What do we need to know about wheat to talk about bread?

Before delving into wheat, another word about tomatoes.  A reader of my last post on tomatoes sent me a link to an article by John Kass in the Chicago Tribune.  Kass argues that the classic BLT is inappropriately named, that the tomato has always been the star of the sandwich and that its name should be TBL, tomato, bacon and lettuce.  Some of us may agree; bacon fanatics not so likely.


What do we need to know about wheat to talk about bread?  Let’s start with wheat, the most common ingredient in bread.  Wheat is a grass that is cultivated for its seed, the berry. 

The wheat berry comprises four main ingredients:

the bran, the hard outer coating of the wheat berry that protects the germ and the endosperm.  The bran is an insoluble fiber that contains most of the mineral content of the wheat berry.  It maintains its integrity until germination when the swelling of the endosperm causes it to split to allow the seedling to emerge.  The bran comprises about thirteen percent of the weight of the berry.  It is rich in fiber (40%), protein (15%), fat (10%).

the germ, the reproductive part of the seed that contains the wheat’s genetic material that is encased in a matrix of fat (10%) and germinates to grow into a plant.  The germ comprises about three percent of the berry’s weight and comprises protein (23%), fiber (13%), and carbohydrates (51%).  The germ is the primary source of flavor.

the endosperm, the starch and protein that feeds the plant’s growth after germination.  It comprises about eighty-four percent of the weight of the wheat berry and is made up of carbohydrates (75%), protein (8%) and less than 1% fiber.

The aleurone layer, only a few cells thick, lies between the bran and the endosperm.  It is rich in fat, fiber and protein and provides a home for both the amylase enzymes that turn the endosperm starches into sugar and the lactic acid bacteria the regulate the germinated seed’s acidity for optimal plant growth.

Today commercial wheat falls into six classes:

Hard red winter wheat – grown primarily in the Great Plains (e.g., Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas; used mostly for bread and all-purpose flour.  When you buy all-purpose flour in the supermarket, it is almost universally hard red winter wheat.

Hard red spring wheat – grown primarily in the Northern States (e.g., Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota); used, for example, in “designer” breads, bagels, croissants.

Soft red winter wheat – grown primarily east of the Mississippi River; used for cookies, crackers, pastries and pretzels.  This is the flour you want to make real Southern biscuits;  check out White Lily Unbleached Self-Rising Flour.

Soft white wheat – grown primarily in the Pacific Northwest (e.g., Idaho, Oregon and Washington); used for pastries and flat breads.

Hard white wheat – grown in the same areas as hard red winter wheat, but on a much smaller scale; used for flat breads, Asian noodles and tortillas.

Durum – grown primarily in Montana and North Dakota; used for pasta and couscous.

There is growing interest by farmers, millers and bakers in ancient wheats such as einkorn, emmer, spelt and Khorasan.  You can buy flour from these wheats from specialty millers and distributors.

Wheat today is different than it was a hundred years ago; it has more gluten in it.  Until the 1870s, almost all U.S. wheat production consisted of “soft wheat” varieties.  A “hard spring wheat” variety originally from Central Europe with a higher protein content, in other words gluten, was introduced into the US in the mid-1800s.  The flour made from the higher gluten wheat resulted in fluffier bread and flakier baked goods.

Gluten is a family of storage proteins, formally known as prolamins, that are naturally found in certain cereal grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye.  Its name comes from the Latin word for “glue,” and plays a key role in determining the unique baking quality of wheat by conferring water absorption capacity, cohesivity, viscosity and elasticity to dough.  Because of these unique physical properties, gluten is also frequently used as an additive to improve texture and promote moisture retention in a variety of processed foods.

There is nothing inherently unhealthy about gluten, but people with certain medical conditions like celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy have to consider how much gluten they can eat and tolerate.

How do wheat berries become flour?  A simple answer that belies much … they are ground … even the word “ground” is questionable … not a very illuminating or satisfactory description, especially when thinking about nutrition and food value.  Whole wheat flour uses all of the berry; white flour is just the endosperm.

For virtually the history of man we have pounded, crushed and ground grain into particles small enough to form a dough when mixed with water.  Our modern baking on a stone in an oven is not much different from early man’s baking on stones, whether simply leaving the dough on a rock in the sun or next to a fire.

Until the late nineteenth century grains were milled between stones powered by hand, wind, water or animals.  These stones ground all of the parts of the berries, as well as whatever else was in the bags of berries when they were emptied into the mill … husk, dust, soil, insects, etc.  The ground grain was sifted to remove the impurities, a process called bolting.

It was eventually discovered that stripping away the germ and the bran and leaving only the endosperm made it so the grains could be kept for longer and also produced a soft, unadulterated white flour.  By the early 1800s, many mills had steel roller milling equipment so that they could produce this refined flour.  Demand for white flour grew as it became the desirable baking ingredient.  The modern system of flour milling removes twelve natural ingredients from wheat and adds back three artificial ingredients, iron, B vitamins (folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine), and calcium, to create “enriched flour.”  Milled flour is bleached with chlorine or nitrogen oxide gas to create “white flour.”

Wheat is the single most cultivated crop worldwide.  Most people in the United States eat wheat in some form at almost every single meal, every single day.  Wheat is a primary ingredient in snacks and desserts as well.  Industrial bakers add “vital wheat gluten” or high gluten flour for fluffier loaves of bread and crackers.  Vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes are made from extracted gluten.  The least nutritious form of wheat, processed white flour, is everywhere and increasing so.

A little history.  Up until about 1800 French peasants ate bread made from rye or buckwheat.  Bakers often added all sorts of materials as fillers to make the flour go further: sawdust, hay, dirt and even dung were all used.  Most bread was dark, fibrous, dense, and usually flat.  The vast majority of a peasant’s diet came from bread; people chewed their way through one to two or even three pounds of it a day.

Bread made of wheat was for the few, the well to do.  Wheat did not yield well and was fairly tricky to grow.  White puffy wheat bread was for even fewer, the royalty.  Whiteness was achieved by sieving out the skin of the grain (the bran) and the germ.  In a world of scarcity, white wheat bread was available only to the very elite.

Grain and bread riots were extremely common up until the French revolution.  In fact, the riots that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and helped start the French Revolution, began as a search for arms and grains.

Let’s face it, there are some meals, however, that cry out for industrial “soft white bread.”  There was a time in my life when I would sometimes spend a random night at my long-time friend Terry’s, a boy from Oklahoma who wanted to be a sailor and who for most of his life lived on a sail boat in the harbor at Dana Point.  Both of us being raised as we were, we occasionally savored a classic childhood dinner, beanie-weenie casserole, a large can of baked beans with chopped hot dogs.  Beanie-weenie casserole cries out for “soft white bread” for mopping up.  Beanie-weenie casserole nights are long, long past and were singular events even back then.

Back to wheat … for all practicable purposes, it’s unavoidable.  So how to get the nutritional value?  Basically, you want organic whole grain wheat, however presented … bread, crackers, pastries …. The difficulty is many, if not most, commercially produced bread products contain a lot more than just whole wheat … read the labels … dough conditioners, used to improve volume and uniformity by strengthening gluten, “contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, distilled monoglycerides, calcium peroxide, calcium iodate, datem, ethoxylated mono-and diglycerides, enzymes, ascorbic acid,” … calcium propionate, a mold inhibitor … natamycin, to retard spoilage … fumaric acid,  to add flavor, as a coagulant, as a food preservative, and as an acid in leavening … sodium diacetate, a free flowing, acidic sodium salt widely used as food flavoring, preservative, and pH buffer, specifically to impart a vinegar flavor in breads and snacks … lactic acid, a sour flavor enhancer and preservative (interestingly, lactic acid is used as a humectant, or moisturizer, in some cosmetics and as a mordant, a chemical that helps fabrics accept dyes in textiles and in tanning leather and as a starting point in making lacquers and inks) … ascorbic acid (vitamin C), to give dough a “fresher” effect by strengthening gluten and increasing dough volume … all ingredients taken from the label of a loaf of industrially-produced organic whole wheat bread.

What’s the best bread for skiers … the bread you make at home from organically-grown whole wheat flour that was recently milled and contains no preservatives or enhancers.  Making bread at home is not that hard, and does not take that much time.  Homemade bread is much better for you than industrially produced bread.  Even the much touted “baked in the store” bread is full of things you do not want; be wary of marketing claims.

Admittedly, homemade bread does not have the shelf life of industrial bread because it does not contain preservatives; it will get hard in a few days unless frozen and reheated. 

Here’s a simple, no-knead recipe for whole wheat bread:

2 teaspoons instant yeast

1 cup (227 g) lukewarm water

¼ cup (57 g) orange juice (provides acid)

4 tablespoons (57 g) melted butter or ¼ cup (50 g) organic olive oil

3 tablespoons (64 g) organic molasses, maple syrup, dark corn syrup, brown sugar corn syrup, or honey

¼ cup (28 g) Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk (you can substitute 1 cup lukewarm milk for the 1 cup of water and the ¼ cup dry milk)

1 ¼ teaspoon (8 g) salt

3 cups (340 g) organic flour (3 cups whole wheat flour, or 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour plus 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour; all whole wheat flour yields a denser loaf, including all-purpose flour yields a lighter and fluffier loaf)

Optional – mixed seeds (sunflower, sesame, flax).

Heavily grease an 8 ½” x 4 1/2” or a 9” x 5” loaf pan.  The 5” pan yields a flatter loaf. 

You can also use a Dutch oven to yield a round loaf.  Let the round loaf rise covered on parchment paper before transferring to Dutch oven (you can put the parchment paper directly into the Dutch oven).

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.  Mix and beat for about 3 minutes (an electric mixer on high speed works well).  The dough will be sticky.

Scoop dough into pan, and cover with lightly greased plastic wrap.  The dough will not be pourable.  Let dough rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until it is just above the rim of the pan.  Preheat oven to 350°.  If using seeds, spread over top of loaf.

Uncover the dough and place into oven.  Bake for 40 to 45 minutes.  Tent with aluminum foil after 20 minutes.  The bread is done when it is golden brown on the top.  Digital thermometer in the center registers 190-195°F. 

If using a Dutch oven, bake covered for 20 minutes, remove the cover and bake an additional 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from oven, and let it rest in pan for 5 minutes.  Thereafter, turn loaf out onto rack. 

Brush top with melted butter for a softer crust.  Allow bread to cool completely before cutting.

Store the bread tightly wrapped in plastic at cool room temperature 2-3 days.  Freeze for longer storage.  Reheat frozen loaf in 350° oven for 20 minutes.