F is for Flour

Are you wondering about the "F is for Fish" post?  Quit looking.  You won't find it here.  The government's nutritional guidelines may have guilted me into thinking I need to eat more fish, but the truth is I live in the middle of Kansas.  The Wheat State.  The Breadbasket of the World.  Out here, folks, F is for Flour.

About 22,000 Kansas farmers, including my father-in-law and almost every farmer I know in the western two-thirds of this state, grow 20% of the entire US wheat crop.  In a single year, we grow enough wheat to fill a train stretching from western Kansas to the Atlantic Ocean.

Kansas is the number one wheat producer, number one wheat exporter and the number one flour miller in the United States.  And you thought we were just famous for tornadoes and sunflowers!

And while you should have know that flour comes from wheat, there are probably a few things about the wheat fields in Kansas you didn't know.  Let's get down to the details...

There are six classes of wheat grown in the US.  Three of those classes are grown in Kansas: Hard Red Winter, Soft Red Winter, and Hard White Winter.  95% of Kansas wheat is Hard Red Winter, the class of wheat best for bread because of its high protein and strong gluten content.  But we'll talk more about that later.

The other three classes of wheat are White Wheat, Durum, and Hard Red Spring.  Each class of wheat has different properties that ultimately result in a different end product.  Nutrionally, the differences are insignificant, however, the varying protein levels among the varieties makes a significant difference in terms of baking properties.  Durum wheat is the highest protein content, i.e, strongest, wheat and is therefore used to make pasta.  Hard wheats are the next strongest and are ideal for yeast breads and all-purpose flour.  Soft wheats are used in flat breads (tortillas), cakes, pastries and cereals.

What's the difference in spring and winter wheats?  This simply refers to the time of year the wheat is planted.  Winter wheats are planted in the fall.  They emerge, go dormant over the winter, and emerge again in spring for an early summer harvest.  Spring wheat is - you guessed it - planted in the spring.

If you're a Kansas mommy, take a drive down the highway with your kids today.  See that green, grass-like looking stuff emerging from brown fields?  That's wheat!  Pick a spot you frequently drive by, and help your kids to notice the changes to the wheat fields between now and mid June. 

That green, grass-like looking stuff continues to grow.  Sometimes, cattle may even graze the wheat fields for a short period of time in the spring.  The wheat eventually develops a head, turns beautiful shades of gold and amber (O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain) and is harvested by every man, woman and child in the western two-thirds of Kansas.  At least that's how it seems out here during wheat harvest.  Everyone has a part to play.  (Remember the lesson of the Little Red Hen?) 

From the combine, to a truck and into town to the local elevator, grain is stored until it's transported to a flour mill.  Wheat is sold by the farmer in bushels: 60 pounds per bushel.  And, in today's market, a farmer is paid $8.10 per bushel.  (A price that doubles the most recent ten-year average.)  One bushel of wheat yields 42 pounds of white flour or 60 pounds of whole wheat flour.  One bushel of wheat also yields 42 loaves of commercial white bread (1.5 pound loaves).  Roughly speaking, a $2.00 loaf of bread contains 19 cents of wheat.  Or, the five pound bag of all purpose, unbleached flour I bought last week at Dillons for $1.66 contains 96 cents of wheat.  Ready to be a wheat farmer now, aren't ya?

Let's keep trucking.  When you're a bushel of wheat in Kansas, you don't have far to go to get to a flour mill.  There are ten mills across our humble state - remember, number one in milling! 

Here's another chance to get the kiddos involved.  I just happened to have a bag full of wheat in my kitchen.  (Looks super cute in mason jars and topped with candles or American flags in the summertime.) And I just happen to have three kids who love to touch things.  A quilt, a bowl full of wheat and some measuring cups made for great afternoon play!

But then two more pairs of hands woke up from their naps and joined the fun.

And six little hands playing in the wheat made a mess.   

Now, back to milling that wheat into flour.  The milling process is really quite simple.  Grind, sift, grind, sift, grind and sift some more.  Want whole wheat flour?  A lot of grinding, not much sifting.  How about all-purpose flour?  Lots of grinding and lots of sifting.

Each kernel of wheat consists of three parts:
     Bran: outer layer, great source of fiber
     Endosperm: 83% of the kernel, source of white flour
     Germ: embryo, or sprouting section of the kernel

Milling the wheat involves grinding and sifting those three parts to get the desired product.  Whoel wheat flour contains all three parts, the bran, endosperm and germ.  All-purpose flours and other white flours contain only the endosperm.  The bran and germ have been sifted out.  Here's another chance to get your kids involved.  Let them watch this short video with you about the K-State Flour Mill. 

By the way, K-State is the only place in the country to earn a degree in milling science.  And those guys and gals make big bucks - earning some of the highest starting salaries for college graduates. 

Next time you're at the grocery store, take a look at all the different types of flour available for purchase.  All-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, self-rising flour, cake flour.  A different variety of wheat or a simple change in the milling process results in these varieties.

Remember when I said Kansas' famed wheat variety - Hard Red Winter - was the preferred flour for baking bread?  Here's why.  Flour derived from wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten (protein) content to make leavened (raised) bread.  The gluten gives the bread strength and elasticity allowing the gas bubbles to form and the bread to "rise" as a result of the leavening agent, yeast.  Hard Red Winter wheat is high in protein. 

And what about all the talk about the horrors of bleached, enriched flour?  Flour is sometimes bleached to create a uniform, very white flour.  This is a chemical process that speeds up the natural whitening and maturing of the flour.  Bleaching the wheat gives a uniform, white appearance to the end product (white bread; not almost-white bread), and bleaching does not impact the nutritional value or leave residual chemicals.  Unbleached flour is whitened and aged naturally, by the air, and is preferred for yeast breads as bleaching can impact gluten strength.

Flour is enriched so that some of what is milled out is replaced.  The enrichment process has done wonders for our nation's health.  Bread has been enriched since 1941, and the most recent addition of folic acid in 2002 has decreased neural tube defects in infants in this country by 26%.  Amazing!  Bleached, enriched flour is not bad for you.  However, nothing but enriched, bleached flour is bad for you.  Simply make half your grains whole.  Whole wheat toast for breakfast, tortilla quesadillas for lunch, and throw some whole wheat flour into the cookies you make for dessert.  It's an easy thing to do!

The latest nutritional guidelines tell us that grains are the foundation for our diet.  The carbohydrates found in grains give us our energy, literally.  And more specifically, the complex carbs found in grain based foods give us a longer lasting source of energy, versus the simple carbs of sugars.  Grains are an easy, inexpensive, healthy part of your diet.  (Here's just one more resource to use when your kids are climbing into the pantry looking for fruit snacks.  I'm speaking from experience, here.  Steer them towards some toast and peanut butter or a tortilla with cheese, instead.)

Now that you know all you need to know about flour - and you have the kids busy on the floor playing in a bowl of wheat - it's time to make Pioneer Woman's chocolate chip cookie sweet rolls.  You must.  Because after you do, you'll eat nothing but chocolate chip cookie sweet rolls for the rest of your life.

Or, you can begin the process with your "I'm too big for naps preschooler."

And then, after the first rise, involve your grumpy three-year old as soon as he wakes up.

Then eat these perfect rolls, with your sweet, perfect children for a guilt-free bedtime snack.  Because you're now an expert on flour.  And you deserve one, or two, or three...


Bill Spiegel said…
Very nice job, Sarah! Thanks for the hard work and great explanations in this blog post!
Aravind Kumar said…
Wonderful post! A beginner would absolutely have a pleasure reading it. Informative.

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