Back to Basics – What we learn from Milling Grain

Bread, the staff of life, has some interesting things to tell us when we compare making it from first principles compared to buying it as a finished product. Here’s a guest post from Mrs Ermine for whom food is a passion with the lowdown.

I buy bread wheat directly from some farmer friends who live close by, by sack of twenty or so kilograms for £8 each. This is above the wholesale price they are paid for wheat, to take into account the extra work entailed in organising collection, bagging the grain up, and so on.

Wheat in the fields

I pick a couple of sacks up whenever I am passing by, or visiting them, so there is no extra transport cost involved for me. To turn my wheat into flour I have a small, but sturdy, “Country Living” grain mill that I bought many years ago when I had a “proper job” that earned me a good deal more money than running The Oak Tree Farm  does now.

Mr Ermine, being a handy sort of chap with all things electrical, has grand plans to motorise the mill, but for the moment I turn the handle myself in the dead times when I am cooking something else. I don’t really need the extra exercise now, running a smallholding gives me quite enough of that, but I certainly did benefit from the effort  it took when I sat behind a desk all day.

American "Country Living" Grain Mill

My habit of making bread and pasta from wheat grains surprises a lot of people, but it really is quite a sensible way of carrying on. As soon as wheat is milled, the increased surface area of the tiny flour particles results in rapid oxidisation of the vitamins in the wheat. Flour that is stored for any length of time, even wholemeal flour, has a considerably lower nutrient content than freshly milled. And for the Ermine household, it has the great advantage of being cheap. Really cheap.

Your local, friendly, near-monopoly supermarket chain charges, at time of writing, £1.29 for 1.5kg of wholemeal flour. A rapid calculation shows I pay 60p, a mere 47% of the shop-bought price. When you start to make bread and pasta, the savings really add up, but you could just as well benefit from those savings by using shop bought flour.

So in short, thanks to a one-off investment in the grain mill, Mr and Mrs Ermine eat better food for less than half the price of supermarket supplies, thanks to a friendly transaction with a local farmer and a small amount of physical effort. Our food miles are vastly reduced too. What’s not to like?

Mr Ermine adds:

The cost difference suprised me, as it shows the invisible hand of the market is in full price-gouge mode. A 100% markup on a low-tech basic foodstuff which is a 1000-year old mature technology is really quite remarkable.

The grain mill is designed to run at 60rpm and needs about a 1/4 horsepower (200W) motor. An average human can achieve a sustained power output of about 1/10 horsepower. This accords with observation, I don’t hear the sound of this running for sustained periods of time, more 2-3 minute bursts 🙂


11 thoughts on “Back to Basics – What we learn from Milling Grain”

  1. The main sticking point in my mind is that the machine looks mighty expensive if I’ve any eye for these sorts of things. How much pressure does it take to grind the grain and do you think this is this the sort of thing you could build yourself? Sounds like a challenge for myself one day when I’ve time to dig out some historical books.

    You can’t beat a fresh loaf and I don’t doubt grinding the flour fresh and having fresher grain counts for more – its much like a coffee in that respect. At the moment I’m getting a fresh loaf each day from the supermarket, but I’m keen to get doing it properly again. My first test will be to see if I can make a loaf with some Quinoa in it which might be a nice experiment.


  2. Nooooo! Gadget-envy strikes 🙂

    I’d also be interested to know the price tag on such a gizmo. I already bake my own bread from bought-in flour, but the freshness angle sounds very good with home grinding too. I imagine it’s a lot easier than banging it between some stones, though some foodies can get a bit sniffy about steel-milled (as opposed to stone-ground) flour. But it does look like another good step towards resilience.

    Next I’ll have to do some sums and think about a small grain plot… ah, so many questions, perhaps I should flex my google-fu and get some answers 😉


  3. @Rob I would say it takes a long time to amortise the outlay. DW has had this for a long time. However, there are much cheaper alternatives, Google showed one for about £60. Whether they’re any good is totally outside my area of expertise, I’ll leave that to DW 🙂

    @Macs, this particular unit is the Country Living grain mill. There seem to be a number of German and Austrian products as well. At least one of them Schnitzer, claims to use basalt composite grinding stones internally. DW has been thinking about a grain plot but I believe it needs more land than we have. And the next door farm does wheat in a big scale, so sometimes you have to go with the flow!


  4. @Ermine – I guess the main benefits would be that you could make your own flour mix out of a few different grains and the taste rather than the money. There must be hours of fun in that machine.


  5. Another bread-baker here. I don’t doubt the benefits of baking with freshly milled grain, but you can get bread flour much more cheaply than the price you quote. The really strong Canadian stuff tends to be more expensive, though.

    The machine looks great and if you have it already as a sunk cost then having control over almost the whole process must be satisfying.

    Interesting to consider that cultivating grain has been described as the worst mistake the human race has ever made. The early growers / millers / bakers mostly led short, disease-ridden lives. Strange how we’ve now turned it into a pleasure.


  6. @Salis Grano is that white flour or wholemeal? Inexplicably, wholemeal always seems much more expensive than white. I’d be interested in cheaper sources for when I am too lazy to mill!

    @Macs – oh yes, it is lots of fun, especially when you invite people round and get them to mill the ingredients for the food you prepare for them! I think the usual problem with steel plates is over heating – that doesn’t really happen with a hand mill unless it is turned too fast. No risk of that with me doing it!

    @Rob – I am sure if Mr E did a full return on investment analysis the business case wouldn’t look so good 🙂 I spent my time in my “proper job” learning skills and aquiring equipment that would make it possible for me to live on lots less once I was no longer a desk jockey. A curious side effect was that people have become interested in self sufficiency in the intermediate years so I have probably _made_ far more money writing articles about all this stuff than I have _saved_ by using it…


  7. Mrs E, Yes white, I’m afraid (I bake about half and half). I agree, it’s much harder to find cheap wholemeal.


  8. Looks like a good investment. You’ve obviously been preparing a long time for your new life. I guess this probably gives you a lot of satisfaction. Where I live ( at the end of the world ) just getting a western style loaf of bread, or reasonably good quality pasta, can be a struggle at times though this is changing as the town evolves.I’m still basically a hunter gatherer. 🙂


  9. We get so much crap on our commercial food – it is good to grind your own flour. I am thinking of starting baking my bread at home instead of buying. Do you think the fuel cost will be higher?


  10. @Ahmed an electric breadmaker consumes about 1kWh per loaf, costing about 20p. That may of course vary depending on the breadmaker and the settings, but it isn’t a huge part of the costs for us 😉


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