I remember when learned that wheat flour comes from a wheat berry—when I learned the source of floating flour was a hard kernel, hidden below a spiky petal of fiber. It was a moment of striking clarity—it almost had a sound, a satisfying zing, finally understanding how this becomes that. (Sometimes the simplest revelations can be the most enduring.) I first made flour because I wanted to feel, for myself, that transformative zing. I wanted to know if it was possible, on my own, to process descrete kernels into the soft dust that floated through my kitchen and settled on my eyebrows.
A stalk of wheat looked like a matted feather duster, like a skinny girl hanging upside down on a jungle gym. Nestled at scalp of this wild splay of hair are wheat berries, the seed of the stalk, the source of our food. Flour is simply that kernel, all ground up.
Wheat berries look a lot like barley, like rounder rice, and they’re available in the bulk food section of any natural foods store and, increasingly, in many supermarkets. While you can prepare wheat berries like barley or rice (basically, by boiling), and use as a base for sautés or in salads, with a simple hand-crank grinder, you can also turn those berries—and any other grain, for that matter—into flour.
To grind grain into dust, you first need to invest in some machinery, although the level of that investment is entirely up to you. You spend anywhere from $400 for an industrial-strength electric mill to $19.99 for a basic—and perhaps not so durable—hand-crank mill. I bought my Victorio Hand Operated Grain Mill on sale for $40.99 and it hasn’t let me down. A hand crank mill is an especially worthy investment if you’re trying to avoid gluten—you can turn oats into oat flour, rice into rice flour, and, depending on the model, corn into corn meal. Most hand-crank mills are fairly small—mine is smaller than a wine bottle but bigger than a ruler—so consider how much grinding volume you’ll require.
Once you have your mill mounted and ready to rumble, wash and dry the wheat berries. The first time I made flour, I realized that I’d forgotten to wash my wheat berries only once I was on the verge of pouring them into the mill and so, in an act of great impatience, got out my Revlon Ceramic Ionic hairdryer to speed along the task. With some foresight, air drying works just fine. Either way, make sure the berries are indeed dry, as they can clump in the mill.
Mount your mill on a flat surface, if you’re grinding by hand, and dump a handful of berries into the housing. If you have a small grinder, you’ll have to do several batches; mine only accommodates about a half a cup at once. From here, it’s simple. Fit a low bowl under the milling cone to catch the flour once you get cranking. And then get cranking.
Crank, and then watch: It’s mesmerizing, how these hard kernels float out of the grinder as a faint dust, a quiet caress, a pile of smooth sand.
My favorite part of grinding flour is how warm it feels when it sifts into the bowl. To me, the warmness suggests a sort of readiness, an eagerness to melt into the next step. So I bake bread, make pancakes, or stir up cookie batter. This becomes that becomes food.