Wheat is a cereal grain believed to have originated from a random cross-pollination of three different species of grass around 10,000 BC. It is thought to have come originally from the Near East and, due to its ease of cultivation, was a major factor in mankind’s transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to communal dweller. Archaeologists have found wheat in storage pits of 8,000-year-old settlements where ancient man lived. Today, more flour is produced from wheat than from any other grain.
Wheat flour is produced by grinding wheat berries. There are two distinct varieties of wheat—soft and hard. “Soft” refers to wheat with a low gluten content, while “hard” refers to wheat with a high gluten content. The gluten in flours made with hard wheat give bread dough more elasticity, which results in bread that holds shape when baked. Soft flour, with its lower gluten content, yields bread with a fine and easily crumbled texture. These flours are commonly used for cakes and pastries, or mixed with hard flour to produce softer bread.
Wheat Flour Classifications
There are three ways to classify whole wheat: color (red and white), growing season (spring and winter) and hardness (hard and soft). Durum, the hardest of all wheat varieties, is considered a specialty variety. Along with its derivative Semolina, Durum is best known for its use in making pasta.
Red Wheat Flour vs. White Wheat Flour
Red wheat varieties are slightly higher in protein than white wheats, which make them not only valuable for daily use but also for storage in the event of an emergency. Baked goods made from red wheat flour have a hearty, almost “nutty” flavor quite distinct from those baked with standard white flour. The white wheat varieties have a more golden colored kernel. Breads made with white wheat flour will have a lighter color, more starch, and a milder flavor than breads made from red wheat.
Spring Wheat Flour vs. Winter Wheat Flour
Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, while winter wheat is planted in the fall, sprouts just before the winter freeze, becomes dormant until spring and is harvested in early summer. Winter wheat flours are generally higher in gluten than other wheat flours and are most often used in baking yeast bread, or for blending with spring wheat flour to make an all-purpose flour blend.
Hard Wheat Flour vs. Soft Wheat Flour
Hard wheat flour is milled from Hard White Spring wheat, Hard Red Spring Wheat (not grown in the US) or Hard Red Winter wheat (or any combination of the three). Hard wheat generally has a higher gluten (and protein) content. Soft wheat flour, on the other hand, is lower in gluten and high in starch. Typically, bread flour is made entirely from hard wheat, cake flour is made entirely from soft wheat, and most other baked goods use a combination of flours.
Since primitive man, wheat has been a staple food for humans. Marks on 13,000-year-old flint-bladed sickles found in Mesopotamia indicate man was cutting wild grasses with them. There is even archaeological evidence to show man was making flour as far back as 30,000 years ago—although not wheat flour. The cultivation of grasses, particularly wheat, was a major factor in mankind’s transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to communal dweller.
The proteins, vitamins, enzymes and fiber in whole wheat flour make it far more nutritious than white flour. However, it cannot compare with the whole wheat flour you get by milling your own hard red or soft white wheat berries. Large scale commercial flour producers, whose process involves separating the bran and the germ from the endosperm, simply blend back in some of the bran and germ and call this “whole wheat flour.” The oils in the germ are removed, however, and most of the vitamins and nutrients in the wheat are destroyed by heat generated in the milling process. On the other hand, freshly milled whole wheat flour not only retains all the nutrients in the wheat kernel, it also yields better tasting breads and baked goods. (source: USDA National Nutrient Database)