Modern wheat

Wheat - characteristics and uses

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Modern wheat is husk free and with (usually) no awns, typically short (under 1m) and stands well in highly fertile situations.

It is used extensively in the UK, with most of the requirements being home grown. Only 5.9% of the wheat used in the UK is imported, the majority of which is used in breadmaking and is from France, America or Canada. More wheat is exported from the UK than imported and almost all feed wheat is home grown.

An ear of wheat, picture by Sarah WrootWheat is divided into two main types:

Winter wheat.
Sown in late September to November (but can be sown until February), it comes to harvest in August (September in Scotland). Winter wheat is the highest yielding cereal in Britain and comprises the most acreage. Yields are typically 8T to 10T /Ha (ie under 1kg/m^2) with poor yielding crops down to under 6T/Ha. It is better for both energy and protein than all other cereals except maize, which has a higher energy but less protein
Spring wheat.
Sown February to April it comes to harvest in September. It is very low yielding but usually very high quality bread making wheat. It makes two flour types:
  1. Soft wheat: Where the starch grains break up during milling. Used for french bread, biscuits and 'flour'.
  2. Hard wheat: Where the starch grains do not break during milling. Used for bread and 'flour'.

(Note that many flours are carefully blended mixtures of both hard and soft wheats and other quality characteristics, such as hagberg and gluten quality, designed precisely for the intended purpose.)

and three gluten (see later) quality types:

  1. Class 1: Characterised by a tough extensible gluten and other characteristics suitable for breadmaking. Usually high risk crops with low yields and thus expensive. It is high risk due to the chance of poor weather or growing conditions making the hagberg or protein level (not to mention specific weight, colouration, screenings, admixture etc) unsuitable for bread milling and thus leading to some or all loads being rejected (at HUGE cost). They are often weak strawed, too.
  2. Class 2: Less good than class 1 but can be blended to a greater or lesser extent with class 1 for specific quality in flours. Medium yielding, high risk.
  3. Class 3: Low quality wheats. Used as animal feed and industrial wheats although some are also used for biscuits (soft) and other commercial flours. High yielding and low risk but fetches low prices.

Typically class 3 wheats are 5%+ better yielding than class 2 which are 5%+ better than class 1. Often the premium is no more than reflecting this price differential yet class 1&2 invariably get more expensive inputs for security. In a difficult year the premiums are very high, but then your quality is invariably as poor as everyone elses.

Q. Can a wheat start out as class one and end up as class two?
No. It can (and often does) start off as class one and end up as feed.
Q. Do you sow different varieties to achieve different classes?
Absolutely. The classes are by variety and set by the Baking Industry.

There are two main quality characteristics of wheat, both primarily applying to flour usage. Gluten and alpha amylase activity. The former is tested by a variety of measures and the latter measured by the Hagberg test. Hagberg falling number (HFN) is an indicator of the alpha-amylase activity in the flour. A high HFN means a low alpha-amylase activity, and means that the flour is less degraded by the enzyme. It is measured by heating the flour in water and measuring the rate of fall of a plunger. The usual commercial minimum for breadmaking is 250 for Hagberg falling number. For bread strong extensible gluten is required so that loaves rise a lot without big holes but for biscuit wheats a weak gluten is needed. Low apha amylase activity is required for both as alpha amylase turns starch to sugar preventing proper dough characterists.

Anyone can extract the gluten from a flour by gently kneading a handful of flour patiently in a clenched fist under a slowly running tap when the starch will be washed out leaving a pellet of chewing-gum like gluten behind. Millers of yore did this and assessed the suitability for bread by examining the quantity and colour and then throwing it at the ceiling. If the pellet stuck to the ceiling then the gluten quality was considered good.

There are few requirements for wheat used in animal feedstuffs. It must be clean and bright with no bad smell, injurious weedseeds and ergots must be at a low level and it must not be discoloured. The density of the bulk grains (specific or bushel weight) must be at least 720kg/m^3.