The Scoop on Grains: Wheat-Hard, Soft, Red, White, What’s the Difference?

Wheat. When the subject of whole grains comes up, this is the one that comes to most people’s minds. This week I want to delve a little bit into the characteristics of wheat. What is it’s history? What are the nutritional benefits? What are the different varieties and how should they be used?

Wheat is thought to be the oldest cultivated grain for human consumption. It may well have been the first crop, originating in the Fertile Crescent, and was an important food in ancient Israel and Egypt. The Egyptians in particular made baking into a fine art, especially once they discovered that the yeast produced in beer brewing would leaven bread dough. Eventually, they became the “bread basket of the Roman Empire”. Breweries and bakeries were often found side by side. The Hebrews, on the other hand, were the first to use the sourdough process. Phoenician sailors introduced Egyptian breadmaking to Greece. The Greeks eventually passed it on to the Romans, who were the first to establish baking schools and develop rotary milling stones.  Bakers were afforded such high status that they were exempt from military service and the Roman government provided each baker’s family a house. More than a livelihood, it was a family heritage. A baker’s child was required to marry another baker’s child.

No part went unused:

“The sheaves were woven into thatch and served as roofs and lacings for sandals. The canes of the stalk were used to keep stoves going and provide winter heat. The wheat berry itself was roasted as a cereal, boiled as a soup, braised as a stew with meat and vegetables and crushed into flour for bread. Talk about versatile!” (p. 114, Grains of Truth)

Later Columbus carried wheat to the West Indies and Cortez introduced it to Mexico. English colonization brought wheat to the shores of North America, Australia, and Africa. The first colonists to Virginia and Massachusetts brought it,  but it didn’t thrive in the eastern climate and didn’t become an important crop here in North America until westward expansion.

Due to mechanization, wheat farming is much more efficient now than in years past. Preparing, planting, and harvesting a single acre of wheat took more than sixty-four hours 100 years ago, today it requires three. As a result, wheat is a staple for nearly 50% of the world’s population and more of the world’s cultivated acreage (about 70%) is devoted to growing wheat than any other crop! It’s universally prized for it’s high gluten content, which produces light textured yeast breads (you may recall our discussion of gluten’s role in this).

We recently discussed the three parts all whole grains have in common: bran, germ, and endosperm. A wheat berry is, of course, made up of these three parts, and is rich in nutrients. In fact, of the 44 known essential nutrients needed by the human body, wheat is lacking only four: vitamins A, B12, and C and the mineral iodine!

Varieties and Uses
Until I began my journey into the world of fresh-ground whole grains, I never realized there was more to it than simply choosing white flour or “whole wheat” flour. As I began to learn more, I was confronted with an array of options: hard red, hard white, soft white, pastry flour. It can all get very confusing!

Here are the basics:

  • Spring and Winter refer to the time of year the seed is planted.
  • Hard and Soft refer to the volume of gluten in the grain’s cellular structure.
  • Hard wheat is higher in protein and gluten, lower in moisture, and absorbs liquid easily; it’s considered the ideal variety for yeast breads. 
  • Soft wheat is lower in protein and gluten, higher in starch, and more malleable. It’s grown mainly in the South and Midwest and works best for non-yeast quick breads. When you see a recipe calling for “pastry flour”, it’s referring to flour made from soft wheat.
  • Red and White refer to the color of the berry, which indicates more or less fiber and bran. Red wheat has a stronger, heartier flavor and tends to produce a a somewhat denser, coarser bread than white wheat. 
  • Graham flour is simply coarsely ground winter wheat.

I use a mixture of hard red and white wheat for my yeast bread, and soft white for other baked goods, alternating with lesser-known varieties like kamut and spelt. For more information, I highly recommend both Grains of Truth, Using Whole Grains the Easy Way by Donna Spann and Sue Gregg’s Baking With Whole Grains and Breakfasts  cookbooks. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of the less commonly known varieties of whole grains and how they can be used.

In the meantime, make sure you’ve read the rest of this series and enjoy a few of my favorite soaked grain recipes (most of which can be made with a simple household blender):

  •  My Journey Part 1
  • My Journey Part 2
  • How Did We Get Here? (A Brief History of Whole Grains)
  • Whole Grains: Nutritionally Speaking
  • Bread Baking With Fresh Ground Flour 101 (my step-by-step tutorial for how I make my bread)
  • Bread Baking Resources…Getting Started
  • My Nutrimill
  • Simply Scrumptious Blender Oat Pancakes
  • Delicious Baked Oatmeal
  • Simple Blender Waffles
  • Super Simple & Flavorful Brown Rice
  • Popcorn Cornbread 
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    1. I have a wheat grinder and have used it a bit, but I did not know about the differences between wheat kinds, thanks for the info! (visiting from Hip homeschool hop!)

    2. such fantastic information!! thanks so much, i really appreciate it! and i love your blog!

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