27 March 2012

Grain Week: Frugal milling — comparing two low-cost grain mills

As we mentioned yesterday, we're doing a series of posts this week related to the topics of whole grains and their use, entitled Grain Week. Yesterday's post provided an overview of 17 grains for your self-reliance and preparedness.

One of the most common ways to use grains is to crack them or grind them into flour. For our second post of  Grain Week, we take a look at the two grain mills that we use to grind our grains in the Freeman household.

Of course, you might be wondering why we have two grain mills in the first place. The first mill we purchased was the Lehman's Own Hand-Cranked Grain Mill. We bought it because we wanted to be able to store wheat and make our own flour, even without electricity. It was only recently that we received the KitchenAid Grain-Mill Attachment as a gift.

While it might seem that the powered grain mill would win hands-down, it's not always the best choice. There are definitely pros and cons for both of these mills. First, let's take a look at the basics for the two mills.

Physical characteristics

The Lehman's mill has a cast aluminum body (coated with a food-safe enamel), machined cast iron grinding burrs, a stainless steel driveshaft, and a plastic grain hopper. You can clamp the mill to a table or counter using the included clamp, but the base also has slots for bolts so that it can be permanently installed if you prefer. The fineness of the grind can be adjusted by tightening the knob on the front of the mill. Of course, the power to drive the mill is your arm, using the handle. You can watch a video "tour" of the grain mill from Lehman's below:

The KitchenAid mill is actually an attachment for one of their stand mixers. (As such, if you don't have one of those, then you'll probably want to consider another mill.) The mill is cast aluminum with an integral hopper built in (but no enamel coating anywhere), and it has a steel driveshaft and burrs. As an attachment, the mill mounts to the front of a KitchenAid stand mixer. The fineness of the grind is controlled by setting the adjustment knob at the front of the mill. Here's a brief tour of the KitchenAid grain mill attachment:

Out of the box

The Lehman's mill is pretty easy to set up. Out of the box, Lehman's advises that you wash and dry the entire mill. While the entire mill is dishwasher safe, we hand washed ours and thoroughly dried it to be sure we had no rust issues. The mill was pretty easy to disassemble and requires no tools to get to all the "food handling" areas.

One note: I accidentally dropped the plastic (Bakelite?) handle on the floor, and a small piece of it broke off. I was able to super-glue it back in place, but be forewarned that the handle is fairly brittle and easily broken.

After washing, you simply clamp the unit to the table, thread the handle to the mill's turning arm, and insert the hopper at the top of the mill and you're ready to grind. Adjust the burrs so that they're just touching, place a bowl to catch the flour, load your grain, and start cranking! One caveat: because the burrs are cast iron, Lehman's advises discarding the first pound of grain in case it contains any particles that are knocked off as the burrs "break in."

Likewise, the KitchenAid mill must be washed first. Unfortunately, you'll need two different screwdrivers to access all the "food handling" parts. First, two screws hold a safety grating on the top of the hopper area. Two more screws hold the front of the mill in place; these are supposedly designed to be thumbscrews, but I needed a screwdriver to remove them, and to snug them up on reassembly. Inside the mill, the stationary burr is screwed to the back of the mill with two more screws. Arguably, this burr doesn't need to be removed, but I did at first just to be sure all the oil from the factory production was cleaned off.

Once the mill attachment is washed, dried, and reassembled, mounting it to the stand mixer is a breeze. You simply remove the cover to the attachment port, slide the back of the mill's driveshaft into place and secure it with the mixer's thumbscrew. Set the adjustment knob, position a catch bowl, load the grain, and turn the mixer on full power.

Using the mills

There's no other way to say this: the Lehman's mill is a workout. Grinding a pound of grain will take a while, and you'll likely be using muscles that aren't used to the work. Also, grinding a fine flour means a tighter burr setting, increasing the workload on your muscles.

Although it takes a little more time, we often grind our grains using a fairly course (loose) setting, then re-grind the resulting flour to make it finer. One thing worth noting is that the burrs eventually loosen up a bit on their own, so you'll want to check that, especially on a second (finer) grinding.

Basically, the only limit on how much grain you can grind at one time is the amount of grain you have on hand, and your stamina, of course.

Two things we noticed about the Lehman's mill that aren't especially helpful are:
  • While grinding, the flour flies around quite a bit. Having a wide-enough bowl is essential. If I'm doing a lot of grinding, I'll often fashion a paper plate into a shield that I rig up above the burrs in order to help contain the flour.
  • After our first use of the Lehman's mill, I noticed that the mill itself moved around a little, which made some marks on our work surface. Slipping a thin piece of masonite, plywood, or something similar resolves that problem.

On the other hand, the KitchenAid mill attachment is very easy to use. Once it's installed, you fill the hopper, turn it on, and let it go; the only thing you really need to do is add more grain to the hopper. This is a nice feature, since you can get other ingredients ready while your fresh flour is grinding.

That said, KitchenAid recommends grinding no more than 10 cups of grain consecutively in order to avoid damage to the mixer. Our mixer gets pretty warm after just a couple of pounds of grain, and I've seen some online reviews of the grain mill attachment that seem to point to a lower limit than 10 cups of grain.

Another nice feature of the KitchenAid mill is that the milling is done in a contained area, and the flour falls out into the bowl in a much neater fashion than with the Lehman's mill.

So, which one is best?

For these two mills, it really depends on what you're looking for. Below are some key factors for your consideration:

Lehman's Own Hand-Cranked Grain Mill:
  • Fairly easy to set up and use
  • Disassembly and cleaning after use is very easy
  • Replacement burrs are readily available
  • Can only be hand-cranked; cannot be hooked to a motor
  • No limits on the amount of grain that can be ground in one sitting
  • Oily foods are okay; can grind any grain, nut, seed, or bean

KitchenAid Grain-Mill Attachment
  • Very easy to set up and use
  • Disassembly for cleaning is cumbersome
  • Replacement burrs may not be available
  • Requires power; can only be used with the mixer and cannot be hand-cranked
  • Only 10 cups of grain (or less) can be ground in one sitting
  • Only dry grains like wheat, rye, oats, etc. can be ground; oily foods like nuts, seeds, or beans cannot be ground

Of course, a big consideration for grain mills is the cost of the unit. These two mills are on the inexpensive end of things. The Lehman's mill retails for about $200, but can be gotten for around $170 on sale. The KitchenAid grain mill attachment retails for about $150, but can be had for just over $100 from some places online.

Many of the above limitations or concerns can be alleviated by buying a more expensive mill. However, if you're looking to get started with milling grain in a more frugal manner, these two are worth considering. Aside from some of the minor issues noted above, the biggest factor is whether you want to be (and are physically) able to grind flour by hand-cranking the mill.

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