A WSU lab in Mount Vernon is bringing back bread’s long-lost nutrition and flavor

It’s the early years of McDonald’s, before it has served billions and billions. Fred Turner, a man who can see beauty in a bun, is working to improve the delivery of ingredients, from meat to condiments. Aiming to save pennies and seconds, he has the buns made individually, not clustered, and pre-sliced, making it easier for the griddle cook to handle. He changes the box they come in, to avoid extra work and paper. Ultimately, he transforms the McDonald’s hamburger bun into one of the most predictable, consistent forms in the world of food.

“It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun,” founder Ray Kroc later writes in his autobiography, Grinding It Out. “Yet, is it any more unusual to find grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun than to reflect lovingly on the hackles of a favorite fishing fly? Or the arrangement of textures and colors in a butterfly’s wing?”

Kroc went on to call the bun “an essential material in the art of serving a great many meals fast.” In its own way, it’s artisan bread, Ray Kroc style.

Now comes the new artisan bread. In its ideal form, it is most everything that the McDonald’s bun is not. It is whole grain, not bleached white. Its flour is regionally grown and milled, preferably fresh, not blended from sources around the United States. Like so much of the modern world’s bread, the McDonald’s bun can stretch the definition of bread to include a bewildering list of ingredients, from high fructose corn syrup to extra gluten to the “yoga mat” compound azodicarbonamide. A proper loaf of artisan bread can have as few as four ingredients: water, salt, flour, and the slurry of naturally fermented yeast and bacteria that makes it technically a sourdough, but not necessarily sour. And where the McDonald’s bun is inoffensively pliant, sweet, and largely a vehicle for all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions, this new bread is a mouthful of textures and flavors, some of which go back millennia to the wood-fired origins of bread, others to the very soil it’s from.

This wholesale reconsideration of bread and what it can be is a relative latecomer to the recent public reexamination of food and the means by which is it raised, distributed, and prepared. But it’s no less revolutionary, dealing as it is with the staff of life and seeking to create the greatest thing since its mass-produced, plastic-wrapped sibling, sliced bread.

The most visible forces in the movement are chefs and bakers, food writers, and health and environmental advocates. Appearing alongside them, undergirding its science in seminars, grain gatherings, features in a trifecta of New York print media—New York magazine, The New York Times, and The New Yorker—and in an upcoming documentary, The Grain Divide, is Stephen Jones, director of the WSU Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon.

Jones wants to reengineer the bread system from the seed up. A wheat breeder by training, he is combing through tens of thousands of varieties to develop wheat to specific growing areas, with flavors that can have an actual terroir, like wine. He would like these varieties milled locally and baked locally, or at least regionally. He would prefer that the bakers use the whole grain, capturing the protein, micronutrients, fiber, and flavor lost in white bread and largely overlooked in what is currently sold as whole wheat.

To that end, he created the center’s Bread Lab. It has its own baker, five graduate students, an annual grain conference, and support from the likes of Clif Bar, the King Arthur Flour Company, and Chipotle Mexican Grill, the flavor-centric fast-casual restaurant chain giving McDonald’s a run for its money. He has bred grain for Dan Barber, founder of the farm-to-table Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant and education center outside New York City.

The would-be revolution is still largely in the insurrection stage. Jones and company aim to add to the varieties of wheat that are being grown, in turn changing the way bread is made. They have to change the science of bread, which has for decades been bent on production and efficiency, or they at least have to make their way of growing wheat and baking bread reasonably efficient and profitable. And they have to change the marketplace. That might already be changing, with consumer tastes leading the way.

“If you look at a McDonald’s hamburger bun, it’s so successful because it’s the same whether it’s made in Tokyo or here,” says Jones. While that’s not easy to do, “not everyone wants that, and a good model for that are the microbrews. People want something different when they go in a pub. If they go to Portland, they want that to taste different than it does in San Francisco or Pullman or here. That’s the same in breads and surprisingly, that could be the same at a very large scale.”

The bread revolution began for Jones in Cupertino, California, when he was six years old and his Polish grandmother taught him how to make bagels. He took to growing wheat as an undergraduate at California State University, Chico, and has grown it ever since, even when he lacked space and had to grow it in a pot. For his doctorate at the University of California, Davis, he studied the genetics of loaf volume.

He led an internationally recognized wheat breeding program in Pullman. But he also chafed at breeding only “anonymous wheat” for use on an industrial scale, thinking there must be other ways to add to its value. When asked to breed wheat genetically modified to resist an herbicide, he bristled at the thought of creating wheat that farmers would, by contract, not be able to replant the next year. He refused, assuming a reputation as a renegade. The Washington Wheat Commission threatened to withhold funding for his winter wheat breeding program.

In 2008, he left Pullman to run the Mount Vernon center, assuming he would be working with cabbages or pickling cucumbers, typical specialty crops in the Skagit Valley. But it turns out that farmers grow wheat in the valley to break weed and disease cycles between tulips, potatoes, and other crops. They asked Jones for his help and he found himself continuing to work in wheat but with more of a focus on the farmer than on commodity-style wheat.

“Once you get out of the commodity market, it’s a very freeing experience,” he says.

Here he could work with all types of wheat—purple wheat, blue wheat, black wheat, and varieties with unique flavors and baking properties. But to nail down those flavors and properties and prepare them for life outside the commodity marketplace, he needed to test them, so he started the Bread Lab and hired Jonathan Bethony to bake.

In his earlier role, he might be told a certain wheat “doesn’t work,” even if the farmer would have liked its yield and disease resistance. “So we had something that worked incredibly well for the farmer, but now it doesn’t fit that commodity button. In the past, it had no use. Now it does. Now Jonathan and the visiting bakers can say, ‘You know what, it makes an incredible tortilla, pizza crust, cookies, dough, baguette, whatever. Yeah, the color is funky but people like that.’”

An illustration of a brain hangs on a piece of electrical conduit in the middle of the lab. One hemisphere is on the lab’s analytical side, where equipment can analyze a flour’s enzymes. Another machine gauges its ability to tolerate mixing and proofing. Yet another is designed to, as Jones puts it, “blow expensive bubbles,” inflating dough to measure pressure and volume and gauge elasticity and extensibility, key elements of a bread’s structure.

Stephen Jones. Photo Matt Hagen
Stephen Jones (Photo Matt Hagen)

The brain’s other lobe is on the baking side, where Bethony and visiting bakers employ the more subjective and intuitive tools of the hand and palate. Clear plastic containers hold dozens of different wheats, with names like Sonora and Bobtail, Colonia and Soisson, and Bethony routinely bakes them into flavor-packed baguettes, boules, and other products in the lab’s massive four-deck oven.

On this day, Blue Hill baker Louis Volle is visiting to practice for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the World Cup of artisan baking. Joining him are Lacey Thompson, who is opening a bakery in nearby Acme, and Dawn Woodward, who is expanding her Toronto-based Evelyn’s Crackers to include sourdough-based, whole-grain breads. They’re part of the lab’s regular traffic of visitors, the list of which includes renowned bakers like Jeffrey Hamelman and Chad Robertson, as well as business visionaries like Chipotle founder Steve Ells and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.

Readying for the day’s bake, Volle asks for some white flour. Bethony hesitates before digging out a bag that hasn’t been touched since the annual Grain Gathering six months earlier.

“We’ll let him use a little white flour, only because it’s the World Cup,” Bethony says.

WSU Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon (left) explains wheat hybridization to Chad Robertson, owner of Tartine Bakery, San Francisco. (Photo Kim Binczewski)
WSU Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon (left) explains wheat hybridization to Chad Robertson, owner of Tartine Bakery, San Francisco. (Photo Kim Binczewski)

Whole grain, long maligned as the domain of hippies and hairshirts, is a major focus of the lab. It can easily produce a dense, dry brick, and the fats in commercial whole-grain can turn rancid, making the loaf bitter. People taste that and assume it is inherent in whole wheat, says Bethony.

But in the right hands, it can produce a full-bodied, flavorful loaf. It is also elegantly nutritious, as Jones and doctoral student Bethany Econopouly detailed last year in a Huffington Post piece called “Redefining Bread.”

“Whole-grain breads do not need extra gluten, salt, fats, sweeteners, or unfamiliar, unpronounceable ingredients to taste good,” they wrote. “[They] need unrefined flour, true fermentation, and skilled bakers.”

The article takes to task a regulatory system that forbids the adulteration of so many other foods while in effect looking the other way at what goes into bread. Anything less than 100 percent juice has to be called a “drink,” “beverage,” or “cocktail.” Emulsified cheese has to bear the name “process.” But even if you bleach your flour with acetone peroxide, chlorine, or benzoyl peroxide—yes, the one used to treat acne—you can still call it bread.

Food and Drug Administration rules also permit shortening, sweeteners, coloring, potassium bromate, refined vital gluten, and azodicarbonamide, the aforementioned “yoga mat” compound used as a dough conditioner. Such additives are largely in service to speed and automation, wrote Jones and Econopouly, with the final product having a higher glycemic index, more undigested gluten, and less available micronutrients than naturally fermented bread.

“No wonder so many people now consider a food that has always been a staple, relied upon by countless people for daily nourishment, as unhealthy,” Jones and Econopouly wrote.

Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur Flour (in the white chef's hat) leads a local grains workshop at the Bread Lab. (Photo Kim Binczewski)
Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur Flour (in the white chef’s hat) leads a local grains workshop at the Bread Lab. (Photo Kim Binczewski)

Gluten, the key protein in bread’s structure, can’t be digested by the 1 percent or so of people with celiac disease, and many other people have taken to blaming it for other health problems. But the problem could well lie with the additives in commercial breads, particularly vital gluten. Meanwhile, Italian researchers have shown that gluten can be nearly eliminated as naturally leavened bread develops.

“One hypothesis is that the fermentation process starts kind of digesting the bread, it’s breaking down gluten,” Econopouly says one afternoon outside the lab. “It’s why you can over-ferment your bread, because you’ll have no strength to make a nice loaf.”

Which is where the baker’s hands come in. As a loaf rises, an experienced baker will see and feel changes in the dough’s character and adjust accordingly—cooling it to slow its development and build flavor, or changing its water content for more holes in the crumb. Bethony has experimented with removing a flour’s bran, softening it in water, and returning it to the dough, where it is now less likely to slash the dough’s bubbles. Working with a chef in the La Conner schools, he has baked with a white whole wheat that goes undetected by the students. He calls this “stealth health.”

Compared to most bread, even the quasi-artisan breads frozen and reheated in supermarkets, the loaves from the Bread Lab are immensely flavorful. They’re baked dark, making the most of the browning process that can serve up a rich, musky scent that permeates the crumb—the part that’s not crust—as the bread cools. The crumb is moist, with large, glossy, gelatinized holes created by degassing yeast and bacteria. The smell is intense, like fresh cut wood burned by a saw blade.

The challenge now is to get this product into more bakeries, homes, and mouths.

Econopouly studies breeding for yield, adaptability, and improved nutrition and baking quality. Before coming to Mount Vernon, she was a research analyst for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, learning about the challenges faced by small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa as they try to sustain their families and send their children to school. It was a big-picture task, involving agronomics, breeding, food policy, and market access.

The Bread Lab takes a big-picture approach, too, breeding wheat, baking bread, but also exploring ways to make a wholesome loaf a greater part of daily life for a greater number of people.

“One of the problems we come across is how can we get these really beautiful artisan, really nutritious whole wheat breads to more than just the people who can walk to one of these nice bakeries in the city in some hip neighborhood and spend more than $12 on a loaf of bread,” says Econopouly. “I’m not saying those loaves of bread aren’t worth $12. I’m saying everyone should be able to have a loaf of bread like that.”

Chad Robertson has devoted his career to perfecting such loaves. People line up outside his bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District to pay $8.25 for one. He has sold tens of thousands of copies of his first cookbook, Tartine Bread. The basic recipe consumes 38 pages.

“With this recipe, some matches, and a knife, you could start a civilization,” says Vogue magazine, which calls Robertson “the cult prince of American breadmaking.”

The core of the recipe is unbleached white flour, with a hint of whole wheat. Last year he put out a book centered on the flavor and aesthetics of whole grains and more diverse grains, like kamut and fermented oatmeal. He did much of his research in Denmark and Sweden, which is seeing a revival of heirloom Nordic grains.

“I come home and I would love to have some of these varieties growing in the States and see what happens,” he recalls one day in Bar Tartine, a restaurant around the corner from his Tartine Bakery. “I say that to Steve. That was maybe two years ago and they’re growing it now. I’m going to be able to use some of that stuff.”

Barber, the Blue Hill at Stone Farms chef, worked with Jones to develop his own wheat, a descendant of a Spanish variety named Aragon 03. It’s now growing at the Stone Barns farm in New York after a test plot near the Skagit Valley produced the equivalent of an astounding 156 bushels per acre.

“I would bet that we’re just at the beginning of something that won’t stop,” Barber says by phone one evening. “As people taste this stuff, there’s no way they’re going to settle for anything without the flavors they taste, because it blows your mind. To me it’s a no-brainer. That’s what changes everything, flavor.”

This is not your classic bench science. As Jones puts it, while much of the lab’s research is peer-reviewed, it’s not putting out a paper on “the perfect baguette.”

It’s more like a large, iterative, communitarian effort in which farmers, millers, bakers, and chefs bake and break bread, giving and taking inspiration to bring it to the larger world. It’s science in the throes of cultural change.

The lab’s bread work, says Jones, is as much about the art as it is about the science. “I think that’s real important,” he says. “If Chad Robertson and Marc Vetri and these other chefs and some bakers and Dan Barber help us figure out what’s good, that’s good for that end.”

Late last year, just three years after opening, the Bread Lab announced that it had outgrown its space and was moving to a 12,000-square-foot building at the Port of Skagit County. Large donations quickly flowed in from the likes of Acme Valley Foods and King Arthur Flour. The Vermont-based King Arthur, the oldest flour company in the United States, will use one-fourth of the new building for a baking education center, its first footprint outside its home state of Vermont.

Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, learned about the lab after tasting bread made with Dan Barber’s wheat. He has since worked with the lab to tinker with a whole-wheat crust in Pizzeria Locale, an expanding Neopolitan pizza restaurant partly owned by Chipotle. The company is also looking at a whole-wheat tortilla. It’s in the early stages, but should this come to pass, it would have the Bread Lab’s work reaching the palates of one million people a day.

There’s an even bigger picture to this as well, as Jones aims to see the lab’s work stretch across scientific disciplines and generations.

As a graduate student, Jones spent five years at a microscope, a working definition of tunnel vision. Now he has five graduate students exploring, among other things, small-scale crop systems, barley, buckwheat, and perennial wheat. In the process, they’re looking at history, economics, the environment, and politics.

“Five years ago, I didn’t want any more students, because I didn’t know where they would go,” Jones says. “Now I want 20.”

Last year, the lab worked with two high school sophomores on a science fair project on the effect of fermentation on gluten strength, or, as the project was titled, “The Correlation Between Fermentation Time and the Rheological Properties of Bread Dough.” They took first place in the food sciences category at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair.

That was nice, but what really got Jones was how much the experience turned the students, Susanna Andrews and Sophia Romanelli, on to science.

“All of us in the lab say that one of the most gratifying parts of our careers was they both said they now want to be scientists,” says Jones. “It was super cool. I couldn’t talk. I would cry when I talked about it.

“That’s the bread lab,” he says, “and that’s access and that’s knowledge. That’s teaching. That’s outreach.”

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How to make artisan bread

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WSU Bread Lab