Baker Ellen King wants to bring back heritage grains for the people, farmers and environment. (Photos courtesy of Hewn.)

Cozied up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, Ellen King is baking breads that she traveled through time to conceptualize.

Unlike conventional loaves found in grocery stores across America, the breads at King’s bakery, Hewn, are baked with heritage wheat varieties like Orleans, Rouge de Bordeaux, White Sonora and Turkey Red, all of which she was able to track down with the help of old farmers’ journals. Akin to a mad scientist crossed with a historian, King made her latest loaf with a grain that nearly went extinct. Working with specialty grain farmer Andrea Hazzard, she found two pounds of Marquis wheat in the possession of a college professor. Hazzard planted the lot, which yielded 30 pounds of wheat berries. The next year, the yield grew to 300 pounds.

Before King became a full-time baker, she earned her bachelors and masters degrees in history. While in college, she spent time in Norway, where she was introduced to hearty, rustic breads. She treated this exposure as very early research for what would become her future career.

“Being a poor student, all I could afford to eat was bread,” King laughs. “It was a great experience because I learned a ton about ryes and using lots of seeds in your bread.”

From grad school, King went to culinary school in Seattle, where she was first exposed to the ultra-local produce and more excellent breads. She then moved to Chicago, where she says she went through “food withdrawal” because there wasn’t a good loaf to be found, despite the Midwest’s “breadbasket of America” reputation.

Baker Ellen King
Baker Ellen King

We sat down with King to talk about hunting down heritage grains, why some people with gluten sensitivities can enjoy her baked goods and her book that is set to publish fall 2018. Note: This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

How did you get into heritage grains?
It’s honestly from my history background, because when I was in grad school, I read books about ecological history and environmental history. [I read a lot about] when the colonials came, and the Native Americans, how they shaped the landscape and changed the way that it looked. So, [historians] like to think that during colonial times, the U.S. was way more pristine. It was — there were less people, but they still transformed the cities where they lived and created a different ecosystem. When I thought about doing the bakery, I sometimes read old farm journals and was interested in what was happening throughout the country from the historical perspective. When I opened the bakery, I knew I had to use organic wheat because I had no interest in using conventional wheat. It’s normally stripped of everything. I didn’t feel good working with it. It didn’t seem real. It’s like, you’re going to open this great bakery or great restaurant and you’re just using crappy produce. It doesn’t have a soul to it.

So, I started thinking if I’m Chicago, I should clearly be able to get some interesting wheat. And it was not there! [laughs] I met this woman named Andrea (Andy) Hazzard and she’s a grain farmer, fourth or fifth generation. Her family farms corn and soybeans, but she’s this anomaly. She has 40 acres of theirs that she farms. I was at a convention several years ago and I saw her with these different varieties, like purple barley, emmer, durham and she had some einkorn. I talked to her and asked, “Would you ever be interested in growing different varieties of wheat?” She was like, “Yeah! That would be really fun.” I had no clue what I was asking her. I went through the old farm journals — we had been in contact with Stephen Jones, he runs the Bread Lab in Washington State — and asked him how we find varieties to grow. He was like, “Go look at the old farm journals.” So I went and looked. At University of Wisconsin, Madison they have farm bulletins that list the varieties that were grown at the turn of the century and how they preformed. I had a list of 20 varieties and Andy couldn’t find any of them because there’s just not a lot of access to the seeds.

What’s that process like? Where would you find the seeds?
The farmers have these networks where they reach out to each other. That didn’t work for her. She reached out to some seed-savers, they didn’t have it. Finally, she started reaching out to some university professors. One professor had a kilo, 2.2 pounds, of Marquis wheat. She got enough to plant three rows of 115 yards. From these two pounds, we were able to get 30 pounds by the end of the year.

Is that a normal amount?
We honestly don’t know what a normal amount is for this variety. After World War II, when they started to create all the commodity varieties that are available now, the yields were off the charts. So for this one, we didn’t know what to expect. But based off of that, it yielded 30 pounds after year one, she planted all of that the next year and she yielded 300 pounds of berries. With that, she literally just planted the 300 pounds and she’s estimating 3,000 pounds from it, which is great. So it takes about three years to build up. Now she would have essentially 3,000 pounds of seed. I’m going to get a couple hundred pounds to make bread with and we’ll save the rest for seed and hopefully share with some farmers.

The goal is not to only focus on the Marquis, we want to see what the process was like to start building up these heritage varieties. The goal is to get more genetic diversity, more farmers planting more varieties. Maybe some of them won’t work in their region, but we don’t want these seeds to die off either. Seed banks need to be regenerated every few years. If farmers jump on board and grow something that was in their region, not only is it fun for bakers to have flavors of different wheat, but it’s really good for the environment for us to keep these going.

It’s cool because that’s how bread used to be made. We haven’t invented anything new, we’re just going back in time as much as possible.

I have other varieties that I’ve been working with. We have been playing with Pfeiffer, which is a wild spelt grown in Wisconsin. What we find is all of these react a little differently. The cookbook I’m working on, the major mission of it is to have people kind of seek out in their region, what grains are being grown and to be able to experiment with those in a comfortable way because they really do react different from your bleached all-purpose flour. I think so many people feel intimidated by baking because if they don’t follow a recipe exactly, it’s not going to work out. I want to dispel that myth, because if you think about it, a lot of our grandparents and great grandparents, they would just bake. A cup was actually just a drinking cup and they would just estimate. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to be so exact. When using these kinds of wheat, it’s like, just relax, it’s going to taste good! Don’t stress if it’s 1 ¼ teaspoons of baking powder or 1 teaspoon you put in. Be a little less critical.

Are your grains grown in the Midwest?
Mhm. [Our] Pfeiffer is grown in Wisconsin. We have the Orleans that’s grown in Wisconsin. The Rouge de Bordeaux is actually from a farm in Montana that reached out because they read what we were doing. This is a variety that was grown in France for several hundred years. This grew incredibly well all over France, so really, this is what a lot of traditionally old French bread was made of. We just started experimenting with [it].

We also have a White Sonora. It’s actually grown in Arizona. I wanted to work with it because I had read about it. This is what they think all the flour tortillas were made with in the 17-1800s. It’s from the Sonora region in Mexico. So it’s a really old variety.

You feature the White Sonora in your chocolate chip cookie mixes. Why did you pick that wheat to make cookies with?
I think it’s a much subtler whole wheat flour to use as opposed to the Turkey Red or Orleans. First off, they’re a red wheat so you can just see the color. The berry is more of a red fleck where as [the White Sonora] is white and it almost looks like there are corn specks in there. I just think a white wheat is more delicate for baked goods. I think the flavor — you almost might not know the difference from regular whole wheat with the way it bakes.

Which variety are you using most in your bread?
We basically do different varieties each week, and just call it the Orleans bread or the Turkey Red bread or the Pfeiffer bread or the Rouge de Boudreaux. We want consumers to start identifying the varieties. We’ve been adding the White Sonora into our breads. We don’t advertise that. We just add like 20% to some of the breads to see how it performs. For others, we add straight 100% Orleans or 100% Rouge de Boudreaux.

What I want to start doing, once we start getting more farmers to grow and more access to seeds is have one field that would be planted, in one row, literally, Orleans, Pfeiffer and Rouge de Boudreaux so you’re creating a blend with all three varieties at the same time. That way, from a farming perspective, if one variety doesn’t perform as well that year, the others kind of help offset it. But naturally in the bakery we’re blending things together too. It’s really fun for bakers, too, to learn [the farming] process. And they really do react differently. Some of them absorb water, like slurp it up, others it doesn’t so we have to hold back on water otherwise it’ll be completely over-hydrated.

Hewn in Evanston, Illinois is home to King's heritage grain bread.
Hewn in Evanston, Illinois is home to King’s heritage grain bread.

What variety has performed the best, sales-wise?
Honestly, they all perform equally, but they all have a different fan-base. I have costumers that are like, “I only really like the Turkey Red.” They come in — we do them on a certain days — and they come in on days where we didn’t do it and they’re like, “I’ll just wait until tomorrow.” It’s great. It’s almost like someone has a favorite wine. They like the Pinot Noir as opposed to the Cabernet, but I don’t want people to get so hung up because for the benefit of farming. They need to be able to try other varieties until this movement is a little more established. I think the one that has taken a little longer to introduce but now is getting a good following is the Pfeiffer. It’s derived from a wild spelt so people are like, “That’s just too healthy for me.” Like, had we not said it’s derived from spelt, people may be more open to it. Spelt, I think, has that connotation of being that weird cousin. [laughs]

Do you have a favorite variety?
I love working with the Pfeiffer, with the standpoint of using my hands, because I’ve never had a flour that becomes almost spongy. When you’re doing naturally leaven breads with a starter, you don’t get this spongy feel. It sort of feels like Ethiopian bread, injera. It looks like that. It rises, obviously, it doesn’t stay flat. It’s really weird. The flavor of that is what I’d consider a very Eastern European bread.

The Orleans I really like because it’s silky. It’s got a silkier interior and it doesn’t feel as harsh as a whole wheat. The Turkey Red is a great all-American whole wheat bread that has an earthy taste to it but it’s not overbearing. We don’t add any oils, sugars or instant yeast to any of our bread, so it really allows the wheat to shine through in the bread.

Some of your varieties can be eaten by people with gluten sensitivities. What’s the science behind that?
I do these “Food as Medicine” classes with an innovative medical doctor. The question always comes up about gluten and avoiding it. The doctor, Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark, says that naturally leavened breads lend a different result to breads that use instant yeast. Gluten develops through the mixer. So our process, coupled with flours that are organic, not sprayed with Roundup and having synthetic fertilizers put into it, people with gluten sensitivities are able to come in and find out that they tolerate our bread. They’re not getting bloated. So is it the process? Is it the varieties of wheat? Or is it because there are no pesticides in it? Or is it all three together? I don’t know.

Using heritage varieties, you really know it’s a whole grain. Some of the variety of wheat have been bred to have a high level of gluten. These aren’t bred for gluten, they were bred because they tasted good. People liked the flavor of those.

It’s cool. Sometimes it’s a little awkward because the people who are truly gluten-free, they come in and they’re nervous to try the bread. They’re like “I’m going to try the Turkey Red and see how it is.” Then they come back two days later — we had one woman crying. [laughs] It definitely has gluten in it, it’s a wheat, but it behaves differently. People buying bread at the grocery store, that bread’s even had extra gluten added to it because they’re mixing it and they want it to develop very quickly. We try to explain, without being preachy, that naturally leaven breads are very different because what that wild yeast is doing is breaking down that gluten over time. That long fermentation is helping to digest it before it hits your body. It’s cool because that’s how bread used to be made. We haven’t invented anything new, we’re just going back in time as much as possible.