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With the grain: wheat

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: wheat

When it comes to grains, wheat is one of the ‘big three’, alongside corn and rice: corn may be grown in larger quantities, rice may be the absolute staple for greater numbers of people, but wheat continues to be the most widely cultivated grain on the planet.

Wheat was one of the earliest crops known to mankind, cultivated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, alongside barley and lentils more than 10 thousand years ago. Once leavened bread had hit the table (and the Ancient Egyptians had begun creating commercial yeast), there was no turning back for wheat—its elastic, viscous gluten gave breads a lightness and texture that rye, barley and millet couldn’t begin to deliver.

Wheat became the esteemed grain of the wealthy and powerful. The Roman Empire was built upon it. Since Italy couldn’t grow enough wheat to feed the city of Rome, where men were given a daily dole of the grain, they marched forth to conquer, cultivate and reap their harvest across northern Africa and Europe.

Common wheat (triticum vulgare) and durum wheat (triticum durum) are the kings of the field (ancient relatives such as emmer, einkorn, kamut and spelt are increasingly popular, but grown in comparatively tiny quantities). Durum, being the harder, tougher wheat with higher gluten levels, is milled to make coarse semolina and finer durum flour, largely used in pasta and couscous production. Meanwhile, common wheat is virtually ubiquitous, especially in its milled form, as refined white flour not just in baked goods but sauces, seasonings and a large proportion of processed food.

Lighter, airier breads
A wheat kernel is made up of the nutritious, fat-rich embryo or germ, the fibrous bran coating and the endosperm loaded with protein and carbs. Wholegrain, or wholemeal, flour contains all three elements, while white flour is just the endosperm. Historically the germ and bran were sifted off so that the flour would keep for longer (as the germ becomes rancid after a few months), but soon we developed a taste for the lighter, airier breads made with white flour.

We all know that wholegrain flours are better for us, but who can resist a perfect croissant or a slice of victoria sponge? My feelings are that, as with everything, it’s all about a bit of balance; wholemeal toast and honey is a winner for breakfast, while I won’t forego my slice of baguette with a bowl of moules marinière at any cost.

But how about the whole kernel? What’s clear is, in Britain, we don’t just have a preference for white flour over wholemeal (be it high-protein strong flour with plenty of gluten or the lower-protein plain flour ideal for cakes), we barely touch the pre-milled grain at all. But our growing passion for eastern Mediterranean food, not to mention our ever-expanding waistlines, will hopefully put the grain in its entirety firmly on the menu.

Whole wheat kernels, often known as wheat berries, are simply fabulous boiled up and added to salads (we’ll explore grain berries further in next month’s piece, when we look at wheat’s lesser-known relatives). Increasingly popular are the Middle Eastern ways with whole and cracked wheat, freekeh and bulgur. Freekeh is a wheat that has been harvested when young and green, roasted to give a slightly smoky, flavour and then sometimes cracked for speedier cooking. It’s a relative newcomer to our kitchens but its wholegrain credentials and perfect texture for salads and side dishes make it an absolute winner.

Destined for a stuffing
Meanwhile, the better-known bulgur is a wholegrain that has been cleaned, parboiled (or steamed), dried (or toasted) and then finally cracked into pieces of varying sizes depending on whether it is destined for a stuffing, a salad such as tabbouleh, or a finer grade for the famous meat croquettes called kibbeh.

A word on coeliacs and gluten-intolerance:
Ironically, the precious gluten, which has given wheat the leading edge over other cereals for millennia because of its elasticity and viscosity, is now its most infamously negative attribute. Gluten can trigger coeliac disease in genetically sensitive people (about one per cent of the population) while others may suffer from gluten intolerance. Sadly, the only answer is to avoid wheat altogether.