A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: small-batch

Hayden Flour Mills – Crackers

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We were first introduced to Hayden Flour Mills through the famed Arizona pizzeria, Pizzeria Bianco, who now use Hayden’s flours to make their exceptional crusts and pastas. After having dined at both Bianco locations a multitude of times over the years, we had begun to wonder if their secret lie more in preparation or source material. Of course, both are key, and Bianco had already reached great success well before switching over to Hayden’s flours, but a chef like Chris Bianco doesn’t just switch primary flour sources on a whim, and we can’t help but feel they’ve elevated their work with the addition of Hayden, at least a bit.

Hayden Flour Mills is a flour mill based in Queen Creek, Arizona, a small town less than an hour Southeast of Phoenix, building on the mythical foundations of the historic Tempe mill. They mill exclusively heritage grains, which are grown and hand-cultivated by small local farms, and ground using rare traditional Austrian stone mills, of which they have three (at the time of our writing this). All of the grain varietals are inherently non-GMO, and due to the heartier nature of heirloom stock, no herbicides or pesticides are used in their production.

While in Phoenix, we made an uncharacteristic stop in at a Sprouts and were pleasantly surprised by a decently-sized display of products local to Arizona, including Hayden Flour Mills’ flours and pancake mixes, along with their newest venture – crackers. Despite the fact that we’d been dying to bake with their White Sonora Wheat*, we were on the road, and flour is just about the silliest item we could have purchased. So instead, bound to practicality, we picked up the three cracker varieties they had available: Red Fife Wheat, Blue Beard Semolina, and Emmer Farro – the fourth and final in the series being of course the White Sonora Wheat we’d been looking to try. Still, we were excited for the other three all the same.

Their ingredients are simple: the crackers’ respective grain, followed by non-GMO canola oil, sugar and salt. Outside of just a few others, these are the cleanest crackers we’ve seen yet, and by far the most intriguing. The biggest difference between these and those is how bare Hayden leaves their grain. Most other crackers in this sphere reliantly add herbs like rosemary, and fruits such as red pepper to distract from their bland bases – generic varieties of wheat, rice, etc. It’s exciting to see such bold minimalism in a field that in the last decade has become almost parodically overindulgent in terms of flavour stacking.

As comparatively simple as Hayden’s crackers might be, we do still wish the few ingredients used were cleaner. Neither the canola oil nor the sugar are organic. And while we understand the impulse to use canola oil for its neutral flavour, better alternatives exist. Hayden is clearly committed to reviving healthier, more sustainable agricultural models, so the non-GMO canola oil and sugar choices feel like a copout.

An aside – we find it frustrating the increasingly common practice of employing ‘non-GMO’ ingredients as equivalent stand-ins for organic ones. Though we mostly appreciate the attention that issues relating to genetic modification have gotten in the past few years (especially in as much as it has helped raise awareness of heirloom seed stock), we find it troubling that so many people allow themselves to be so distracted by that one factor, to the degree that they now eschew concern for how their food was actually grown and cultivated. ‘Non-GMO’ food products are just as likely to be grown in poor agricultural conditions, with no interest in soil preservation, pollution of water tables, toxin absorption, or any of the many other issues that inspired the rise of organic, biodynamic, and permacultural approaches in the first place.

We recognize that organic certification programs often have their own – at the very least that they’re cost prohibitive for many producers, but that is where information transparency on the part of producers (Hayden has done their part in this regard where their grains are concerned) should come into play, not regressive acceptance of lower standards that distract from arguably more important issues.

Returning to the crackers – though the heritage grains call more obvious attention to themselves flavourally (see below), texturally they’re familiar in that they resemble something like a graham cracker, but with more body and heft – more or less depending on the specific variety. They’re undecorated and straightforward, as per their ingredients, and are well-suited for bearing the weight of substantial toppings (though unlike most crackers, pairing with these grains does require a bit of forethought.)

Red Fife Wheat – Though it ends on a mildly sweet note, Red Fife was the ‘strongest’ tasting of this sampling, with a very rich, full flavour strongly suggestive of some of the deeper notes found in olive oil. Similarly, the fattiness also sort of takes shape in the form of raw pecan. More than with the other two, the graham cracker similarity is most striking here, offering an especially soft texture and muted bite.

Blue Beard Semolina – Significantly crispier in texture, Blue Beard’s got a good crack to it, and a clean, bright profile that corresponds appropriately. This might be the most accessible of the three we tried, with the taste possessing something that reminded us vaguely of Wheat Thins. If it’s accessible, it’s also somewhat plain, but in crackers which seem to beg so imploringly to be paired with other foods, it feels unfair to fault them for it.

Emmer Farro – Without a doubt our favourite, this cracker had the lightest texture and best balanced flavour of the bunch. Following the initial bite, you’re presented with a nice give that upon further chewing reveals a pleasantly coarse granularity. A lovely buttery flavour couples up with the distinctive bitter fattiness of walnut. To our palettes the most complex, but also the one we found easiest to pair with.

All are made with just enough sugar to bring out the grains’ natural sweetness, without turning them into dessert items, or requiring a compensatory over-salting to make up for it. The salt they do employ closely resembles (if it isn’t in fact) pretzel salt, and is used in a similarly sparse pattern of distribution also resembling pretzels. It’s pretty pleasurable too, getting surprise bites with salt to accent the otherwise soft-spoken grains.

While we can’t say for sure that it’s directly related to their being heritage varietals, it was interesting to taste so many fatty compounds (butter, olive oil, pecan, walnut) in these decidedly unflavoured crackers. It certainly isn’t something we’ve ever experienced in crackers made with ‘regular’ grains, flavoured or not, and as such it was enough to make us wonder if those fatty tasting compounds used to be a normal part of the flavour profile of grains, accidentally bred out over the years in favour of other traits.

These are good crackers, especially considering how absolutely reductionist they are by design – early batches didn’t even have sugar in them! In a field that’s generally devoid of true innovation, Hayden Flour Mills is definitely doing something different. They’re a young company, so it’ll be exciting to watch them grow. We hope the standards they hold their own grains to will eventually trickle down to their secondary ingredients (sugar, oils, etc), but considering how few other shortcuts they’ve taken up to this point we’ll optimistically hold out for that possibility.

*White Sonora wheat is the oldest surviving wheat varietal grown in North America with a documented history dating back to at least the 1700s.

For those interested in the resurgence of ancient grains in an increasingly gluten-phobic culture, Lauren Saria wrote a great article on the topic for the Phoenix New Times.

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Yin Yang Hot Sauce

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Craft hot sauce exploded in the US over a decade ago. If you’re into heat, it’s almost difficult these days not to find a peppery blend to match your taste. Despite small producers proving to be kind of the norm within the hot sauce sphere, it’s still frustratingly difficult to find many who take their ingredient sourcing seriously. Whether it’s hot sauce’s associated macho mentality or the fact that it’s ‘just a condiment’, to find an organic hot sauce that isn’t one of the few familiar health food store staples is a welcome surprise.

Whatever the reason, we were excited to find the minimalist-styled Yin Yang hot sauce on the shelves of a Denver Whole Foods. A Boulder-based company, they’ve apparently been around for over 10 years now and have yet to distribute outside the state of Colorado. We’re hoping that’s just due to a preference for localism on their part – it certainly isn’t because of a lack of quality.

Like most foods, there are of course already well-established hot sauce styles. But as the craft scene continues its steady growth in production and popularity, so do those sauces which defy easy categorization. Yin Yang, suiting its name, is light and dark, sharp and smoky, intense and simultaneously mild-mannered. It’s even tropical meets Midwestern – calling it just a ‘hot sauce’, might not even be entirely accurate, as it lies very much on the outskirts of traditional ‘hot sauce’ territory, bordering on BBQ and steak sauces as well (even in terms of viscosity). To put things more simply and satisfy curiosity, it’s closest relative is probably Jamaica’s iconic Pickapeppa. But instead of being fruit-heavy and relatively tame in terms of heat, Yin Yang stretches their shared elements in considerably different directions, inventing for itself a singular purposeful identity.

For the most part, this sauce is incredibly consistent – the entire story reveals itself nearly immediately. The tang comes first. Quickly, on its own, the vinegary brightness lays way for the heat which builds up to a point and then plateaus, satisfying the masochism inherent in hot sauce consumption, without leaving one scarred from the experience. The habaneros aren’t simply employed for pure capsaicin content, but also their tropical fruitiness, which binds with the mysterious ‘other’ fruit (their labeling doesn’t divulge any specifics – verifying even the habanero took a bit of research), and meets the smoky low-tones to round it out. You’re then left to ride out the echoing umami waves until the heat completes its quiet diminution.

To see how Yin Yang works, we paired it with a variety of super-simple dishes: fried eggs, hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and collard greens. With the fried eggs and hamburgers, adding only salt, it filled flavoural nooks and crannies that weren’t even necessarily there it was so perfect. The mashed potatoes pleasantly muted its highest parts, leaving the smoky richness to come through, bringing it especially close to its BBQ sauce cousins. And the collards, though they were least appropriate, were also great, simply requiring a bit more zing, for which we used a splash of ume vinegar. It doesn’t have quite the ridiculous flexibility of say, rooster sauce, which people put on or in everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to ice cream, but within certain bounds Yin Yang does have quite a bit of versatility, and in many contexts is even stellar.

Other ideas we had were: with corn on the cob, sautéed mushrooms, in place of chipotle in a chipotle ranch, on a Tex-Mex style salad or burrito, and in some combination with Emmentaler and pineapple.

Literally our one disappointment is that the peppers aren’t organic. For whatever reason, finding organic peppers does seem to be harder than most anything else, so we’re not surprised that they’re the only non-organic ingredients. With that said though, they aren’t impossible to find, and they’re becoming easier and easier to obtain. We hope that eventually Yin Yang’s choices will be reflective of the change.