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What Is Wheat?
Wheat is an ancient cereal grain grown for its seeds, which are milled into flour for a wide variety of uses. 95% of wheat crops grown throughout the world are of the common wheat species (Triticum aestivum), a domesticated cultivar also known as bread wheat.
Most people’s familiarity with wheat concerns the different kinds of flour it yields, rather than the different types of wheat varieties that the flour is made from. All-purpose flour is made from the endosperms—the starchy inner portion of the wheat kernel—of hard and soft red wheat, while whole wheat flour contains the nutrition-packed outer portions of the kernel, the bran, and the wheat germ. Bread flour, known for its tight, protein-packed structure, is typically made from hard red spring wheat, while soft pastry flour or cake flour is milled from a lower protein, milder soft white or hard white wheat.
A Brief History of Wheat
The use and cultivation of wheat date back to humanity’s earliest nomadic beginnings in prehistoric times. While the common wheat grown today was cultivated by the repeated selection and harvesting of specific strains from a family of wild grasses (Triticum) over centuries, evidence of domesticated emmer wheat can be found as far back as 9,600 BCE, and durum wheats have been found in burial sites from 100 BCE.
By selecting for higher grain yield potential, flavor, disease resistance, and quality, humans drove wheat breeding and hybridization in the area now known as the Middle East. Wheat cultivation quickly spread to North Africa and Europe, and wheat arrived in North America in the sixteenth century. (Milling grains specifically for flour was rare until the twelfth century; early humans would mash the grains into cakes.) Wheat’s adaptability to most climates and terrains made it a natural centerpiece of early diets.
A resurgence of interest in ancient wheat grains has given birth to a wave of new flavors and nuance for modern bread-making blends, and a broader offering of wheat products in general. Domesticated strains of wheat’s oldest known ancestors, einkorn, Khorasan (kamut), and emmer are still grown and eaten in some parts of the world. For example, durum wheat is grown from crosses of domesticated emmer wheat. Spelt, also known as dinkel or hulled wheat, is a nutty and complex ancient grain that’s been around since 5,000 BCE has become a regular sight at grocery stores—for use in everything from pancakes to quick breads.
What Is the Difference Between Hard Wheat and Soft Wheat?
In the United States, there are six classes of wheat, which can be further broken down by planting season, the color of the kernel, and “hardness,” or kernel texture. Soft wheat will be easier to mill than hard wheat, which informs their application: Hard wheat, for example, has a high protein content range of 10 to 13 percent and produces bagels and chewy bread with crackling crusts; softer strains of wheat flours are somewhere around six to seven percent, best for things like cakes, muffins, and cookies, where stretchiness is less of a priority.
6 Types of Wheat
Once milled into flour, the distinctly-hued kernels of red wheat are virtually impossible to distinguish from white wheat, except when it comes to protein content and flavor. Red wheat typically contains more protein (and thus a stronger presence of gluten) and is often described as having a nuttier, slightly bitter flavor, where white varieties are milder.
- Hard red winter wheat. Hard red winter wheat grows in the fall, and is ready for harvest the following spring. Full-flavored hard red winter wheat is the primary grain used for whole grain and whole wheat blends as well as all-purpose flours, making it a great fit for rustic breads like sourdough.
- Soft red winter wheat. Soft red winter wheat maintains all the flavorful characteristics of the hard variety, but is far easier to mill and results in a finer “soft” texture that’s best for products like cookies, crackers, and cakes.
- Hard red spring wheat. With its high gluten content, hard red spring wheat is ideal for breads and tensile pastries like croissants and doughs that rely on a texture with some elasticity, like pizza dough. Hard red spring varieties are typically grown in the spring throughout the northern reaches of the U.S. and Canada and ready to harvest in the fall.
- Hard white wheat. Lighter in kernel color and with a sweeter, more subtle flavor than hard red wheat cultivars, hard white wheat is typically milled whole, preserving its moderate protein and nutrient content. This type of wheat is used to make tortillas, pan breads, and some noodles.
- Soft white wheat. Soft white wheat is the go-to grain for all of the crumbly, meltaway pastries, yeast breads, and snack foods. Most cake and pastry flours are composed of soft white wheat—which is not colloquially denoted by season like the others, though there are different cultivars of soft white winter wheat and soft white spring wheat.
- Durum wheat. Also known as “pasta wheat,” durum wheat is the hardest of all the wheat strains, with a protein structure exemplified by the snap of fresh pasta and soft, pillowy nature of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean flatbreads. Semolina, which is often used to make couscous and some pastas, is composed of the leftover byproduct of the durum milling process known as “middlings”—coarse particles of the cracked inner endosperm. (Though, some varieties of semolina in the United States are made from common wheat and even corn flour, not durum.) Bulgur, made from the cracked and parboiled wheat berries of durum wheat, is a staple cereal grain in Levantine dishes like tabbouleh and kibbeh.
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