When most people hear wheat, I suspect they think of the nice golden waves of fields about to be harvested and maybe they will think about flour. But that’s probably the extent of it. If we happen to be cooks or bakers, we generally buy an all-purpose flour and use it for everything. However, wheat is an old and complex “group.” Ancestors of wheat go back to before 7000 B.C. Wheat was planted in the U.S. as early as 1602.
Wheat was planted in Kansas probably starting with the first farming settlers in the mid-1800s. Legend has it that when Mennonite settlers left Russia in the 1870s, they brought with them as much Turkey Red wheat as they could carry. When they arrived in Kansas in 1874, the Turkey Red wheat was planted and flourished, as it was well-adapted to our Kansas climate.
Officially, there are eight classes of wheat recognized in the wheat trade. Two of those are mixed and unclassed wheat, which serve as catch-all categories. Of greater interest to us are the six specifically named classes of wheat: Durum wheat, Hard Red Spring wheat, Hard Red Winter wheat, Soft Red Winter wheat, Hard White wheat and Soft White wheat. The color designation of white and red are quite descriptive, especially if you have samples of the wheat in front of you. The red designation is more of an amber color, but certainly redder than the white wheats. If the white wheats have caught a few rain showers after grain fill, then the white color can be less obvious. Hard and soft designations are somewhat subjective. If you bite on a mature kernel of soft and hard wheat, they will both seem hard between your teeth. However, in the milling industry, they mill quite differently.
The wheats have different baking characteristics, and each type is highly desirable for certain food production. Hard Red Spring is the standard for making bread. Hard Red Winter wheat is nearly equal for making bread, at least the better quality winter wheats. Most of the wheat we grow in Kansas is Hard Red Winter. Winter wheat is planted in the fall, growing until colder weather makes it go dormant. It over winters as a small plant and then finishes growing the following spring, with harvest usually occurring in late June and early July. Spring wheats are planted in early spring and harvested later in summer. These are more often grown in areas of the northern U.S., where winter wheats are less likely to survive the winter. Spring wheats do not grow well in Kansas because of our hot and often dry summers.
Soft Red Winter wheats are generally lower in protein, which is an important part of the baking characteristics. Soft red winter wheats most often are used in cake, biscuit and cracker production. Kansas grows a fair amount of soft red winter wheat in southeast Kansas. The White wheats are heavily used in pastry flours as well as shredded and puffed breakfast foods. White wheat is prized for producing Asian noodles as well. Kansas has started growing more Hard White Winter wheat in recent years, mainly in western Kansas.
The final class, Durum wheat, is of great interest. The flour often is called semolina. It is the preferred flour to be used for making high-end pasta as well as couscous. In the U.S., durum production is pretty much a speciality of the northern plains, particularly North Dakota.
Speciality flours are becoming a growing market and are found in most grocery stores. I need to also point out that there is no GMO wheat in commercial production in the U.S. or Canada, or for that matter, anywhere in the world. While it has been created in laboratories, and grown in experimental fields, it is not in the food chain. Paying extra for wheat flour labeled as non-GMO is a waste of money.
Stacy Campbell is a Kansas State Research and Extension agent in Hays for the Cottonwood Extension District Office.