Wheat has a vocabulary. In conversations about wheat, there are a few different characteristics that are consistently referenced — each of these has an impact on the final quality of the flour, dough, and end product. Three main variables go into a wheat breed: whether the wheat is hard or soft; whether the wheat is a red or a white variety, and whether it was grown in the spring or in the winter. Knowing about these differences can help you discuss, experiment, and learn even more about what’s in your bag of flour.
In the same way that chalk is easier to grind to powder than harder types of rock, a soft wheat seed is more pliable and easier to grind into flour. Hardness is also a measure of wheat’s protein content: the protein in the wheat berry holds the starch together, and so the more protein, the harder the wheat. The protein in wheat flour makes dough strong and elastic, with the ability to both stretch and hold its shape. For bread baking, hard wheat is the way to go, making a dough that can trap air bubbles and rise. For pastries or baked goods where you want a more delicate texture, a soft wheat will suit your purposes better.
Durum flour is the hardest type of flour of all, but it has a slightly different protein makeup than bread flour, making dough that is strong but not elastic. Durum flours are perfect for making dry pasta, which needs to hold its shape but not to rise. Durum wheat is almost always amber in color.
Wheat comes in both red and white varieties, which are nutritionally almost identical. The only difference is the
color of the outer coating of the wheat seed: red wheat has a deep brown-red color, whereas white wheat seeds are more pale golden. White wheat (not to be confused with white flour, which is usually made from refined red wheat) has a sweeter, milder flavor because it lacks the tannins that give red wheat its color and slightly bitter flavor. Some people prefer the milder flavor in white-wheat baked goods, and others like the more intense, earthy quality of red wheat – you can experiment with different varieties to see what works best for you.
The last consideration is the season in which the wheat is grown. Some wheat varieties need a period of dormancy in cold weather in order to blossom and mature once the weather turns warmer. These varieties, known as winter wheats, are planted in the fall, “rest” during the winter, and are harvested during the summer. Spring wheats, by contrast, grow continuously after being planted; these are usually planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. However, California’s mild climate makes it possible to grow spring wheat during the winter. So while it’s called “winter wheat” because it’s grown in the winter months, some of the varieties grown are technically spring wheats! Clear as mud?
Now that you know what the different terms mean, the different types of flour become clearer. Hard Red Winter Wheat flour, for example? Hard tells you it’s high-protein and especially good for bread baking; Red tells you it has a more intense, nutty flavor; Winter means it was planted in the late fall; and wheat — we’ll leave that one to you!