If you’ve never bought whole wheat before, you may be a little confused by all the choices. The following generalizations are useful, but not always 100% accurate, since wheat quality is also dependent on soil and climate conditions, and those are always changing.
In a nutshell:
• Hard wheat will make more gluten than soft wheat
• Spring wheat will make more gluten than winter wheat of the same variety
• Winter wheat is generally higher in minerals
• Red wheat will make more gluten than white wheat with some notable exceptions.
This chart breaks down the key characteristics of wheat:
What is gluten and why do we care?
First a little wheat anatomy: The wheat kernel is comprised of three parts: the outer husk or shell that, when ground into flour, we call the bran. It is high in cellulose fiber which is good for improving digestion and may help prevent certain types of cancer. Commercial white flour in the store has removed the bran. You can also remove some of the bran from your home-ground flour by sifting it through a very fine sieve.
In the very center of the kernel is the germ. This is the vitamin-laden portion of the kernel. But the vitamins are imbedded in oils (which is how they are transmitted to our cells) which goes rancid the longer it is exposed to heat and air. So commercial flours also remove the germ to extend the shelf life of white flour.
The bulk of the kernel is comprised of the endosperm. This is where all the carbohydrates and proteins are and is what makes wheat so tasty. The main protein in wheat is gluten. When you physically batter gluten about (like when you knead bread) it forms long, stretchy chains. (You know how when you whip egg whites, they form a meringue? The beating changes the egg white proteins the same way that kneading changes the gluten protein in flour. Who knew that cooking was so sciency?)
And it’s those long stretchy protein chains that we need to make a soft, lightly chewy bread. The gas bubbles that yeast produces inflates those protein chains and creates zillions of little holes and pockets and those give bread it’s light, soft and chewy texture. Without those stretchy chains you have something flat and crumbly.
So that takes us to our question of why do we care how much protein (gluten) is in the grain? Because the higher the protein content, the stretchier your dough and thus the lighter your bread. But if you’re making pies and cookies, you probably don’t want stretchy dough. For most baked goods (other than bread) you want a soft and crumbly texture. That’s why for baked goods, less protein is better.
So that’s why we care about protein (gluten): because it’s the key indicator of how to best use your flour. Remember: High protein hard wheat for bread making and lower-protein soft wheat for baked goods.
What about color?
Some people are put off by the strong taste and darker color of whole wheat. You can get a slightly lighter color and milder taste with white wheat. But I have found that the protein content is more noticeable than the difference in flavor. So while you may get a milder, lighter colored bread with white flour, it will also be noticeably heavier, denser-textured bread.
If your family objects to the taste of whole wheat, there are ways to improve the flavor and get accustomed to it’s texture. Use the methods I’ve written about here and you will be making light, soft and tasty bread that your family will love.
White vs. Whole Wheat
With all of this confusing information about wheat and wheat varieties, wouldn’t it just be easier to store flour?
The problem with flour is that once you break the wheat kernels apart, they begin to lose flavor and nutrition. After about a year, white flour starts to taste old. If you want flour for long-term food storage, you need to store wheat.
And, quite frankly, white flour fails in the nutrition department. Here is a chart showing all the ways that whole wheat flour just beats the socks off white flour.
Here are the most common types of wheat that you can buy:
Hard Red Winter Wheat—Moderate protein content, accounts for more production than any other class, mostly grown west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies, used for bread, rolls, all-purpose flour.
Hard Red Spring Wheat—The highest-protein bread wheat, grown from Minnesota to Montana, made into bread flour.
Soft Red Winter Wheat—Low-protein wheat grown mostly east of the Mississippi, used for cakes, pastries, flatbreads and crackers.
Hard White Wheat—Similar to Hard Red Winter Wheat, but with pigment production bred out, used to make milder tasting whole wheat products such as bread, rolls, bulgur and tortillas.
Durum Wheat—Very hard high-protein wheat grown from Minnesota to Montana(especially in North Dakota), used to make semolina flour for pasta.
So…what’s the answer?
What kind of wheat should you buy? The simplest choice is to just buy hard wheat and use it for all your baking. That means you will always have the best flour for bread. Yes, your baked goods may not be as crumbly as they might be with soft wheat. But the bran will play a bigger role in that texture than the protein content. If you’ve tried both and find that your cooking fares better with a soft wheat, go ahead and buy both. But remember that the bulk of your baking will likely be bread, so 60-75% of your stored wheat should be hard wheat and the remaining soft.