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Washington bread lab lets bakers tinker with grain

The bread lab at Mount Vernon's Research and Extension Center hits its stride as bakers from across the country explore what they can do with different grains.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — A bread laboratory like none other has attracted the attention of bakers across the U.S.

Stephen Jones, director of Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, said the idea of discovering different grains’ unique properties “gets bakers to places they don’t normally get to.”

From Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Philadelphia, bakers are coming to talk with farmers and discover local types and flavors of grain. These are mostly one-to-three-day visits.

Two bakers from the oldest flour company in the country will visit the bread lab in January. King Arthur Flour, in Norwich, Vt., will send bakery director Jeffrey Hamelman and production baker Kelsey Fairfield.

Hamelman is one of the nation’s few Certified Master Bakers, as well as an award-winning author and former captain of Baking Team USA, which competed in 1996 at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, an international “Bread Olympics” in Paris.

The 500-square-foot lab houses steam-injected ovens and commercial-quality test equipment designed to measure such dough qualities as rise, strength, mixing tolerance and protein content. Jones said he knows of no similar facilities anywhere.

Jonathan McDowell, resident baker, will assist the visiting craft bakers in finding the optimal hydration, temperature and time levels to bring out the desired character of their featured grains, such as wheat, rye or barley.

“The lab’s main reason for being is to serve the breeding program, and baking beyond that,” Jones said. The breeding program studies thousands of different grains grown in surrounding fields and provided by millers to determine which are most suitable for craft baking.

Visiting bakers will also stop in at nearby farms and mills, discovering a booming grain industry.

“We have 5,000 to 6,000 acres just in our little (Skagit) valley since peas went away,” Jones said. “Everywhere you look out there, there are grains.”

Hamelman said he and Fairfield, a Kansas State University graduate with a background in baking science who has been at King Arthur Flour for two years, will be working with local varieties of Northwest wheat to determine just the right touch and combination of locally sourced ingredients to bring out unique flavors that can’t be found on the typical grocery shelf.

“We see this as a kind of ongoing partnership through which our bakers will visit the bread lab possibly three times a year,” Hamelman said. “We will be sending out bakers to both learn and teach — a bit of cross-pollination.”



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