Last August, Aya Fukai, owner of Aya Pastry in West Town, noticed that the dough for the latest batch of wholesale croissants was behaving strangely. Usually it was soft and supple, easily wrapped around a block of butter to be folded and rolled multiple times until there were hundreds of alternating layers of butter and dough. In the oven, the water in the butter would evaporate, leaving a flaky, honeycombed interior.
But this time, the dough was unusually dry and brittle and wouldn’t stretch the way it was supposed to. It shrunk back whenever the bakers tried to roll it out, and during the folding, the layers would snap. In the oven, the butter leaked out, essentially frying the croissants instead of baking them. The end result was 240 hard, crunchy pastries. It wasn’t an anomaly: The next batch was the same.
At Aya Pastry, croissant-making is a three-day process with many steps. Fukai and her staff went through every single one to figure out where they’d gone wrong. They decided it probably wasn’t equipment failure. They double-checked the math on the recipe and determined that it had been scaled correctly. By process of elimination, that meant there was a problem with one of the ingredients. The water they were using hadn’t changed. Perhaps it was the yeast? The bread was still rising — slightly less than usual, but it was recognizable as bread. That left the flour.
As it happened, the bakery had recently received a new shipment of Red Rose flour from its supplier, Central Milling in Logan, Utah — the first batch from the spring wheat harvest. Fukai called up the mill and talked to Nicky Giusto, a miller who tests flour for protein content and gluten development. He told Fukai that the flour the mill distributed in the summer of 2021 was the driest he’d ever seen. “So we weren’t crazy,” Fukai says now.
The previous winter had been unusually dry across the plains, from Arizona to North Dakota, where Central sources most of its wheat. The hot and dry conditions made the wheatberries shrivel and store minerals in different ways: Nutrients that should have been going into the endosperm, the part of the wheatberry that’s ground into conventional white flour, went into the bran, which is discarded. The weather also affected the quantity of wheat: There was less to go around, which drove the price up 8 percent, a cost that Fukai had to pass on to her customers.
Fukai, of course, knew how flour is made, and she knew that climate change is an ongoing problem. She hadn’t considered, though, how it might affect her business. “We forget that flour is a crop,” she says. “It’s something you order from your purveyor that comes ground up, in a bag, that you use as an ingredient.”
Over the past 40 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the climate across the Great Plains, where most of the nation’s wheat is grown, has become more extreme: wetter winters and springs, dryer summers, more droughts, and a shift in growing areas, perhaps restricting the amount of land that can support wheat.
Like most bakers, Fukai had dealt with seasonal fluctuations in the protein and water content of her flour, but never to this degree. In the past, she might have had to add 1 or 2 percent more water to the dough mixture. This time, she ended up adding 4 percent more water and switching to a lower-protein blend of flour, which would cause less gluten buildup and a looser dough. It took the entire Aya Pastry staff a week of experiments to figure this out, and they had to throw away 2,400 croissants.
Fukai’s problem is somewhat unique among local bakers because very few sell to the wholesale market and make laminated pastry at the volume that she does. A 4 percent change in a dough’s water composition is far more apparent in a batch of 240 croissants than 24. It’s also far more difficult to adjust the moisture of laminated pastry dough, which requires more precision than other flour-based items. With bread or pie crust or even pasta, the balance of flour and water can be adjusted during mixing and kneading. With pastry, all the ingredients must be measured out ahead of time; any extra handling or additions like more water lead to a tough and chewy end product.
Fukai was also using a conventional white flour, a blend of wheat from many different sources. Central Milling does its best to create a mixture that doesn’t vary much from season to season, but in a dry year, there was less wheat than usual to work with.
Each pallet of flour comes with a spec sheet that lists various statistics, including water absorption rate, which measures the appropriate amount of water to add to a certain measure of flour to ensure it’s properly hydrated, meaning the resulting dough is neither too waterlogged and sticky nor too stiff and dry. Fukai studies her spec sheets diligently and is used to making adjustments, but this batch was extraordinary. Normally, she says, “we adjust a little bit, but not to the point where we’d have to throw it out.”
Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread, another bakery with a large wholesale operation, also uses Red Rose for pastry and has been keeping a spreadsheet that tracks fluctuations in the flour’s water absorption rate based on his spec sheets for the past seven or eight years.
“When I write a recipe and standardize it, I write that this lot of flour has an absorption rate of 65 percent,” he says. “But if you bring in a new lot that has 63 percent, I’m taking 2 percent of moisture out of the recipe. The dough behaves the same.”
In the past, Wade would see absorption rates between 61 and 65 percent (that is, for every 100 grams of flour, 61 to 65 grams would be water). Now he’s seeing rates of 56 or 57 percent.
Marty Travis of Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, has been growing wheat for Publican Quality Bread for several years now and has even developed a special blend that Wade uses in his breads. It’s called WTF after the three varieties of wheat that go into it: warthog, Turkey red, and red fife. Travis regularly has his soil and crops analyzed at the University of Illinois Extension in Urbana to make sure he can produce a consistent product. But there’s only so much he can do.
“One of the things we learned on our farm is that Mother Nature bats last,” he says. “However great our plant health is, however great the seed, no matter if we do all the right things, we’re still at the mercy of the environment.”
Last fall, for instance, there was so much rain that Travis couldn’t plant his stock of winter wheat at all. (He still had enough to keep Wade supplied, but not enough for other customers.) He managed to save his seed and plant it in the spring, but he had only a two-day window to put in 30 acres before the rains came back again. The only thing he can do now, he says, is to make sure his seeds and equipment are ready for whenever the planting window opens.
“It makes everything a bit of a crapshoot,” says a fellow farmer, Peter Klein of Seedling Fruit in South Haven, Michigan. Klein grows fruit, not wheat (he’s one of Aya Pastry’s main suppliers), but his experience has been similar to Travis’s. In the last decade, he’s had to deal with more unusual weather events than ever before in his career. Last summer, a 30-day drought was followed by torrential storms that knocked the fruit off the trees. He ended the season with 15 or 20 percent of his usual apple crop. As for peaches, his second-biggest crop, his orchards no longer produce every year, and he thinks that in 10 years, he won’t be able to grow them at all.
“The future is a lot more of this,” Stephen Jones, the director of the Washington State University Breadlab, said in an email. “Small and mid-sized bakers would be well served to figure that more variation is coming in their flour as millers are going to have a tough time meeting specs. Next year it may be cold and wet vs hot and dry or it can be hot and dry from here on out. No matter what, though, climate chaos is here.”
At Aya Pastry, Fukai and her staff haven’t had any more problems with their laminated dough. She considers herself lucky that they know how to handle inconsistencies in their flour now, and also that none of their other major ingredients, like butter and sugar, have given them trouble.
“This industry is hard enough,” she says. “The profit margins are so small, if you’re not paying attention to ingredients and labor, you’re not going to make it.”
Correction, Tuesday, July 12, 11:05 p.m.: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the view that Roundup is used in conventional farming; Roundup Ready wheat is not available commercially in the U.S.