Wheat, where and why

For this year's noodle-focused Food Issue, we take a look at what wheat makes what.

click to enlarge For both pasta and noodles, wheat makes all the difference. - Pexels
For both pasta and noodles, wheat makes all the difference.

My grandmother swore by Swans Down flour for baking cakes, but for macaroni, she’d use another flour altogether. And when the Swans Down stopped working for cakes, I suspected my sweet grandmother had cursed me from the grave. It was only a chance meeting with celebrated Southern chef and cookbook author Nathalie Dupree that gave me some real, non-supernatural, insight. It seems that Swans Down had changed its wheat source, and the flour was no longer soft enough for the cake my grandmother’s mother used it for.

This made my head spin. I had no idea how much wheat type mattered in the realm of baking. Turns out, though, it also matters when it comes to noodles. It’s a matter of winter wheat and summer wheat, and for bakers — a wholly different breed than chefs — the type of wheat, the region in which it’s grown and the time of year it grows make all the difference.

Think of wheat as oenophiles think of grapes — in terms of varietals. Just as wine drinkers talk about chardonnay grapes, merlot grapes and muscadine grapes (just kidding... no true oenophile talks about the muscadine), bakers speak of four wheat varietals: hard, hard winter, hard spring and soft.

The difference in the wheat, however, has to do with gluten and protein — not taste. 

Need something to rise? Yeasty baked goods require hard wheat, which is high in protein and gluten. Gluten, by the way, is what traps carbon dioxide in baked goods, so the higher the gluten, the higher the rise. Want fluffy bread? Find hard wheat.

If you have a recipe that calls for a specialty cake flour, odds are you’re looking for a soft wheat flour. Making an Asian-inspired pastry? This is your wheat.

Now, as for noodz, which wheat? Hard wheat is what you want for any Asian-style noodles, as in hard red winter or simply hard winter. The hardest of hard wheats — durum or durum semolina — goes into crafting pasta like lasagne or fettucine.

Therein lies the difference between pasta and noodles (had anyone dared to call my grandmother’s macaroni “noodles,” she would’ve whacked them with her big ol’ wooden spoon): the wheat.

While both pasta and noodles get their base from a hard wheat, pasta’s main ingredient, durum wheat, makes it distinctive. Noodles come from any hard wheat, but connoisseurs will only consider it pasta if it comes from durum.

As for geography, location matters because, clearly, winter wheat won’t grow everywhere. Miami isn’t exactly a hotbed of winter wheat, meaning most of it grows north of central Texas. South of that, it’s too hot for a proper winter wheat; a good crop of winter wheat needs a freeze, or something pretty close to it.

So, yeah, like I said, think of wheat as you’d think of wine. Where it grows, when it grows and what variety of it grows in those places at those times factor into what sort of noodz — or pasta — you get at the end of the process.


About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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