Wheat is the second most commonly cultivated grain on earth - and it's used for everything from alcohol production to our humble loaf of bread.
The wheat we grow today has its origins in the middle east emmer wheat, which has been shown to have been cultivated for over 10,000 years.
Like all things agricultural, wheat has been constantly hybridised and refined to produce countless varieties, suitable for many different geographical regions and uses over the centuries.
Today's wheats are high yielding, and designed for quite specific soil types. In some ways, they are a triumph of agricultural method - after all, we have about seven billion people to feed on this little planet, and quite frankly we couldn't do it without the millenia of practice that has gone into the production of wheat.
There has been quite a lot of talk lately about wheat free diets and so on - which is fine for the first world - and not taking into account the nutritional benefits of sourdough bread - but in the end, wheat is the grain we have developed for possibly ten millenia to feed an ever growing population. Sure, we may be using too much wheat in our diet, but compared to other grains (like rice), wheat is definitely more sustainable. You think not? I suspect your definition of 'sustainable' may be different to mine. Wheat, in one form or another, has been cultivated by humans as an integral part of our diet for almost as long as we have walked the earth.
In Australia we cultivate a number of varieties of wheat:
- prime hard wheat, which is high protein wheat used mainly in breadmaking, or as a blender for other types of breadmaking flours to improve protein content. Typically contains 13% protein or more.
- hard wheat, which is used for flat breads, noodles and pastries, as well as in other breads. Containd between 11.5 and 13% protein
- noodle wheats, which are specifically bred for udon and chinese noodle products
- soft wheat, for cakes, biscuits and buns and snack foods such as chips; this flour contains less than 9.5% protein.
- durum wheat, specifically for pasta, semolina flour, cous cous and other bakery products
In addition, there is a growing volume of organic wheat flour being produced in all these grades, which I will discuss in more detail now, because unlike regular conventional flours, you can usually source where the flour has been grown, and in many cases it is possible to contact either the grower themselves, or the miller. I think it's nice to be able to know, if you want to, who grew the food we eat. In addition, you will find that organic flours have certain qualities which a baker can sense when making dough that sets it apart from lifeless, anonymous flours.
Milling wheat flour
There are three kinds of milling processes for wheat, and they make a big difference to the bread you make.
- Roller Milling (also known as Steel Milling) produces a very fine flour by a process of crushing and sifting wheat into its component parts. This form of milling produces everything from white flour to pollard, as well as semolina and bran. Flour produced from a roller mill will be consistent, though wholemeal flour is actually white flour mixed with bran when it comes from this process. This is a bit misleading, but wholemeal produced from a roller mill will give a better rise than that which is produced from a Stone Mill. In general, you will find different schools of thought regarding better milling processes, but I think in the end it comes down to economics - Roller Milling extracts more flour more quickly, and so it has come to be the default milling process for all but 'boutique' flours, such as organic and specialty grain processing.
- Stone Milling is the original form of milling, based on a large spinning stones grinding the wheat into flour. This process is also known as a reduction process, because the wheat actually is milled from the outside in, rather than crushed and sifted when roller milling is used. The end result is that the flour tends to be more flavoursome, and contains more of the whole grain than roller milled flour. The downside to stone milling is that there may be a small amount of stone residue in the final product, depending on the age and material used in the stones themselves, though the amount is so small as to be virtually undetectible. Stone milled wholemeal flour is close to truly wholemeal, because of the way it's milled. There is a school of thought which believes the way the flour is milled, that is via 'rolling' as opposed to 'crushing' actions of the milling process determines the 'living nutrition' of the grain. I do know that freshly stone milled flour is the absolute best thing to feed sourdough starter with.
- Hammer Milling is a refinement of the stone milling process, and is often used to grind stock feeds and wholegrain flours. The process involves crushing whole grain using a number of rapidly rotating hammers. Hammer milling retains the whole grain, which can be sifted later or simultaneously using centrifical force. The advantage of a hammer mill over stone grinding is there is less skill required by the miller to achieve a consistent product. In many large mills, hammer milling has replaced stone milling, but the flours are still called stone milled. While this is possibly a bit deceptive, the effect of the hammer mill is still very similar to a stone mill in that the whole of the grain is processed as one. A roller milling process separates the parts of flour as it goes, so it is, by nature, different.
- Grades of Stone Milled Flour
- Wholegrain Flour - as the name implies, this grade only has some of the pollard (fat) removed. While the rise in breads made from this type of flour is less than that achieved with modern roller mills, it is by far the most flavoursome flour. There are methods whereby the maximum rise possible can be achieved from this flour, and these can be found on this website.
- 80/20 Flour - which has 20 percent of the bran removed. Bakes better, still has a lot of flavour.
- Light Unbleached Flour - has 80 per cent of the bran removed. This is an all round flour, giving good, flavoursome bread and a good rise.
- White Flour - this has about 95% of the bran removed, though compared to roller milled white flour, this is still coarse and flavoursome.
Uses of wheat flour
Generally, wheat flour can be classified into three main uses. They are:
- General Purpose Flour, for breads, cakes and pastries. This will usually be a blend of different grades of wheat flour, averaging out to around 10% protein, depending on the brand. I use this quite a bit, because it has flavour and consistent rising qualities.
- Breadmaking flour, for breads where you are looking for lightness, such as continental breads. This flour is also better in mixers, where more mechanical force is placed on the dough. There are different kinds of breadmaking flour, rangeing from 11% protein to in excess of 13%.
- Cake flour, which comes from soft wheat containing less than 9.5% protein.
The baking industry grades the flours according to primary use, but actually, this can be quite misleading for the home baker. For example, soft wheat (which goes into cake flour) is also the most flavoursome, and if handled correctly, can make some of the lightest breads, especially if a mixer is not used. I will often blend so called 'cake flour' through other breadmaking flours, just to provide better flavour and softness of texture in the finished loaf.
There are over 450 varieties of wheat currently grown in Australia. While it's easy enough to classify them into simple categories (prime hard, hard, noodle, soft and so on), most of the varieties are grown for a number of reasons, and a major factor is yield per acre. As such, the wheats chosen by farmers marry best with local soils, rainfall and environmental conditions to produce the strongest yield economically. Thus, many farms go for lower quality grain because of contract selling, or selling a fixed quantity each season to a major buyer. They still sell some premium grain into local markets, but in general they are there for quantity not quality. This wheat is blended with better quality grain with higher protein to bring the average protein content in the flour up to an acceptable level for a variety of uses.
The short and tall of it is that wheat is better classified by the type of soil it's grown in, as this will dictate the characteristics of the flour more accurately. There are red soil types and black soil types; clay/sand/loam balances and other soil qualities; there are long term weather patterns of a region or elevation which affect soil structure; all these factors come into the quality of the flour produced. But at the end of the day, a wheat buyer knows his regions and sub regions because of the qualities in the wheat they produce.
Organic Flour versus Conventional Wheat Flour
Given that wheat occupies a fair percentage of the earth's surface, I thought I'd just weigh into the argument for growing methods - organic vs conventional grain farming. Beware - all journalistic intent is thrown aside here - a rant follows.
From a purely economic perspective, at least in theory, it makes sense to buy organic flour. Farmers should be able to produce and sell organic flour at prices which end up being competitive with premium flours at any supermarket. However, in Australia at least, this has not proven to be the case. As a result of our certification processes, we have ended up making the organic product a 'top shelf' option - and really only one the wealthy can afford to buy on a regular basis.
In any case, if you spend a dollar more per kilo, and make your bread at home, you're still a few dollars a loaf ahead of bread you bought from the shop. This figure is amplified the more gourmet your bread becomes. And you get the immediate benefit of great taste, and usually better nutrition.
What about conventional agriculture? Isn't it more efficient, and so therefore not so bad from an environmental perspective?
It's true that via constantly improving our methods of agriculture, we clever humans have been able to feed greater numbers of people globally. We need to do this, or a fair number of our kind may well perish. And of course, our efficiency has brought costs down. Or that's what we would like to believe.
Actually, cheap flour often comes from poor countries who are less efficient, but who pay third world prices for labour and therefore grain. Or from other countries which subsidise their farmers heavily in order to mask their inefficiencies, and so can then compete in the marketplace.
Either way, these are false economies. The only true economy is a sustainable one, where the price you pay is relative to the cost of actually producing the goods. And that cost has to include the resources used along the way. In the case of farmed product, a major resource is dirt.
Stuff grows from dirt. Dirt is a complex, living organism, full of tiny and not so tiny living things. It contains microorganisms, nutrients, bacteria, water, air, minerals and lots more (it also is home to lots of larger living things, including worms, which are a personal favourite of mine - but I digress...). It can't be made in a laboratory, in short.
If you listen to agronomists, particularly those concerned with growing wheat, you would come to believe that dirt is nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and not much else. The same applies if you are growing wheat for a living via the use of copious amounts of NPK fertiliser. Try doing without it, they say.
However, if we keep using NPK fertiliser to produce wheat, we will run out of phosphorus eventually. We will also destroy our soil, because these nutrients chase away the life in the soil. If our soil is destroyed, the only alternative is to use genetic modification to get stuff to eat out of the ground. Really, this is not an alternative at all, because as anyone will tell you, GM is VERY resource intensive. Another false economy.
So saving the soil seems like a simpler alternative. It's natural, and not too hard to look after if you feed it with good old fashioned decaying organic matter. So, why, then, don't we do this as a matter of principle?
The industrial farming machine
Our industrialised farming system, especially when we look at broadacre farming, won't allow this to occur any time soon. Fertilisers are relatively cheap, when compared to actually repairing the soil. Subsidies exist to support farmers using fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides - and these are lobbied for by multinational companies who sell them - companies like Monsanto and others. Governments comply with the corporate interests because these interests make sure the money flows freely in their direction, thereby ensuring the sustainability of the 'democratic' process - often used as a blanket term to cover the true nature of what is really just capitalism. As you would already know, capitalism is served by democracy, but true democracy is not served by capitalism.
Meanwhile, there is no actual financial support flowing from government for those in the organic industry to do the right thing and farm in a truly sustainable manner.
We talk like we know it all, like we are scientists and economists, and we control everything in the world, but given the rapid spread of desert as a direct result of NPK farming, weedicide and pesticide use, I'd humbly venture to say that we may still have some distance to travel before we can wear the mantle of 'master of the universe' with some degree of wisdom attached.
To become truly sustainable, we need to draw from the past and apply a kind of long term farming wisdom, like the indigenous peoples of the world have done for much longer than we have, to the future. Yes, we have grown wheat for many thousands of years. But in 50 years or so, we have endangered the entire planet's ecosystem by our well meaning attempts to become more efficient. In so doing, we may be robbing future generations of soil to grow food. We seem to be quite happy to let the corporations run the show - who, in themselves, are babies in the broader scheme of things. Our soil is the only true asset we have to maintain the food supply for the entire planet - the human population as well as the many other species that need the things which grow from it - plants, insects, animals, birds and a plethora of micro organisms.
Here ends the rant. If you've gotten this far, well done. In future articles, I'll hopefully be expanding on what can be done about this, and how we can all play a part in a broader change mechanism which may become necessary sooner rather than later. Meanwhile,