What is Whole Wheat?

I recently began reading Chef Dan Barber’s provocative book The Third Plate and it is already blowing my mind. The book postulates that the Farm-to-Table movement of seeking marquee locally-grown delicacies to feature on restaurant tables has not go far enough in changing the way we eat. By placing an economic burden on local farmers to produce one or two celebrated crops (or meats or cheeses or breads), chefs have not fully embraced a farmer’s role. Only by incorporating entire ecosystems into their cuisine can chefs make a meaningful change to eating habits and, hopefully, to modern agricultural practices. Eating local is eating the whole farm.

Barber also talks about how native grasses, so called weeds, tell a farmer the condition of his soil, how pests only attack sick plants and therefore pesticides are largely unnecessary, and how corn is one of the worst uses of farmable land. And this is just in the first 3 chapters!

Most interesting to me (so far) was his discussion of wheat, specifically whole wheat flour. A wheat kernel contains three parts: the vitamin-rich germ or seed, the starchy endosperm which provides food for the seed, and a husky, fibrous outer shell called the bran. Early stone milling crushed this entire kernel into what we now refer to as “whole” wheat flour. By the early 1800s, European wheat had been adapted to grow in New England and local varieties flourished in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

There was one problem: because it contained oil from the kernel’s germ, whole wheat flour would go rancid quickly, usually within a week or two. Fluffy, white flour made from only the starchy endosperm did not have this problem and was often preferred for cooking due to lighter characteristics, but it was expensive to produce. That all changed with the invention of the roller mill. Suddenly, the carb-packed endosperm could be quickly separated from the germ. As Western expansion moved farms further away from the masses, the popularity of white flour exploded.

White flour has two major disadvantages: it does not contain the vitamins, fiber and healthy fats of whole wheat flour and it is mostly devoid of flavor. In fact, modern white flour is typically enriched, meaning some of the natural vitamins are artificially added back in. So you should run out and buy whole wheat flour and never look back, right? One complication is that modern whole wheat flour is still separated like normal white flour. The crushed germ and bran is added back afterward, but some of the healthy fats are lost. I’ll be checking out stone-ground whole wheat flour on my next trip to Whole Foods. I’m sure I’ll get sticker shock, but hopefully I’ll be able to taste the difference.

*All of this discussion does not consider the higher amount of gluten in whole wheat flour due to the increased amount of protein.

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