Millers will repeatedly tell you: "There’s no such thing as poor quality wheat - there are just different specifications of wheat." Bakers, on the other hand, have been heard in recent months to exclaim, "This flour is rubbish!" (The expletives have been substituted to avoid upsetting our more sensitive readers.)

Craft bakers have been complaining of some really horrible flours from the latest UK harvest. In September we reported huge wastage problems at plant bakeries, especially with wholemeal - with up to 20% wastage in some plants - and complaints ranging from loaves not rising to side-walling (loaves baking with concave sides in the tin).

So what’s the reason for this? Due to disruptive weather, some wheats in the UK have developed better than others and prime breadmaking wheats of recent years - such as Warburtons’ favoured wheat, Hereward - have seen a big drop in protein quality. On top of this, Hereward has not adapted well genetically to the weather, climate or bakery use, says John Cottrell, technical director for ADM Milling.

While bakers would love more consistency with wheats, the truth is that varieties can degenerate with time, as they’re reproduced year after year. "Wheat varieties go out of date and become less and less reliable in the quality of output as they get older," says Cottrell.

He says ADM’s Technical Centre in Avonmouth, was ahead in identifying and solving problems with this year’s wheats. The harvest assessment in mid-August set early alarm bells ringing that wheat quality was severely impaired. Using digital scanning technology, ADM was able to compare this year’s wheat baking characteristics to last year’s. It quickly realised there was a problem.

"We were able to see very early on - what everybody now knows - that there’s a big drop in protein year-on-year, and were able to correct those problems early on to produce a consistent quality flour," he says. "What we’re seeing is one of the best years last year compared to one of the worst years in recent times this year. It took some time to smooth out and we like to think that we were ahead of the game."

Now, flours are as good as last year’s, he claims. "Very few of our customers had issues."

So what kind of alchemy can turn a bad wheat to good? The answer lies in the choice of wheats. "We buy wheat by individual variety - whether that’s Hereward, Malacca or Cordiale - not just by Nabim Class, which some of our competitors do. We then select which wheats to blend," says Cottrell.

While there were big drops in Group 1 Malacca and Hereward proteins, Group 2 Cordiale only saw a 0.5% drop in protein. Meanwhile, Group 1 Solstice emerged as a major bread wheat. Spotting this early on allowed the miller to make the necessary adjustments.

Secondly, the team investigated why the flour wasn’t baking well. Although protein was down, historically it wasn’t disastrously low. ADM established that changes were needed to the way the wheat was being milled.

The mills needed to be reset, changing the way the grains go through the various rolling stages, which ultimately alters the baking profile of the wheat. Changing where in the milling process the starch is ground and how the protein is separated on the mill results in better starch and protein components for quality baking, says Cottrell."This has been a year where the millers have had to earn their money - where they’ve had to set up their mills exactly right."

ADM is involved in a government-funded ’LINK’ project to identify quality traits within the wheat genome, in order to breed better wheats for the next generation of bakers. "It takes 10 years to breed a wheat and a huge investment, which, at the end of the day, comes to nothing if the farmers or millers don’t like it," he says.

The Technical Centre has been ADM’s flagship research facility since the turn of the decade. It has a pilot-scale bakery on site, using a variety of equipment (see opposite) to reduce the variability of test bakes.

"Part of what we do is understanding what the customer wants and making sure they match the right flour to the right process," says Tina Glen, Technical Centre manager. "The benefit of the Centre is that we are able to demonstrate that if the baker were to change X, Y or Z, they would get a better product. Most bakers, of any size, don’t have time to make batches of different things, but we can make batches of a weaker flour with more fat, or a stronger flour with a longer process - whatever they want to do - and then send them the results."

Ultimately, the aim to is to transform all the speculation, opinion and instinct that is the craft of bakery and nail down some of the mysteries lurking within the dough. As Cottrell says: "What we’re trying to do is cut through some of the magic of baking and say, ’We can prove this.’" n


=== Kit you can tap into ===

Typically, only medium- to large-sized companies take advantage of ADM’s Technical Centre facilities, but you can be the smallest one-off bakery and still tap their testing expertise


This houses a range of equipment to carry out comprehensive testing on wheat and flour, including innovative NIR (near infrared) scanning spectroscopy

Milling room

The large milling room has two pilot-scale Bühler mills and associated equipment, useful for assessing new wheat varieties and making a rapid evaluation of each new crop’s milling quality.


Pilot-scale plant to mimic a full plant bakery process, high-speed and spiral mixers, umbrella moulder, final moulder, rotary prover and travelling oven. Also, Artofex mixers, static provers and deck ovens for simulating in-store bakery and artisan craft bakery processes. Equipment for morning goods, batters, frying and hot-plate goods are used. A dedicated confectionery bakery offers controlled conditions for pastry work and other flour confectionery.


This combines digital imaging to computer software allowing a slice of bread/cake/pastry to be analysed for quality factors in an objective, measured way, with results recorded and stored.

TA-XT Texture analyser

This measures the texture of doughs and finished goods such as bread, pastry, tortillas and croissants.


=== It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it ===

The process - and not the ingredients - is the vital element in baking, says ADM.

Technical director John Cottrell says: "Any baker worth his salt will tell you he can make a loaf of bread out of any old rubbish. I can give one of our bakers flour of the lowest specification and they can turn it into a prize-winning loaf. But they’re using their hands, paying attention to detail and making sure they get every stage of the process right."

The mixers, he believes, have the biggest influence on the dough’s development. If you get that stage right, you’ll get a better product. "Probably the biggest truism is that the dough has to be right when it comes out of the mixer. If you’re asking, why is so-and-so’s bread better than someone else’s, almost always I would say it was becaue of their attention to detail in their process."

A question in point is how do you make good puff pastry? ADM has modified C-Cell technology to assess puff pastry the same way as bread is assessed. What it learned was that you have to balance the flour to the process. Put simply, the layers of fat in puff pastry give off steam during baking that create pockets, and having the right cell structure determines the eat quality. That process can now be measured. If the protein in the flour is too strong, you will not get oven lift; if it’s too weak, the steam will burst straight through.

Some bakers make puff pastry quickly through the laminator with no time to relax. For that, very low-protein quality flour can be used. In a longer process, a weak-protein quality will result in a collapsed mess. Conversely, if you use a really good protein flour in a quick process, the protein is so tough that it will shrink the dough by the time it goes in the oven. So flour type is intrinsically linked to the process. "Every baker knows that - that’s nothing new," says Cottrell. "But what they were unable to do before was quantify it. When you can do that you can start to apply science to manipulate things in the process one at a time to find out what’s important in the ingredients and process in making a product."


=== Four things we learned at ADM’s Technical Centre ===

1 Pile it high, sell it, er, high!

The UK has the highest wheat yield per hectare of any country in the world. The biggest driving force in the last 20 years has been yield per hectare, with farmers choosing wheats that maximise profitability. Demand for biofuels and animal feed has further pushed UK farmers towards very high-yielding wheats - such as Alchemy, a Group 4 wheat, which this year provided the biggest yield in the UK. It is possibly the least suitable for breadmaking.

2 By 2027, combine harvesters will be cleverer than you are

No industry other than milling receives lorry-loads of deliveries every day and every single one of them is different. Wheat is bought on protein, moisture, hagberg, specific weight and cleanliness. But massive changes in quality year-on-year are compounded by local variations, because every field of wheat is different. The bigger farms are now using satellite tracking to measure soil conditions of individual parts of their farms. ADM Milling technical director John Cottrell says: "If you look forward 20 years, combine harvesters will have near infrared (NIR) fitted, which measures protein, moisture, starch damage and water absorption. This will be measuring the wheat as it’s harvested and the CCFRA is working on that right now."

3 You need the steady hand of a neurosurgeon to perfectly slice and scientifically scan a puff pastry

By carrying out digital imaging on a C-Cell machine you can measure the structure of a baked puff pastry - but you have to slice it neatly first. "After about 3,000 goes at it, you eventually get the knack!" says technical development co-ordinator Karyn Boniface. Technology will always need expert knowledge to make sense of the reams of data the equipment spews out, adds Cottrell. "We, if you like, tie the technologists’ brains into the computer. Everything is based on their evaluations but we take away the vagaries of subjective analysis. The C-Cell won’t be in a bad mood because it had a row with the wife in the morning. It will score the product consistently every time."

4 The ADM Technical Centre is like an octopus

The centre specialises in "wheat knowledge" for all international wheat that’s available to the UK; it acts as the octopus body for ADM’s eight mills to keep tabs on quality assurance, such as test-baking different wheats from around the country, as well as customer support.