Climate chaos finds its way into the bakery

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Last August, Aya Fukai, owner of Aya Pastry in West Town, noticed that the dough from the last batch of bulk croissants was behaving strangely. Usually it was soft and supple, easily wrapped around a block of butter to be folded and rolled several times until there were hundreds of alternating layers of butter and dough. In the oven, the water in the butter evaporated, leaving a flaky, honeycombed interior.

But this time the dough was exceptionally dry and brittle and didn’t stretch like it was supposed to. It would shrink every time the bakers tried to unroll it, and during folding the layers would break. In the oven, the butter escaped, essentially frying the croissants instead of baking them. The end result was 240 hard and crisp pastries. This was not an anomaly: the next batch was the same.

Aya Fukai, owner of Aya Pastry, started having issues with her croissant dough in August 2021.
Aya Pastry

At Aya Pastry, making croissants is a three-day process with many steps. Fukai and his team went through each of them to figure out where they went wrong. They decided it probably wasn’t an equipment failure. They double-checked the calculations of the recipe and determined that it had been scaled correctly. By process of elimination, that meant there was a problem with one of the ingredients. The water they used had not changed. Maybe it was the yeast? The bread was still rising – a little less than usual, but it was recognizable as bread. This left the flour.

In fact, the bakery had recently received a new shipment of Red Rose flour from its supplier, Central Milling in Logan, Utah – the first batch of the spring wheat harvest. Fukai called the mill and spoke to Nicky Giusto, a miller who tests flour for protein content and gluten development. He told Fukai that the flour distributed by the mill in the summer of 2021 was the driest he had ever seen. “So we weren’t crazy,” Fukai says now.

The previous winter had been exceptionally dry on the plains, from Arizona to North Dakota, where Central sources its wheat. The hot, dry conditions caused wheat berries to shrivel and store minerals in different ways: nutrients that should have entered the endosperm, the part of the wheat berry that is ground into conventional white flour, went in the sound, which is thrown. The weather also affected the amount of wheat: there was less to make, which drove up the price by 8%, a cost that Fukai had to pass on to its customers.

Fukai, of course, knew how flour was made, and she knew climate change was an ongoing issue. She hadn’t considered, however, how this might affect her business. “We forget that flour is a culture,” she says. “It’s something you order from your supplier that gets ground up, in a bag, that you use as an ingredient.”

Over the past 40 years, according to the environmental protection agencythe climate across the Great Plains, where most of the country’s wheat is grown, has become more extreme: wetter winters and springs, drier summers, more droughts and a shift in growing areas, perhaps limiting the amount of land that can support wheat.

Like most bakers, Fukai had to deal with seasonal fluctuations in the protein and water content of his flour, but never to this degree. In the past, she might have had to add 1-2% more water to the dough mixture. This time she ended up adding 4% more water and switched to a lower protein flour mix, which would result in less gluten buildup and a looser dough. It took a week of experiments for the entire Aya Pastry staff to figure this out, and they had to throw away 2,400 croissants.

Fukai’s problem is somewhat unique among local bakers because very few sell to the wholesale market and make puff pastry at the volume she produces. A 4% change in the water composition of a pastry is much more apparent in a batch of 240 croissants than 24. It is also much more difficult to adjust the humidity of puff pastry, which requires more precision than other flour-based items. With bread or pie dough or even pasta, the balance of flour and water can be adjusted during mixing and kneading. In pastry, all the ingredients must be measured out in advance; any additional handling or addition like more water leads to a hard and chewy end product.

Fukai also used conventional white flour, a blend of wheat from many different sources. Central Milling does its best to create a mix that doesn’t vary much from season to season, but in a dry year there was less wheat than usual to work with.

Each pallet of flour comes with a spec sheet that lists various statistics, including water absorption rate, which measures the proper amount of water to add to a certain measure of flour to ensure it is properly hydrated, which means the resulting dough is neither too waterlogged nor sticky. nor too steep and dry. Fukai studies its datasheets diligently and is used to making adjustments, but this batch was extraordinary. Normally, she says, “we adapt a bit, but not to the point where we have to throw it away.”

Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread, another bakery with a large wholesale operation, also uses Red Rose for baking and has kept a spreadsheet that tracks fluctuations in flour water absorption rate based on of its data sheets over the last seven or eight years.

“When I write a recipe and standardize it, I write that this batch of flour has a 65% absorption rate,” he says. “But if you bring in a new batch that’s 63%, I take 2% moisture out of the recipe. Dough behaves the same way.

In the past, Wade has recorded absorption rates between 61-65% (i.e. for 100 grams of flour, 61-65 grams would be water). Now he sees rates of 56 or 57%.

A man stands behind a bakery counter filled with pastries and sandwiches.

Greg Wade, head baker at Publican Quality Bread, pays close attention to changes in his flour.
Barry Brecheisen / Eater Chicago

Bakers using organic flour also have to make adjustments for weather changes, but recalibrations are often not as drastic as those using conventional flour, says Ellen King of Hewn Bakery in Evanston, who does not use than organic flours. Indeed, many conventional growers use herbicides like Roundup which, in unusually hot and dry weather, kills the roots and dries out the wheat.

Organic farmers, of course, don’t use Roundup. And, for the most part, their operations are small enough to be able to make adjustments to the soil based on the growing conditions of the season. But they have their own problems with climate change.

Marty Travis of Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, has been growing wheat for Publican Quality Bread for several years now and has even developed a special blend that Wade uses in his breads. It is called WTF after the three varieties of wheat that make it up: warthog, turkey red and red fife. Travis has his soil and crops tested regularly at the University of Illinois Urbana Extension to ensure he can produce a consistent product. But he can’t do much.

“One of the things we’ve learned on our farm is that Mother Nature’s bats last,” he says. “As good as the health of our plants is, as good as the seed is, no matter if we do everything right, we are always at the mercy of the environment.”

Last fall, for example, it rained so much that Travis couldn’t plant his winter wheat stock at all. (He still had enough to supply Wade, but not enough for other customers.) He managed to save his seeds and plant them in the spring, but he only had a two-day window to put 30 acres before the return of the rains. Again. The only thing he can do now, he says, is make sure his seeds and equipment are ready whenever the planting window opens.

“It drives everything a little crazy,” says fellow farmer, Peter Klein of Seedling Fruit in South Haven, Michigan. Klein grows fruit, not wheat (he’s one of Aya Pastry’s main suppliers), but his background is similar to Travis’. Over the past decade, he has had to deal with more unusual weather events than ever before in his career. Last summer, a 30-day drought was followed by torrential thunderstorms that knocked fruit off the trees. He finished the season with 15 or 20% of his usual apple crop. As for peaches, his second harvest, his orchards no longer produce every year, and he thinks that in 10 years, he won’t be able to grow any at all.

“The future is a lot more to that,” Washington State University Breadlab director Stephen Jones said in an email. “Small and medium-sized bakers would be well served to understand that more variation is coming to their flour, as millers will struggle to meet specifications. Next year it may be cold and wet versus hot and dry or it may be hot and dry from now on. Either way, climate chaos is here.

At Aya Pastry, Fukai and his team no longer had any problems with their puff pastry. She considers herself lucky that they now know how to deal with inconsistencies in their flour, and also that none of their other major ingredients, like butter and sugar, have given them any trouble.

“This industry is tough enough,” she says. “The profit margins are so low that if you don’t pay attention to ingredients and labor, you won’t make it.”

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