The most amazing thing about this week’s topic isn’t the topic itself (though that’s pretty amazing); the amazing thing is that I haven’t written about it before.
“It” is wheat, and how I’ve managed to go more than three years without mentioning it I can’t imagine, in view of the fact it’s as inescapable a part of living on the prairies as the wind, and especially in view of the unforgettable (however hard I try) summer I spent at the Weyburn Inland Terminal loading, shoveling and sweeping up the stuff.
Despite its ubiquitousness these days, wheat hasn’t always grown here. Although it was first cultivated in the Euphrates Valley nearly 9,000 years ago, it didn’t exist in the Western Hemisphere until the Spanish brought it over in 1519.
It’s not surprising it caught on a crop: not only can it be grown as far south as the tropics and as far north as the Arctic Circle, it (like other grains) is one of the cheapest sources of food energy for humans. One hundred grams of wheat, the wheat in just three or four slices of bread, contains 333 Calories: enough food energy that you’d have to run as fast as you could for more than 20 minutes to use it all up. That’s why wheat and other cereals provide nearly all the food energy and protein for most of the world’s people.
Besides calories and protein, wheat also contributes minerals and the vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. However, it doesn’t contain appreciable amounts of vitamins A, D or C, so by itself wheat doesn’t provide a complete or well-balance supply of nutrients. The additional ingredients in most breads add various amino acids, vitamins and minerals; “enriched” flour contains extra amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron.
You can’t blame the wheat plant for not producing the perfect food for humans; it doesn’t give a hoot (or should that be a shoot?) about us. As far as it’s concerned, it’s producing food for its offspring. When we eat wheat, we’re stealing the food the wheat plant labored to set aside for its children. (Worse yet, sometimes we even eat the children!)
Each grain of wheat consists of the embryo of a new plant, together with stored food and a protective coat. The embryo is called the germ, the stored food is called the endosperm and the outer coat is called the bran. Flour milling separates them.
A given quantity of wheat consists of 15 percent bran, 83 percent endosperm and 1.5 percent germ. Most of the food energy is contained in the endosperm. White flour consists solely of ground endosperm (try going to the grocery store and asking for “all-purpose ground endosperm”); whole wheat flour contains all parts of the original seed. (It has a tendency to go rancid more quickly because of the germ’s high oil content.)
Wheat flour is unique because the proteins in wheat, unlike the proteins of any other cereal grain, combine to form gluten, the gooey substance that makes wheat-flour dough elastic enough to retain gas during leavening and form the little bubbles characteristic of bread. Cultures that have never learned to grow wheat have also never known bread.
Gluten is sometimes industrially separated from wheat, dried, and sold on its own for use in the bread-baking industry and as a meat extender, meat substitute, pet food and flavor for soups and sauces. (Monosodium glutamate comes from wheat gluten.)
Gluten development depends on the kind of wheat, soil and growing conditions, which is why wheat differs in quality from season to season and place to place.
Wheat is classified as hard or soft, spring or winter, white, red or durum. Flour made from hard wheat makes elastic doughs particularly good for bread. Flour made from soft wheat makes more crumbly doughs used for cakes, cookies and pie-crusts. (“All-purpose” flour usually contains a mixture of both .) Durum flour is particularly good for pastas.
The protein content of wheat can range from eight percent to 22 percent. Hard wheats contain more protein than soft wheats. The main goals of wheat breeding programs are to enhance protein content while maintaining high yields. It hasn’t been easy. Until recently, high-protein wheats didn’t yield well and wheats with the highest yields had low protein. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.
“Spring” or “winter” refers to when the wheat was planted: spring wheat is planted in the spring and winter wheat is planted in the fall.
More than 410 million tonnes of wheat are grown worldwide every year on 237 million hectares of land. Canada is the fifth-largest producer of wheat in the world, behind the United States, Russia, China and India, and also grows about one-fifth of the wheat that is sold on the world market. Although worldwide 90 percent of the wheat grown is consumed in the country that grows it, 75 percent Canadian wheat is exported. And Saskatchewan, of course, produces more wheat than any other Canadian province.
Now if only we could get a decent price for the stuff…