Swany White Flour Mill Burns to the Ground! Bakers throughout Midwest traumatized! Hoarding feared! Tragedy of great proportions!

by Benjamin Johnson

Swany WhiteThis is how I imagine the headlines would have run a hundred years ago. Today, however, what happens is that I get contacted by a friend on Facebook, who asks if I’ve heard the news; and then, when I’m volunteering at the cash register, everyone is sympathetic and supportive.

On December 27, 2011, around 4:30 p.m., flames were noticed on the third floor of the Swany White Flour Mill in Freeport, Minnesota. Firefighters were on the scene soon after being notified by the owner of the Mill, Gary Thelen, who had discovered the fire. In the space of two hours, the wooden building burned and collapsed. Fire crews did their best to water nearby buildings to prevent the fire from spreading, but the mill itself ended its more than a century run as a family-owned business, a heap of twisted metal, machinery, and smoking debris. The brick chimney is all that stands after the devastating fire.

Since then, there has been much speculation about the future of the mill. Mr. Thelen has publicly said that he doesn’t believe he can rebuild the mill, but that some of the specialty products the mill produced might be able to be made somewhere else. The white flour that made up the majority of the sales, however, will not, at this time, be brought back.

So, what does this mean for Hampden Park Co-op? From a strictly rational standpoint, not much. Another item gone from the bulk food wall. We’ll find another flour; there’ll be a replacement.

From the standpoint of someone who bakes bread all the time (5–6 loaves a week), and who has been ordering 25-pound bags of this particular flour over the last year or so, this is going to take some getting used to.

Swany White was my favorite flour. I had adapted to this flour, I knew what it would do when I added extra ingredients to the bread dough (like olives, or walnuts and dried cherries, or chocolate), and I had a feeling for how well it absorbed water so that I could fine tune each loaf as it was going into the second fermentation phase. I had gotten my bread down to the point where I didn’t have to worry too much about the making, it was just something I did.

My family was (and is) spoiled a bit, I think. My daughter has said to me, several times about other, purchased breads, that “Yeah, this is good bread, Dad, but it’s not as good as yours.” There was a while where my wife was only eating smoked salmon, kumquats, and my olive bread for breakfast.

And really, as much as I’d like to take the credit for how good the bread is, I can’t. It is the flour that makes a loaf good. With the long fermentation of the recipe I use, the better the flour, the better the finished loaf. Heat management and mixing the ingredients in? Fiddly stuff. Tasting the flavor of real wheat? That, my friends, is Swany White Flour, from Freeport, Minnesota. Was. Sniff. We’ll miss ya, Swany White.

I do have, at this point, to share my recipe with you for the bread. It isn’t a complicated recipe, but it does require a bit of doing to get it right. I got it from the New York Times, which got it from Jim Lahey, owner of the Sullivan Street Bakery in lower Manhattan.

No Knead bread
(adapted from Jim Lahey and the New York Times. Makes one loaf; recipe can easily be doubled or tripled.)

15 ounces (3 cups) flour
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon yeast
12 ounces (1-½ cups) water

Put flour, salt, and yeast into a bowl or plastic container. Dump water into container and mix with a spoon or your hand (getting the kids to mix this is a good intro to making stuff in the kitchen) until everything is moist and doughy. Usually this is about 30 strokes,
or less than a minute of stirring.

Put the lid on your container or cover your bowl with plastic wrap, a clean towel, or a large cookbook. Just so it won’t get disturbed. Put the dough someplace you can leave it for 12–18 hours and walk away.

Twelve to 18 hours later (or more; I’ve successfully made this with 30-hour-old-dough) uncover the dough. Sprinkle a little bit more flour on top of the dough, and give it a couple of turns with your hand or a large spoon. It should slightly deflate and settle. Cover it again and let it sit for two hours.

An hour before you put the dough in the oven, preheat the oven to 500º F with a covered, heatproof container inside the oven. A Corning 2½ to 3½ quart covered container works quite well, as does cast iron or, so I’ve heard, earthenware. Start the cold oven with the container in it, so it gets heated at the same time. If you put the empty cold container into the hot oven, you risk breakage of your container. Allow the oven to heat until the end of the dough’s two-hour second rising.

Using appropriate hotpads, lift the container out of the oven. Take the cover off and sprinkle enough cornmeal on the bottom of the container to cover it. This will prevent sticking. Gently roll or scoop the dough (which will have risen a bit) into the very hot container. Cover with the very hot lid, and put it back into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Maybe a little less, depending on your oven.

After 30 minutes or so, take the cover off the pot. Your bread should be nicely risen, and shaped well. Probably a little pale in color. Put the pot back in the oven without the cover for up to ten minutes, according to how dark you like your crust.

Take the pot out of the oven (again, please utilize appropriate hotpad shielding; this stuff is hot) and dislodge the loaf onto a wire rack. Let it cool for an hour or so if you can. You can cut it right out of the oven, but the flavor and cutability will be better when the loaf has had time to cool.

This bread will keep well for a couple or three days, assuming it’s not all eaten on the first day. The long fermentation allows a lot of gluten formation, which helps stave off staleness. Also, if it does get stale, it makes excellent bread crumbs.


After the first 12–18 hour rising, I sometimes add about six ounces of chopped olives (usually the kalamata wedges from the deli case) and mix those in for the second rising.

I also make a fruit and nut bread with about three ounces each of dried cherries (snack wall across from the center produce island) and walnut pieces (nut case, front of the store).

Chocolate? Sure: about six ounces of milk or dark chocolate, chopped. If you decide to go with chocolate chips, you might want to give them a fast chop as well; little bits of chocolate seem to be better than hunks o’ chocolate to me. Your taste buds may vary. (Bulk chocolate is in the baking section across from the cold cereals; chocolate chips are on the bulk wall at the back of the store.)

Another thought or two: Making this bread is not a quick affair. You do have to decide that you’re going to do it a day in advance. For our family, this has led to bread being made every other day, more or less. It’s a continuous process, one that can provide you with bread that is real, substantial food. Not just bread, but food. It really is that good.

Internet links:

New York Times No Knead Bread recipe: this is the starting point for me; it’s got links on the left hand side to a pair of videos showing how to make the bread, along with recipes: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/08mini.html?pagewanted=all

Saint Cloud Times: Main search term page: links to stories about the fire at the Swany White Mill in Freeport, as well as video and links to photos: http://search.sctimes.com/sp?aff=1100&skin=&keywords=swany%20flour

[Benjamin has been a member of HPC with his family for the past several years. He has been baking bread since he was 14 or so, but only started getting earth-shatteringly good loaves since January 2009, when he started using the recipe on page 7.]