Wheat gets a bad rap these days, doesn’t it? Despite (some say due to) 10,000 years of cultivation, the venerable grain has found itself on one of those lists of things to be eschewed. From those who have full-blown celiac disease, which is an autoimmune form of wheat gluten intolerance, to eaters with wheat allergies and gluten sensitivity, wheat is currently shunned, perhaps through no fault of its own, by millions.
Gluten is wheat’s natural protein and is the substance that enables your holiday baked goods to hold their shape. You’d think that for as many years as I’ve been baking I would understand the science of it all.
The gist of it seems to be that when you’re mixing up a batch of sugar cookies or a loaf of pumpkin bread, the glutens are stretched. They form small air pockets, which are inflated by the gasses in the leavening agent—typically baking powder or baking soda. The shortening, butter, or other fat used surrounds the gluten, containing the stretch; baking solidifies the shape and texture.
There are a variety of wild and domestic grains in the genus Triticum, which are typically considered to be wheat, including durum, spelt, kamut, and faro. Winter wheat, the kind grown in Kansas, is planted in the fall, goes dormant in the winter, and is harvested in the spring. Northern states use spring wheat—it’s planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Those wheat types are divided into six classes such as hard red winter, soft winter, or hard spring. The hard/soft designation refers to the kernel. A soft winter wheat is, for instance, lower in protein and is appropriate for making cakes and pastries. A hard white would work well for yeast breads. Most packaged all-purpose wheat flour available in the grocery store is a blend that works pretty well for home baking needs. Professional bakers would be more discerning and select for, say, yeast bread, a hard spring or hard winter wheat with a 12 to 14 percent gluten content.
Gluten-free grains include amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, oats, and teff. Flour can be made from all of those and, with some tweaking of traditional wheat-based recipes (you’ll want things like xanthan gum, potato starch, and arrowroot, and the cookbook Babycakes Covers the Classics by Erin McKenna), delicious baked goods can result. One of my winter projects is going to be a gluten-free homemade pasta.
I’ll let you know how it turns out.