(Triticum sp. – Family Gramineae)
Cereal grains were considered to be instrumental in the development of the world’s major civilizations: maize in South and Central America; wheat and barley in the Near East and the Mediterranean basin; and rice and millet for the populations of the Far East. The wild species of wheat has been found in excavations of the upper Tigris-Euphrates basin known as the Fertile Crescent, which is the presumed birthplace of civilization. Wheat vies with barley as the oldest cultivated cereal grain. Einkorn (T. monococcum) is the oldest known cultivated wheat and is now grown mainly in Spain. Hard wheats are thought to have evolved about 8000 BC from the wild species of Triticum, called einkorn (meaning “one seed”), and the related genus Aegilops in South West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Wild wheat ears have long spikes, which help the grains hold fast to the earth. They are very brittle and shatter when touched, which is a particularly undesirable feature that was selectively bred out of the wheat developed for commercial use.
Columbus is credited with bringing wheat to the Western Hemisphere, where its production eventually proved so successful that farmers are now paid NOT to grow the grain. Despite this, scientists are still constantly trying to produce higher-yielding varieties of wheat with resistance to more diseases. Wheat provides at least half of the world’s calories today and grown on nearly three-quarters of all the world’s farmland. Unfortunately, most is not grown for human consumption, as the vast majority goes to feeding livestock for meat production. Cortez took it to Mexico from Spain in 1519, and missionaries took it from Mexico to what is now Arizona and California.
All the wheat grown in the world belongs to one of fourteen species, but only half are of any great commercial importance. About 95% of the wheat grown is common. Each species of wheat is subdivided into many varieties with over 30,000 different ones grown throughout the world, giving great variation in shape, size, and colour of the ears and the grains themselves. Cakes and pastries are usually made from “soft” wheats, which contain more starch. Pasta is made from hard duram or macaroni wheat (Triticum durum). “Hard” wheats are generally richer in protein than “soft” wheat varieties and make better bread. The variety most often used for bread is Triticum aestivum.
The starchy endosperm of the wheat berry contains gluten-forming proteins, making it a perfect vehicle for the properties of yeast. When yeast is added, either from its natural state in the air or in the commercially prepared forms, a wheat dough can be made to rise when carbon dioxide gas is produced during the kneading, causing the elastic gluten to expand under the heat. Since white flour contains most of the starchy endosperm, it rises better than any other flour. The same principal is found in the early use of sourdough starters.
Wheat generally contains about 23% protein (whole wheat flour 12% and white flour 11%). Interestingly, the protein in wheat germ is extra-rich in lysine, which is deficient in the rest of the grain after it is milled. Since WWII, wheat has been severely milled, causing an equally drastic drop in nutrients. By using only the endosperm to make the white flour and digarding the bran and the germ, what is lost are the following: 77% thiamin, 80% riboflavin, 82% niacin, 72% B6, 50% pantothenic acid, 67% folate, 86% Vitamin E, and 29% choline. With the bran and the germ removed, the “prized” white flour is used extensively while, at the same time, the bran and the germ are packaged and sold at inflated prices so that people can buy them, add them to their processed foods and, once again, achieve good health.
The following are the seven varieties that are of commercial value:
1) Common wheat or bread wheat (T. sativum: It consists of hard red spring, hard red winter, soft red winter, and white. There are over 200 varieties, but only about 100 are cultivated. Hard wheat has the highest gluten content and thus preferred for making bread. Soft wheat has a higher carbohydrate content and less gluten than hard wheat and generally used for pastries, cakes, and cookies.
2) Club wheat (T. compactum): It can be either spring or winter varieties, and is grown mainly in central Asia and China and parts of the US and used mainly for flour, breakfast cereals, and crackers.
3) Polish wheat (T. polonicum): It is cultivated mainly in Spain and warmer regions of southern Europe.
4) Spelt (T. spelta): It survives on a small scale in parts of central and eastern Europe, where unripe grains are used in soups.
5) Duram (T. duram): Both duram and red are spring varieties and used to make pastas, since the hard starch granules hold together well during cooking. European duram wheat was used for the hardtack (sea biscuits) that sailors took with them on long voyages. Both the golden-coloured semolina flour and couscous are made from duram wheat.
6) Poulard, English, or Mediterranean wheat (T. turgidum) They are winter or spring varieties grown mainly for livestock feed.
7) Emmer (T. dicoccum): It is descended from T. dicoccoides. Wild emmer is now grown mostly to feed livestock, although good bread and other baked items can be made from it.
Forms of wheat are as follows:
Whole grain wheat berries: They can be cooked, after soaking, into a hearty cereal and added to quick breads, breads, or eaten as is. They can also be sprouted and added to a variety of dishes.
Whole peeled wheat berries: They are sometimes called ‘frumento’ or ‘grano’ in Italian cooking or ‘kutia’ in African recipes. These berries are pale gold in colour, with only the outer hull removed.
Whole green wheat berries: They are called ‘gruenken’ and used throughout Middle Europe, as well as the Middle East, where they are called ‘frik’ or ‘freeka’. They are the unripened kernels of wheat picked and then dried. They have a grassy flavour, but commonly used in many dishes or ground into flour.
Cracked wheat: It is the whole grain that has been cracked into pieces of coarse or medium granulation. Cracked wheat should not be confused with bulgar wheat. Bulgar wheat is uniform in colour, while the interior of cracked wheat is white.
Bulgur wheat (bulghur, bulgor, bulgar, boulgar, borgul, borgol, boulgur, bulghar, bulghour, burghul, burghoul, bourghoul; arisah (Bible): Whatever the name and however it is spelled, bulgur wheat is basically whole wheat that has been washed, steamed, dehulled, parched or dry-cooled, cracked, then sifted into various forms. Some view it as the same as cracked wheat and can be substituted for it. However, there is a major difference between the two. Cracked wheat is uncooked while bulgur wheat has been steamed, which makes a world of difference to the knowledgeable cook as preparation time is vastly different. Bulgur wheat developed from a very practical need. The people of the Middle East never had an abundance of fuel so had to find a way to shorten the cooking time of their meals. They took the wheat berries and steamed them, then dried them in the sun. They were then cracked and stored until such time as small quantities were needed, which shortened their soaking and cooking times. From a nutritional standpoint, this was the perfect way to keep the benefits of the nutrients intact since the minimal processing hardly affects the protein content or the amounts of phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. Thus, bulgur wheat retains the same nutrient values as a whole kernel of wheat. Throughout the Middle East, bulgur is frequently combined with a chick-pea purée and leban (sour milk), which serves as a replacement for expensive commercial baby foods. Bulgur can be made from either red or white wheat.
Evidence of the grain in China dates from about 2800 BCE, when it was introduced by Emperor Shen Nung, who declared wheat to be one of the five sacred crops along with soybeans, rice, millet, and barley. However, the bulgur form did not become a popular food until 221 BCE with the ascension of the Qin ruler, who banned noodles because they “made the character soft”. Instead, barely-cooked grains and wheat porridges were instituted to toughen his countrymen for the struggle toward independence. However, his ordinance lasted for only a decade; but, during that time, consumption of wheat swept through China and into Japan and India. Traces of the sun-dried wheat grains have been found in Egyptian tombs, Etruscan urns, and Hun saddlebags. The Romans called bulgur “cerealis” after the goddess of harvests, Ceres; and the Israelites called it “dagan”, which means “bursting kernels of grain”. American bulgur, grown mainly in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas, is a deep russet-to-umber colour, and generally comes from hard wheat. Middle Eastern bulgur, grown mainly in Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon, is a much lighter shade and almost always milled from soft summer wheat. Moreover, since it is parboiled and sun-dried, this “authentic” bulgur retains a slight grassy aftertaste that bulgur connoisseurs instantly recognize.
Whole wheat grits: They result when the wheat berries are cracked into about eight pieces. The same process is used for cracked wheat; but the grits are finer and, therefore, cook more quickly.
Shredded whole wheat: It is a commercial product that comes in large biscuits or small bite-size morsels. It is also available with bran added and without sugar, a rarity in the world of breakfast cereals.
Whole unprocessed bran flakes: It is sometimes referred to as miller’s Bran, and is the outer layer of the hard wheat kernel or berry. It is used to add extra fiber to commercial baking or sprinkled on cereals. The unprocessed variety is nutritionally superior to the ready-to-eat bran cereals, and costs considerably less.
Wheat germ: It is the untreated natural embryo of the wheat berry. It comes either raw or toasted and makes a tasty addition to any recipe. Because of the oil content, it must be refrigerated after opening, as it will turn rancid at room temperature. Rancidity can cause numerous health problems.
Wheat bran: It is the outer coating of the kernel that contains most of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals of the wheat kernel. The fiber is not water-soluble, however, and is mainly comprised of cellulose, which can be useful in several ways: adds bulk to relieve constipation (if enough water is taken along with it), reduces the transit time through the digestive tract, normalizes rapid transit time caused by diarrhea. All help reduce the risk of colon cancer. However, too much can bind essential elements, like calcium and iron, limiting their absorption.
Whole wheat flakes or rolled wheat: They are wheat berries that have been heated and pressed in the same manner as rolled oats or other rolled grains. The flakes cook faster and can be used as a hot cereal or added to other dishes.
Puffed wheat: It is the result of a process where the wheat berry is heated and then puffed up with air making a ready-to-eat cereal that requires no further cooking. This process does substantially decrease the nutrient content of the wheat berry.
Cream of wheat: It is sometimes called ‘farina’ and is finely ground, hulled wheat that still contains the germ and the endosperm. Only the outer bran layer is missing, and is a favourite hot cereal of children.
Wheatina: It is sometimes called bear mush, and consists of a finely ground whole grain cereal that includes the bran.
Wheat grass: It is made from the young wheat plant cut at the moment that the embryo is moving up from the roots to through the stalk, which occurs about twenty days after sprouting. At this point, it has a high concentration of nutrients, similar to that of quality green, leafy vegetables. It comes in powder form, tablets, or as a seasoning to sprinkle on food. Some natural food stores also serve it as a juice.
Types of wheat flour are as follows:
White Flour: It is the ground endosperm minus the bran and the germ. It has a high gluten content.
– Bleached and unbleached: Some white flour is bleached to make it even whiter than its natural cream colour.
– All-purpose: It is available in bleached and unbleached forms, and is a combination of high and low gluten flours. The proportion depends on which section of the country the flour is milled. All-purposed flour can be sifted several times and used as cake or pastry flour.
– Bread: It is milled from hard, high-gluten wheat. It is usually unbleached and, as the name suggests, highly popular for making yeast breads.
– Pastry: It is milled from low-gluten soft wheat with the bran removed, and is of a finer texture. It is used for cakes and pastries that require a lighter flour.
– Cake: It is a feather-light, bleached flour used specifically for the making of cakes. Two extra tablespoons per cup of cake flour is required to equal one cup of all-purpose or unbleached flour.
– Enriched: This is a misnomer. About twenty or so nutrients are removed during the milling process, and only five or six are added back into the flour.
– Self-rising: It is a flour that contains baking powder and salt. Most cooks, however, want to have control over the amount of salt they use and so tend to avoid this variety. Since aluminum is a health risk, it is best that baking powder without this additive be used; and, by using a flour that has baking powder already in it, one can never be sure which type was used.
Whole Wheat Flour: It is the ground hard wheat complete with bran and wheat germ. However, some commercial supermarket brands do remove some of the germ to increase shelf life of the flour. Baking with 100% whole wheat does leave a product heavier than that made with white flour, but the nutrient content and flavour are superior.
– Pastry flour: It can be made from the whole wheat, but does require more sifting. The bran left in the sifter can be added back into the flour afterwards. This ensures a lighter product, while retaining the nutrients.
– Graham flour: It is named after its developer, Sylvester Graham, who took whole wheat flour, ground the endosperm very finely, and then returned the bran layers to the flour. Graham flour is coarser, yet flakier, than whole wheat flour but still basically the same. Occasionally, commercial graham flour will have some of the germ removed to prolong shelf life.
Semolina Flour: It is milled from the endosperm of hard durum wheat, a variety of Mediterranean origin, but now grown in Canada and the US. It is not quite white, but more of a creamy-yellow in colour. Because of its high-protein content and hard starch granules, semolina is perfect for pastas, allowing them to hold their shape in boiling water while still being flexible enough to stretch during the cooking. In India, semolina is used for a pancake called ‘dosas’, and for vegetable pilafs called ‘uppmas’, which are usually served cold for breakfast. Semolina is used to make couscous, the traditional North African and Middle Eastern dish. Couscous comes in two basic forms, fine and medium. There is also an instant variety which takes less time to cook, but is nutritionally inferior. The Italians have developed techniques using semolina in making breads. Middle Eastern cooks use it for unusual desserts. The word “semolina” is Italian, derived from the Latin “simila” denoting fine flour.