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Corn Grain Mill Review

Cheap Corn Mills - great for nixtamatal

Cheap Corn Mills – great for nixtamatal

These mills are cheap (like $25) and readily available, but are they any good?  Definitely, and you probably should pick one up.  But, like so many things you need to understand what they are good for.

Now, what they are great for is making nixtamatal – that is grain corn processed with alkali for making things like tortillas.  It’s an easy grind material which is the perfect fit for this machine – and fresh nixtamatal is awesome!

It’s also OK cracking grain for animal feed or malted barley for brewing beer.  Now, what it isn’t perfect in that latter role – a roller mill would be better – but hey for $25 it’s a pretty affordable malt crusher.

So what doesn’t it do well?  Now, that’s grind grains for flour.  That is why I first picked up this mill a couple of decades ago – and the poor results and high cost of mills capable of producing fine flour prompted me to start on the path that resulted in the Homestead Grain Mill that is simple to build for yourself at low cost and produces great flour.

Replace the cotter pin holding the rotating burr in place with a bolt (in this case a #8)

Replace the cotter pin holding the rotating burr in place with a bolt (in this case a #8)

Dissembled Corn Mill

Dissembled Corn Mill

But that mill isn’t designed to make nixtamatal – which is why this cheap cast iron mill still sees loads of use in my home.  Fresh tortillas made from homemade nixtamatal are awesome – and this cheap mill and a good tortilla press make turning them out easy as well as cheap.  Bags of feed corn are running $10 for 50 pounds!

Now there is something that is lacking on these mills – all of those I have seen hold the front rotating burr in place with a cotter pin – which bends and allows the burr to slip back and freewheel.  This can be easily overcome by replacing the cotter pin with a bolt.

Apart from that weak part these mills are all pretty well and solidly made.  Sure, they look like they have loads of adjustment range – but I’ve got a number of slightly different variations and they all have loose tolerances, which is perfectly ok for grinding nixtamatal.

With prices starting at $25 you can order one on amazon and pick up a sack of feed corn and the fixin’s for a great night of Mexican food for less than the cost of the same meal out – and you’ll not only end the night with several meals worth of grain corn left but also with a mill that will last you a lifetime of enjoyable quality meals.

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Building a Grain Mill – Easy as Pie

Build a grain mill

Build a grain mill

As easy as pie – just a bit longer to realize the result.  Seriously. Really.  You just need the right tools (which are reasonably priced) and to gain some insight into how to pull everything together with smart techniques.

Not really much different than baking a pie – and there are lots of folks who are seriously intimidated by the thought of pulling together a great pie crust and that perfect filling.

But, that’s why cookbooks and cooking shows are so popular – they provide both guidance and the insight into the techniques needed to effectively convert the ingredients into the finished product.  Once you’ve done it once that initial hurdle of getting those techniques down is breached and going from making an apple pie to a peach torte is comparatively a breeze.  That’s no different with metal working – get a handle on how to pull one project off and you’ll be well on your way to having the skills and confidence to pull off much more complex projects.

In terms of how high that bar to entry is – with modern power tools it really isn’t much more difficult than baking that pie in a home oven.  Wire feed welders are not only easy to master but also low cost – as I write this Harbor Freight has their welders on for $110 for the smaller unit to $180 for the midsized one that I adore.  Their angle grinders start at $20 for a 4 1/2″ “heavy duty” one that will do for the work you have to carry out on the project to $45 for a versatile 7″ unit all the way to $65 for a top of the line 9″ unit – but those prices are all before you apply the 20% off coupons that always seem to be floating around.  Another $20 will get you the needed drill.

Homebuilt Grain Mill, Tortilla Press and the required tools

Homebuilt Grain Mill, Tortilla Press and the required tools

Add in the consumables and hand tools and even if you are starting your shop from scratch you’ll be able to buy the tools and the materials needed for the grain mill build and have money left over compared to buying a comparable mill with 6″ diameter burrs.

Now the economics of building your own tortilla press isn’t nearly as compelling – but if you’ve got the tools… well then building it is a breeze.

Of course, the prime advantage in my opinion isn’t the grain mill, or the tortilla press, ore even the nicely equipped shop – but the change in perspective that you’ll gain once you’ve seen how achievable these metal working projects are.  That shift will see you empower your independence, and that

is really cool – especially with a slice of pie.

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Forming curves in sheet metal without slip rolls

Sheet steel bent and welded to form shroud for the homestead grain mill

Sheet steel bent and welded to form shroud for the homestead grain mill

You might not expect this coming from someone who puts up a significant number of posts discussing tools and the projects that can be accomplished with them… deep breath – you can accomplish a lot without much in the way of tools.

Specialized tools can really speed up work and make projects easier – but you can accomplish some pretty cool things with very simple processes.  Case in point – forming curves aka radius bends in sheet steel would normally be done with slip rolls – but you can do a very acceptable work for a lot of jobs using only a piece of pipe mounted in a vice.  Sure it takes a bit longer than putting it through the rolls – but in a lot of cases it will get the job done just fine.

Build a grain mill

Build a grain mill

Frankly,  I really value the options and capacity my tools provide.  But, I have been building my workshop for over two decades, and while some folks might go out and drop several grand on tools it seems more reasonable to expect that most folks would want to dip their toes in the water first to see if doing more mechanical work is really something they want to take on before dropping big sums of cash (if they do have that financial freeboard).

Fortunately a lot can be done with relatively low cost tools and simple techniques.  I’m building another grain mill – this time for a friend so I decided I’d take a few short videos to show just how easy it is to build the grain mill since I know the finished product is probably pretty intimidating to most.  Check out the book Building the Homestead Grain mill for all of the detailed instructions on how you can build your own professional grade grain mill using simple tools.

 

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Grinding Cornmeal with the Homestead Grain Mill

Homemade Grain Mill

Homemade Grain Mill

One of the great advantages of having your own grain mill is being able to grind a huge assortment of grains – and grind them as fine or coarse as you want… You get to make the choices!

The homestead grain mill is great for grinding corn for cornmeal or corn flour – but not masa… it’s a dry mill and not intended for grinding nixtamatal.  If you are going to do that – and you should – pick up a masa mill – they are very cheap.

Freshly Ground Cornmeal (R) beside Whole Wheat Flour (L)

Freshly Ground Cornmeal (R) beside Whole Wheat Flour (L)

But back to grinding corn for cornmeal or corn flour.  Now compared to grinding small grains there is one tweak you need to do in order to have a reasonable production rate.  You need to start with a greater gap between the burrs to accommodate the larger grain size.  That’s it… really that simple.  So add some whole grain corn to your larder and start using it in your baking.

So if you don’t have a mill, why not consider building one – it’s going to be much easier than you probably are contemplating, and it will leave you with the skills to tackle loads of additional projects that will likewise yield independence dividends around your home and homestead.

 

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Grain mill power drive improvement

I do a lot of baking, which means lots of flour – and since I grind nearly all of the flour I use (I do use commercial flour to cut my whole grain flours when I bake for friends) the homebuilt homestead grain mill gets a lot of use.  Now,  I regularly run through a loaf worth of grain by hand… but more often I grind up quantities of flour using the simple power drive.

Grain mill power drive powering through a few pounds of whole wheat

Grain mill power drive powering through a few pounds of whole wheat

It is a simple drive, a 1/4hp archaic electric motor whose speed is reduced (and torque increased) with pulleys and an intermediary pulley set on pillowblocks.  All of this setup is mounted to a wood frame that allows me to clamp the grain mill to the base.

The drive was put together using what I had on hand and has worked very nicely.   But, the belt on the grain mill was originally one that was pulled off of my snowblower when it became too worn to serve in that capacity.  Snowblower belts are heavy duty, but it was frankly very worn, and worn unevenly.  Still….it worked as the final drive belt for the mill for about a year.

But, by last week it was pretty clear that the life was pretty much gone from the belt, so this weekend I decided to get a new replacement belt.

Whole wheat flour off the burrs

Whole wheat flour off the burrs

I had been putting the grain through to pastry flour fine in three passes in order to keep the belt from slipping.  I started to adopt the same strategy when I finished swapping in the new belt, but,  change a variable and you change the outcome right.  In this case two things became apparent.  The overall pace at which I could process the grain could be boosted with the new belt, and rather significantly, which wasn’t unexpected since the new belt would have a much greater contact area with the pulley sheaves therefore transferring more torque to the grain mill.  But, something else changed too.    The old belt had been unevenly worn which introduced a bit of shaking, the new belt didn’t do that so the feed rate for the grain though the mill was reduced… so instead of three passes it now makes sense to grind to pastry flour fine in just two passes.  That reduces the necessary adjustment, which while quick and easy is still an extra step, so all in all a nice bonus and one that I hadn’t really counted on…. now to get baking…

 

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A Grain Mill Power Drive

Adding a simple power drive to a grain mill – be it the homestead grain mill you can build yourself or a good quality commercial mill like the Grainmaker or the country living mill – is nearly as essential as the mill itself.   The reason is simple.  Even a small electric motor can make grinding flour at home from whole grains nearly effortless.

Whole grain flour without effort using the power drive

Whole grain flour without effort using the power drive

That means you will grind the grain into flour and in turn use that flour to produce your own baked goods regularly rather than relegating the mill to a dusty corner of your pantry and leaving buckets of grain in the corner of your larder.  Shouldn’t that be your goal – live better today – and fresh baking using whole grain flours is a nice component of that philosophy.

If your grain mill is of any size, and if you intend to use it, it should be large – the homestead grain mill for instance features 6″ burrs – it will take quite a bit of torque to turn those burrs as you will no doubt have discovered if you’ve hand cranked one.

This means you will need to step down the speed of an electric motor which increases the torque.  You can do this with a worm gear speed reducer, with a gear drive speed reducer – either one integrated into the motor or separate – or the most easy route with belts and pulleys.

I’ve used all three routes, employing the first ones on my previous iterations of the homestead grain mill as I worked to perfect the design.  But the design is now much better (and simpler) and I have settled on a correspondingly simple power drive using pulleys and belts.

Grain mill power drive - view from the top

Grain mill power drive – view from the top

There is an intermediary pillow block to allow me to slow the speed of the vintage 1/4hp motor down from 1725rpm to about 45 rpm on the mill.  The belt design is also allows me to quickly clamp the mill to the power drive setup and is forgiving of slight miss-alignments – my previous mill used a chain drive that would rip the mill from the mounting blocks if the alignment wasn’t close to perfect.

As discussed in an earlier post you can’t expect to bake fine products with coarse flour – so I always grind to pastry flour fineness.  By hand that usually takes three passes with the burrs progressively closer together.  With the power drive I tend to do that reduction in four passes.  Not being quite as aggressive ensures that the drive system isn’t inclined to stall out – though it sometimes does need a pull on the pulley mounted to the mill to get started.

I use a couple of super magnets to hold plastic bags to the mill shroud to catch the flour.which works wonderfully.

Build a grain mill

Build a grain mill

I wouldn’t give up the hand crank – I think it’s essential not only to ensure that you can produce flour if the lights go out, but more importantly I think cranking out the flour to bake a loaf of bread every once and a while really increases your appreciation of how great mechanization can be.  However, just as I think a bread machine is a nearly essential kitchen appliance because it makes baking easy I think the same can be said of the power drive for a grain mill.  Make things easy and it’s more likely you will actually incorporate them into your life.

While my setup for the power drive isn’t part of the Building the Homestead Grain Mill book, I should have a supplement done up shortly that will be in new copies of the book and will be sent to those who have already purchased a copy.

So if you already have a grain mill that isn’t motorized – motorize it.  If you don’t yet have a grain mill – you should probably get one, either by building it yourself or by purchasing a quality mill – and when you do motorize that one.

 

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Why get a grain mill

So why would you want a grain mill to produce whole grain flour at home?

Well, I can share a few of the reasons why I value my grain mill.

First, I like the health benefits offered by whole grain, 100% extraction flours.  By producing my own whole grain flour at home I can get everything that is in those seeds and put it in my baking.  I can’t easily buy 100% extraction flour, in part because once the endosperm is ground the oils in the seed start to go rancid.

Second,  I like the financial advantage of baking at home. I can bake a loaf of bread for a fraction of the price of a white loaf from the store – let alone the cost of a premium priced whole grain loaf.  That financial savings is a nice gain especially since it comes not from sacrifice but from a significant gain.

Third,  I like being able to purchase and store whole grains.  Not only can I purchase them in bulk for a fraction of the price of white flour from the store but I can also purchase them at low cost and avoid price fluctuations and provide a hedge against my own income disruption.

Now, let’s be honest.  It does take time to grind grain.  But, if I don’t feel like hand cranking out a loaf worth of flour I can always use my power drive, and quite often grind enough for a couple of days.  Combine the power drive for the grain mill with a bread machine and mechanization does most of the work.

I also find it’s a pain to have to head out to the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread, and would take considerably more time than producing flour and baking at home.

In my home home ground wins hands down and it has for over a decade.