Hearth Bake Test
Most flour mills and cereal labs perform what is known in the industry as a "pup loaf test," in which small loaves (pups) are mixed, formed, proofed and baked, strictly following a set formula and procedure. This bake test is done in addition to basic analyses to reveal protein, ash, and moisture levels, as well as enzymatic activity and more complex tests for rheological properties. A bake test is often the best indicator of how a flour will actually perform in the bakery.
At Heartland Mill we have long done a pup loaf test, modified slightly from the AACC (American Association of Cereal Chemists) protocol to reflect the natural ingredients used by most customers for our certified organic flours. We use this test not just to confirm the quality of our finished product, but to help us to produce that product by making pup loaves at every step of the way. Before we acquire wheat from a grower, a pup loaf test is but one of many tests to which we subject a "pre-ship" sample. We test varieties before we approve them for our growers, and we test the varieties that we develop in our own breeding plots.
As the artisan bread movement began to gain momentum, we realized that the pup loaf bake test, originally developed for the sliced pan bread baker, may not be the best performance indicator for customers who were baking European-inspired breads featuring lean doughs with lengthy fermentation or preferments and baked directly on hearths. Most of these breads are made with only flour, salt, water, and yeast (or sourdough), without shortening, sweeteners or dough improvers.
Early in 2001 we began to develop our own "artisan" or hearth bread test, based on procedures originally developed by French researchers to aid in developing new wheat varieties for making quality baguettes. We made a few changes to the test to reflect the difference between French and North American wheats as well as the type of breads that North American hearth bakers are producing. The dough is mixed in a spiral mixer and the loaves are baked on the masonry hearth of a steam-filled oven to mimic what happens at the bakery level.
Initially, we made assessments based on general observations and loaf volume, but as we have become more familiar with the test and what it can tell us, we have developed a system (also based on the French protocol) for quantifying the performance parameters of the flour.
Each sample is rated on more than thirty characteristics as the flour's performance is rated at every step as the test progresses from mixing through fermentation, make-up, proofing, baking, and eating.
While there is never certainty that a mill can predict every problem a customer may encounter with a flour, with the addition of this test, we believe we can be more helpful than ever to our customers. By using a bake test that mimics what is done in hearth bakeries, we don't just enable ourselves to make better flour, we become better equipped to address our artisan bakery customers' concerns.