with a better texture, you might want to pass your flour through a sieve after it’s been milled to remove some of the bran. You can always add some of it back if you wish.

Mill your home milled flour twice

Whilst milling at home makes a fresher product, the burrs in a home grinder are not going to produce flour of the same quality as those found in roller mills. This means you’ll have a less consistent particle size, which will impact your flours’ ability to soak up water and form gluten bonds. It’s a similar principle as to why pro chefs dice their vegetables into identically sized pieces for frying or why coffee make at a coffee shop tastes better than home-ground coffee. To improve the consistency of your flour you can run it through the mill a second time.

Get a new mill

If you’ve exhausted all of these tips, but think inconsistent particle size is the cause of your problems, it could be that getting a new mill is your best solution. I hope you don’t have to, but if you do decide a new mill is needed, you’re welcome to use my affiliate link for this Sana Grain Mill 🙂

Troubleshooting issues when baking with freshly milled wheat

We’ve covered a few tricks you can do to resolve problems with using freshly milled flour to make bread, now let’s cover some common faults that occur, and how you can fix them. Take a look at the following resolutions and consider if they might work for you:

My dough is uneven and tearing as it rises

If your dough is tearing as it rises, the first thing you need to review is how the dough looks when you shape it. The most common fault is that there is a lot of gas created early on and it’s really bubbly when you shape it, this will be due to using too much yeast in your bread, or the proofing temperature being too high. 

You can only proof dough quickly when it has been kneaded to pass the windowpane test and a single, or very short first rise is used. A 100% pass on the windowpane test is unlikely to be reached if you are using wholegrain flour as its makeup is not ideal for fast gluten development. You’ll have to use dough improvers to achieve full gluten development with kneading alone, but if you don’t want to do this there is another solution.

When the gluten structure is underdeveloped, the same amount of gas will be created during proofing, but instead of it being retained by the gluten, it stretches and breaks the immature structure and exits the dough. The result is a semi-gassy, uneven dough that doesn’t rise all that much during the second rise. If this is happening to you it’s important to focus on your gluten being properly developed at the point of shaping. To enhance the gluten structure so you get a nice smooth dough, follow these recipe guidelines, depending on how long you have to proof your dough.

Length of the first riseAmount of kneading appliedRecommended fresh yeast %
None – 30 minutesFully: 100% gluten development1.8-2.2%
1½ – 3 hoursStandard: 70% gluten development1.7-1.9%
2-4 hoursLight: 40% gluten development1.5-1.8%
4-8 hoursJust combined: 10% gluten development1.3-1.6%

Further points:

  1. For active and instant yeast, less is required. Use a yeast conversion table to calculate the correct amount based on the type of yeast you are using.
  2. Salt slows down yeast activity so if its quantity has increased, the rise will be slower. The typical amount of salt used in bread is 1.8-2.0%.
  3. Active dried yeast should be correctly bloomed before adding to the mixing bowl.
  4. In warmer temperatures, the amount of yeast can be reduced (lower end of the recommended range) to maintain a consistent rising time.
  5. Kneading freshly milled flour to 100% gluten development is a challenge for domestic appliances.
  6. The second rise should last around 1-3 hours. If the second rise is too quick the dough can also become uneven.
  7. Avoid over-mixing the dough. This can happen when mixed in a dough mixer for over 20 minutes, or high mixing speeds are used before the flour is sufficiently hydrated.

I don’t get any oven spring?

Many of the factors that determine the amount of oven spring mirror the qualities required for a decent rise during proofing. These include gluten development, its stretchiness (extensibility) and the rate of gas production. There are other things that impact the amount of oven spring too.

1. Gluten development & extensibility

With home-milled flour, there are a lot more potential issues in comparison to the “off-the-shelf stuff”. First off, it could be low in protein. The minimum protein content for bread is around 11.5%. Even if the flour contains enough protein, it could be the wrong protein. Dough relies on a healthy ratio of gliadin to glutenin proteins in order for it to hold shape and stretch. If this balance is unregulated, the dough will not rise correctly. Then there is the W-factor, flours with low W-factor ratings break down during a long rise.

Unfortunately, these details are missing from most descriptions, so you’ll have to test them out to determine their baking credentials! To improve gluten development and how you can balance gluten development vs gas production during the first rise, consider:

  1. Adding Vital Wheat Gluten to increase the amount of protein in the flour
  2. Knead or bulk ferment for longer (by slowing yeast activity) to increase gluten development
  3. Sift out some of the large bran particles from the flour to improve the gluten strength
  4. Additional proteins, emulsifiers or binders can be used to enhance the gluten structure. Eggs, vinegar, soy flour and fats such as butter and vegetable oil can help.
  5. Deactivated yeast or another reducing agent will enhance gluten development, allowing kneading time to be kept short.

2. Gas production

In order to produce gas, yeast needs a constant supply of sugars from the flour. Once the easy-to-access sugars are exhausted, enzymes must break down larger starch chains. This slows the rate at which sugars can be passed to the yeast cells, therefore slowing gas production is slowed and the volume gain from the oven spring becomes underwhelming.

To remedy this, you can add extra enzymes to the flour to accelerate the breakdown of the starch by adding malt flour. Use between 5-9% malt flour for whole wheat bread. If you notice a gummy crumb after baking, reduce the amount used next time.

Alternatively, a little sugar will provide the yeast with more food for gas production, whilst adding sweetness.

And, if you want to keep things “all-natural”, and there are good reasons too, you must avoid your dough from running out of sugars so you’ll have enough for the yeast to process during the second rise and oven spring (effectively a third rise). To help with this you can look at decreasing the amount of gas produced during the first rise by either; 1) proofing the dough at a cooler temperature to reduce gas production, 2) reducing the length of the first rise and kneading more to increase gluten development. The first often tends to provide better results when making bread with home-milled flour though.

3. Shaping

Pushing the majority of the gas out of the dough during shaping (degassing) is sensible if the dough has risen less than 50% during the first rise. If it’s risen more than 50%, you can end up with a dense loaf. The reason for this is that the yeast will run out of sugars to consume, even if you undertake the steps in the previous point. A light, more gentle shaping technique is recommended if the dough is gassy to keep the gas in the dough.

4. In the oven

The amount of oven spring your bread receives is largely factored by the quality of your dough. We’ve already discussed this on this page, but it is important to also consider how you bake your bread in your oven for maximum oven spring. Baking conditions can also be improved to obtain maximum volume, including sufficient heat and humidity.

Tips when baking with a Dutch oven are: Ensure the lid is sealed, preheat your Dutch oven (if the manufacturer says it’s safe), use a high oven temperature (215-230C or 420-445F) and lightly spritz the bread with a water spray before closing the lid.

When not using a Dutch oven you should use a baking stone, or at least preheat a baking sheet to bake your bread on. The extra heat conduction will help push your dough up in the oven. Other considerations:

  • Generate plenty of steam during the first 12-15 minutes of baking.
  • Use an oven temperature of 220-240C (430-445F)
  • Avoid turning the fan on, just use convection heat, preferably on the bottom element only setting

The dough is wet and sticky

The most likely reason for a sticky dough is that there is too much water in it! The amount of water flour can absorb will vary between varieties and even batches, leading to just about every recipe being wrong when using home-milled flour! The amount of water flour absorbs is based on several factors, including, the amount of protein, the amount of moisture and the amount of bran that exists in the wheat. Wholewheat flour is typically slower to absorb water, making it harder to gauge whether you’ve added too much or too little to your dough.

When dough is wet when kneading, the tendency is to add extra raw flour, either as you knead or during the shaping stage. This disrupts the gluten structure and whilst avoiding the disaster of having no bread, decreases the texture and flavour qualities of the bread. It’s best to avoid wet and sticky dough in the first place! Here’s how:

  • Weigh all your ingredients in grams for accuracy.
  • Note water adjustments for future bakes.
  • Use the autolyse method to allow the flour to soak up the water before kneading. If you realise your dough is too wet when you start kneading, add more flour then, it’s much better adding it here than later on.
  • Reserve 5-10% of the water stated in the recipe. Instead, introduce it to dough gradually as you knead -if it’s needed.
  • Use the same grain for several bakes to master your recipes.

I can’t develop the dough to pass the windowpane test?

The windowpane test displays the level of gluten development in the dough. The idea is that when stretched, the dough will be so thin that you can see light passing through. At this point, it’s reached 100% gluten development, which is the perfect time for shaping.

Gluten development

It can be really tricky to knead your dough to 100% gluten development, whatever the type of flour. And whilst you can still make good bread without reaching this stage, passing the windowpane test means your dough will be more aerated and light. You can see my guide on how to get dough to pass the windowpane test for a few tips if you wish.

Dough spreads out when it goes into the oven?

Bread dough spreads out when in the oven for two reasons:

  1. The gluten was not elastic enough
  2. The gluten broke down due to over proofing/fermentation

To improve the elasticity of dough you can try several things:

  • Add extra gluten by using VWG
  • Increase salt levels to around 2%
  • Decrease the amount of water in the recipe
  • Avoid intense mixing with tabletop mixers that break gluten strands
  • Follow a 3-step kneading process
  • Age the flour by letting it aerate or adding an oxidiser (ascorbic acid)

If the gluten deteriorates by the time it’s ready to bake, try:

  • If following a long first rise (over 6 hours), reduce the amount of kneading applied so that 100% gluten development (windowpane) is achieved at the point the dough is shaped, not when kneading.
  • A long first rise, followed by a long final rise often spells disaster for gluten. Use a warmer temperature for one of the rises to accelerate the rising time.
  • Increase the rate of gas production by increasing the amount of yeast used or the fermentation/proofing temperature.

My recipe did work beautifully, but now my bread is pants!

The inconsistency of making bread with home-milled flour is one of the challenges, yet (arguably) this makes it so much more rewarding when things go right!

There is a common misconception to treat flour as a commodity with its quality determined solely by protein content. I believe that flour really should be considered in the same way as grapes are by winemakers. It has many different properties that require sophisticated equipment to determine which is outside the budget of most home millers. It’s these subtle changes that make it so much harder to make bread of a consistent quality when the type of wheat is changing, and the batches of wheat change.

It’s quite normal for a large sack of wheat berries to require different treatment by the time it’s reached its end. Typically more water is needed as it ages and less kneading is required. But this can change depending on the variety used.

If you are struggling with inconsistent results with home-milled flour, the solution is to stick to the same recipe, the same wheat, and master it by making subtle changes (mentioned in this article) until you get it right. Then you can progress to trying a new recipe or new type of wheat and master that.

Don’t attempt to change too much at a time. Keep things simple to learn about the characteristics of your wheat and processes, and you’ll soon be confident enough to be able to work with any wheat and any recipe!

How to go about troubleshooting bread when using freshly ground wheat?

As you can see there is not one answer to fixing bread made with freshly ground wheat. The issue lies in the vast amount of variables that bread making and home milling in particular products, but I hope this article has given you a few pointers to fix your bread issue. If so, I’d love to hear about them, let me know in the comments what you will try next time or if you have further tips or questions.

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