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Red Fife: Hype or Worth It?

The Red Fife variety of wheat has become a principal icon of local food consumption and production in Ontario.  It’s a landrace of wheat that has the built-in genetic variety to thrive in a relatively wide range of environmental conditions and comes with a great story about how it was grown by pioneer farmers in Ontario a century and a half ago.  The prominent mentions in the 100 Mile Diet, Earth to Table, and Locavore have, I’m sure, helped it’s popularity.

The two flours being compared in this early test

Knowing that this variety of wheat can grow near where I live is comforting.  From a “food security” standpoint I’m glad that it is stored in a seed bank somewhere just in case Saskatchewan and Manitoba separate, and are taken over by anti-capitalist, religious fundamentalists who refuse to trade their wheat with the rest of North America.  But, I wondered is it truly more delicious?  Is it worth the price premium?

I stopped in to Pantry (that’s @pantryTO on Twitter) at 974 College West to grab some of the flour made from Red Fife wheat last week because I found myself in the area and traveling by transit and foot.  Who cares if I was riding a camel?  Well, it’s relevant because if we’re truly interested in sustainability and reducing environmental damage we should be aware that we often negate any benefits of buying the organic, drip-irrigated, heirloom product that was harvested using the power of free-run, heritage breed donkeys by driving our SUV three or four times further than we would have for the conventional product.

The 2.5 kilogram sack of Ontario-grown and stone ground, whole grain Red Fife flour goes for an even ten bucks at Pantry.  This compares pretty favourably to the buck-seventy Bulk Barn wants for a pound of the stuff. Two-and-a-half kilograms would come to $9.36 and while the bin’s label gives the whole song and dance about Red Fife’s history in Ontario it is silent on this particular flour’s province of origin or grinding method.  For comparison purposes the Red Fife was $.40 per 100g from Pantry.

But what to throw up against the challenger in the red trunks?  To make this a fair fight I used the highest quality, widely available grocery store bread flour I’ve come across.  In my opinion this is Robin Hood’s Best for Bread Homestyle White ($5.99 for 2.5 kg or $.24 for 100g).  Even Robin Hood’s All Purpose flour is pretty good for bread (the Canadian version has a protein content high enough to qualify as bread flour in the States) and both get good reviews from Americans who cross-border shop or once lived in Canada and now spend their time searching out King Arthur’s latest flour.  The AP goes for $5.69 for 2.5 kg which is $.23 for 100g but also comes in a 10kg bag for $13.99 which is only $.14 for 100 g.  To keep things as apples-to-apples as possible I selected the Robin Hood Bread Flour for the comparison.

To truly put both flours through their paces I chose one of the most interesting bread recipes from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, his pain à l’ancienne.  Reinhart notes that if “used appropriately, it evokes the fullness of flavor from the wheat beyond any other fermentation method I’ve encountered.”  Seems like just what we’re after if we want to compare wheat.

Both halves fo the test with flour, salt, and yeast

As written, the recipe makes six small baguettes so for testing purposes I made the two versions each in quarter proportions so that I produced two large-ish baguettes.  This conversion dictated that the Robin Hood dough was made with 6.25 ounces of flour (by weight), a generous 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, a scant 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast, and about three-quarters of a cup of very cold, ice water.  For the Red Fife dough the flour portion was divided equally between one-third Red Fife flour, one-third of the Red Fife sifted to remove the bran, and one-third of the white bread flour.  I know it seems odd to use some of flour A in the recipe for flour B but all but the most rustic, homemade whole wheat bread recipes are cut with some white flour.  The water, yeast, and salt in the dough for the Red Fife were the same as for the Robin Hood.

This recipe makes very wet, somewhat slack raw baguettes

The recipe calls for adjusting the flour and water until the dough comes away from the sides of the KitchenAid mixing bowl but sticks to the bottom.  The Robin Hood needed only an extra five-eights of an ounce while the Red Fife needed a whole ounce to meet this test.  In both cases the extra flour I used was the white bread flour.

The Red Fife loaf sliced

The results were predictably inconclusive.  Put simply: The Robin Hood bread won on texture and the Red Fife won on taste.  The Red Fife has a pleasant honey smell (honey is often used in bread-making but note that these were both just flour, salt, water, and yeast) to the bread.  They both had a complex, sweet taste of yeast at work but the white shaded slightly to that unpleasant bleach smell that a confined sour dough starter takes on.  The Red Fife loaf had the best texture for a hybrid whole wheat baguette that I’ve tasted but the white was lighter, with a better more croissant-like crumb.

The white loaf sliced

On appearance I can’t think of any objective way to decide.  Sure, the white bread has more golden variation to the colouring and the whole-grain looks heartier and more workmanlike but that difference comes down to triggering preferences and is complicated by the baggage of judging which is healthier.

Nutritional information for the whole grain, stone ground Red Fife flour

Nutritionally, they’re actually pretty close to each other.  See the images for the full information but converting the Robin Hood data to the 130g serving size used on the Red Fife bag they’re both almost exactly the same at about 430 calories, 90 g carbohydrates, and roughly 40% of the daily recommended dose of iron.  The Red Fife does blow the white flour out of the water by having four times as much fiber but in this particular recipe I sifted a large amount of that out.

Nutritional information for the Robin Hood Best for Bread Homestyle White

I know this isn’t a final conclusion.  The general consensus from tasters veered too closely to “well, we really like both but for totally different reasons.”  My test was flawed in that I tried to compare a halfway whole wheat baguette to an all white baguette.  It strikes me that the better comparison would be either to sift all of the Red Fife flour and put it up against the Robin Hood baguette or make two hearty whole wheat boules or pan loaves, one with Red Fife and one with standard grocery store whole wheat flour.  Please leave any comments or suggestions so that I can better design the next round of comparison. Take a look at my post Red Fife Rematch for another test.

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  1. mochapj says:

    I may be biased because I already love red fife wheat, but I would think that you really have to do this again comparing apples to apples because running a whole wheat bread up against a white loaf is not a very fair comparison.

    Looking forward to reading those results!

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Porsha: As I say there are more tests to come. I’ll probably do the whole wheat comparison this weekend. I don’t suppose you know of any white bread flour milled from Red Fife? What are your thoughts on me making an ersatz white flour by sifting out the bran?

    Luckily, I’m also re-reading Steingarten’s Primal Bread so the ideas are for more bread experiments with the Red Fife are flowing.

  3. I’ve been curious about Red Fife for a while. Looking forward to future posts.

  4. Great post! says:

    I just made the Peter Reinheart’s Whole Wheat bread with Red Fife flour in the soaker and Robin Hood’s Whole Wheat Best for Bread flour for the rest (poolish and other). Its the first time I’ve had really good texture, not heavy at all, with an entirely whole wheat loaf.

    I’ve been messing around with whole wheat flour in the Pain a l’Ancienne as well, but have decided that R. H. W. W. Best for Bread in the poolish is as much as is useful, with unbleached hard wheat flour for the rest.

    thanks for the super post.

  5. Marcy says:

    I recommend using Red Fife in no-yeast recipes like muffins. The taste is phenomenal. I don’t know about you, but I like hearty texture and taste in muffins. 100% white flour makes them too cakey.

  6. James Pott says:

    Matter of taste? What about the health aspects? Is Red Fife healthier than regular wheat? Which is beginning to get its nastier sides exposed :
    We have recently switched to spelt which does not have the same problems as its cousin. An added advantage is that spelt contains all the essential nutrients in the flour body whereas wheat carries most of it in the germ and bran. I prefer to get my fiber from veggies instead of cardboard.
    Healthier (shorter) gluten and no lectins

  7. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks James, for that informative, if only barely relevant comment. Obviously, you’re a big fan of spelt.

    I’ve taken this opportunity to clean up the editing on this post and include a link to my follow-up post Red Fife Rematch:

  8. Karen says:

    My gosh look at the nutritional value…15 grams of fiber and 17 grams of protein in one cup of Red Fife flour vs 1 gram of fiber and 4 grams of protein in the Robin Hood. That’s like choosing to eat goodness vs paper. I wish people would really get a grasp of just how much our wheat has been genetically altered since the 1940s. I know which kind of bread and flour I will be buying from now on.

  9. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for commenting, Karen. It’s always important to note the serving size when comparing nutritional information. In this case the stats for the Robin Hood are only for a 1/4 cup while the Red Fife is for a full cup. There is a pretty insignificant difference in the protein content. The Red Fife is a clear winner on fibre but that’s the nature of whole wheat, right?

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