Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hard Wheat and Soft Wheat and Barley, Oh My!

For anyone delving into the world of bread making, just getting the water temperature right can be intimidating enough. For those of you who want to go a step further and grind your own flour, the methods and options out there can seem as endless as the Yellow Brick Road.

Hopefully this post will clarify a few of the basics for the bakers and bakers-to-be out there. I did a lot of research on wheat before investing in a grain mill, and would like to share the little I know about whole wheat bread baking.

The basic grains most people grind at home are hard red wheat, hard white wheat, and soft white wheat. The hard wheats have the most gluten content and are used in yeast breads and can be used in quick breads (breads that use baking powder or baking soda as a leavener). Hard red wheat has a stronger, nutty sort of flavor and darker color when baked; hard white (on the left in the photo above) is milder and produces a lighter colored bread. I started buying hard white a while back because I tend to serve bread when we have people over, and many people are understandably adverse to whole wheat bread in general. I can assure you that I've never had any complaints; remember that freshly milled whole wheat will not have that cardboardy flavor commercial bread often has. Hard red wheat has a wonderful, complex flavor as well, and it tends to have a slightly higher gluten content than hard white.

Soft white wheat (on the right in the photo) should not be used in large quantities in yeast breads because it does not have enough gluten to give you a high loaf of bread. Backing up, gluten is what is developed when you knead dough and ultimately what gives the dough strength enough to rise. However, soft wheat is wonderful for cookies, cakes, pastries, pie crusts, and is sometimes called for in whole or in part in quick bread recipes (such as muffins and dessert breads). Admittedly, I don't always have soft white wheat on hand, so I've used hard white wheat in all the baked items I just listed and have never had a problem.

Besides wheat, innumerable other grains exist and can be used to give breads interesting texture and flavor. Barley (top in the photo) and millet (bottom) are both used in Ezekiel bread. Spelt is a popular option for people who are sensitive to wheat; though it doesn't have the same gluten content, it can still make a great loaf of bread. Bread Beckers has a list of free recipes on their website, and the Slightly Sweet but Simple Bread is indeed a simple recipe that's very user-friendly for beginners.

As I mentioned before, wheat berries aren't exactly something you can find at Walmart. Whole Foods carries hard red wheat in the bins, and it might not hurt to ask if they can order in bulk. A local health food store may also be able to order for you, and Bread Beckers has co-ops that may deliver locally. Mennonite stores, such as a Yoder's, also tend to carry wheat berries and other bulk grains, and in a pinch, many grains can be ordered online.


  1. This post is evidence to why I call you "the Bread Dr." By the way, my bread this afternoon turned out awesome. Thanks once again for saving the day, Bread Dr. :-)

  2. loved it, Laura! I personally like to use 1/2 hard red and 1/2 hard white when I make my bread. It's so good! But I just got one bag of hard red (trying to stay on grocery budget!)and have been using that. Also, just a tidbit: seems like you have to use more soft white in recipes than what it calls for. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Glad it turned out, Dawn! Janelle, thanks for the input...good point! I try packing the flour snugly into the measuring cup. Sometimes that can do the trick, and sometimes I have to add more, like you said.