Rediscovering an American baking staple

by Donna Berry
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Cornbread
Corn's diverse applications go far beyond traditional cornbread.
 

CHICAGO — Surrounded by corn fields in America’s Heartland, Harvest Market, a single-store retailer focused on quois. This variety and innovation are what millers seek to make corn ingredients relevant to today’s consumers.

“Grain corn is an amazingly versatile crop and can be grown just about anywhere in the U.S., even urban gardens,” said Trey Muller-Thym, president of Thymly Products, Inc. “It’s easy to harvest, store and process into flour and cornmeal. It’s also naturally gluten-free and not considered an allergen.”

Bakers are learning how to get creative with this staple crop. Culinary professionals in all facets of food are finding innovative uses for the many varied cornmeals and corn flours (finely ground cornmeal) in the market. Cornbreads and muffins are the obvious applications, but cornmeal also adds sensory experiences to everything from pancakes and waffles to flatbreads and pizza crusts. Coarse grinds also contribute crunch to breading for baked and fried foods.

“Ingredients made from corn can contribute unique colors, flavors and textures, which can either be beneficial or unfavorable depending on the type or amount used in the application,” said Terry Howell, business development, Healthy Food Ingredients.

Developing flour blends is a useful approach that allows incorporating multiple flours without causing a great deal of change to the functionality. Corn ingredients also deliver more interesting visual appeal thanks to their variety.

“Bakers are transitioning away from the whole grains that were popular a few years ago, such as white whole wheat,” Mr. Howell said. “Now our customers are looking for heritage grains that offer more value to their products.”

History of the husks

Corn is one of the most diverse grain crops, and varieties are generally classified by the characteristics of their kernel endosperm.

The most common type of corn used to make cornmeal and corn flour is dent corn. These kernels have flinty sides and soft cores of starch that cause the ends of the kernels to collapse or dent during drying. Flint corn may also be used for cornmeal and corn flour. These kernels have a mostly hard, glassy endosperm with smooth, hard seed coats (pericarps). There’s also flour corn, which has a soft, starchy endosperm and a thin pericarp.

Harvest Market sources a number of artisan cornmeal ingredients to make its breads and, whenever possible, does so locally. The retailer communicates this story to its customers.

Cornmeal
Harvest Market sources a number of artisan cornmeal ingredients.
 

For example, white Iroquois corn is an heirloom crop grown and harvested at  Fairbury, Ill.-based Spence Farm, which is the oldest family farm in Livingston County and about 60 miles away from Harvest Market. The Travis family grows, harvests, mills and sells direct to Harvest Market.

This dent corn was initially grown by the Iroquois tribe in New York State, according to Marty Travis, a seventh-generation family farmer.

“The Iroquois Nation was supplying this cornmeal to restaurants, including some that we work with in Chicago,” Mr. Travis said. “In 2007, Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill restaurant asked us if we could grow this corn as they were unable to obtain the cornmeal anymore from the tribe.”

The family purchased seeds from a company in Canada and started growing it. The first year they planted eight rows and saved 9 lbs of the best seed for planting the next year.

“We roasted the rest over an oak flame and milled 63 lbs that first year,” Mr. Travis said. “All the corn is still hand-roasted but now over a much larger roaster. We have experimented with roasting over different woods, such as cherry, apple and maple, and found the flavors to be interestingly different.”

In time, after overcoming numerous obstacles including available seed and pollination, the Travis family grew their crop and even donated seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Corn Bank to prevent this heirloom variety from going extinct.

“We are still cautious with growing it, knowing that one false planting could jeopardize the continuation of this rare variety,” Mr. Travis said. “It must be planted at a specific time so it doesn’t cross with the other genetically modified corns in the area, and special care is taken with the soils to grow it organically (non-certified).”

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