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It’s common knowledge that whole wheat flour is better for you than white all-purpose flour… but why is that? And what exactly is whole wheat flour, anyway? What’s the difference between whole and white flour?
We’ll talk about all these things and more every day this week – you won’t want to miss a single day, so be sure and subscribe if you haven’t already (Should I mention there’s a bonus free gift for subscribers?).
Wheat is a grain (or cereal) that has been around since the dawn of time, and has been a staple food for civilizations since the ancient Egyptians. It is the third most widely produced grain in the world, after corn and rice.
You’ve probably heard of grains and flours similar to wheat, like durum, spelt, kamut, and emmer. Those are all variants of wheat, but for the purposes of this series, I’m going to focus exclusively on the common wheat flour you’ll find in any grocery store and in any kitchen.
The fact of the matter is, wheat is confusing enough! When I asked on Facebook for your questions about whole wheat flour , one repeated theme was the issue of all the different varieties, what they are, and what purpose they serve. And the most important: are they equally healthy?
I’ll do my best to answer your questions, and for whatever burning questions you have that may remain, I’ve included some very informative links at the bottom of this post.
Let’s untangle the wheat confusion, shall we?
There are two main kinds of wheat: hard and soft. Simple, right?
Not so fast. Wheat can also be “winter” or “spring” wheat, depending on when it was planted and harvested. And on top of all that, wheat can either be “red” or “white”.
Yes, I know. Confusing. Let’s break it down.
Hard wheat has a higher protein content than soft wheat, and that protein is mostly gluten. Gluten is what creates the highly prized elastic quality of bread dough, and is therefore a desirable element in bread flour. Hard wheat can be either spring or winter wheat (more on that in a minute). Soft wheat is lower in protein and higher in carbs, making it ideal for cakes and other sweets, but not so much for bread. Soft wheat is almost always winter wheat.
Depending on the area where it’s being cultivated, wheat can be sown either in the fall or spring. When wheat is sown in the fall, it becomes dormant over the cold winter months, then resumes growing in the spring. Such wheat is called “winter” wheat, and typically has a lower protein content in comparison to the same wheat grown in the summer. Spring wheat is sown in the spring and harvested in late summer or early fall, and has a comparatively higher protein content.
This refers to the color of the bran, the outer layer of a wheat berry, and is the biggest difference between the two. Bread made from red wheat will be considerably darker in color than bread made from white wheat. Red wheat also has a slightly bitter taste from the tannin that creates the red color, whereas white wheat has a lighter (and many say more pleasant) flavor. Both hard and soft white wheat have about the same amount of protein as soft red winter wheat, but not as much as hard red wheat varieties. Otherwise, it has a very similar nutritional profile to all other wheat varieties. (See a comparison of all kinds of wheat here .)
Essentially, the different types of wheat all come down to the protein content, with soft white wheat having the least amount of protein, and hard red spring wheat having the most.
But that’s just the berry. We haven’t even talked about the milling process yet! Different flours are produced by using different wheat varieties, but also by grinding them differently.
As grocery stores are offering more and more options these days, you’re bound to see bags of flour on the shelf that go beyond the usual “Whole Wheat Flour” and “All-Purpose Flour”. What are all those flours anyway? What kind of wheat are they made of? How are they ground? Are they whole grain? What is their protein content? What foods do you make with them?
Here’s a quick lexicon to help you sort through all those labels and determine which flour you need.
Those are the flours more readily available at any grocery store around the country. At specialty stores or larger stores, you might be able to find the following types of flours:
Whew! That was a lot of information about one little grain, wasn’t it? Did you have any idea wheat was so complex?
Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about the nutritional value of whole wheat flour. If you’ve not subscribed yet, be sure to do so (remember the free gift !) because you won’t want to miss any of the posts in this series!
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