Wheat is the most widely cultivated cereal crop in the world, with Australia being the eighth largest producer and fourth largest exporter of wheat in the world. Wheat has come to be a firm favourite grain because of the diversity it provides in culinary applications.
Many different types of wheat grain exist, with two main types being eaten in Australia, namely bread wheat (Triticum aestivum vulgare) and durum wheat (Triticum turgidum durum). The durum variety is used in the manufacture of pasta while the other type is used to produce most other wheat-based foods. Bread wheat in Australia is typically white and does not have the red colour, which typifies most bread wheat grown in the northern hemisphere.
Bread wheat is described as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ according to its protein content. Hard wheat has more protein, including more gluten, which makes it purposeful to bake bread, while soft wheat has a much lower protein content, which when milled produces ‘cake flour’ for sweet biscuits and cakes.
Aside from bread wheat and durum, other types of wheat include spelt, emmer, einkorn and kamut. These wheat varieties are commonly referred to as ‘ancient’ grains and are increasingly being used in the manufacture of niche wheat-based food products.
- Spelt is higher in protein than common wheat and can be used in place of common wheat in most recipes. Spelt does contain gluten and should not be consumed by people who need to avoid gluten as a consequence of medically diagnosed coeliac disease.
- Emmer, otherwise known to as ‘farro’ or ‘grano farro’, is staging a comeback as a gourmet ingredient, with appreciable amounts of antioxidants.
- Einkorn is prized for having a high protein content and the highest level of lutein among wheat species.
- Kamut is a heirloom grain originating from Egypt which is higher in protein and contains more vitamin E than common wheat.
Nutrition credentials of whole grain wheat:
- Low in fat, most of which is unsaturated.
- High in carbohydrate (mainly starch) and high in insoluble dietary fibre.
- Relatively high in protein (11-13%) compared with other major grains and contains a protein complex which forms gluten.
- High in potassium and low in sodium.
- The endosperm contains glucofructan (similar in structure to inulin) which functions as a prebiotic agent and has similar properties to dietary fibre.
- Contains B-group vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), folate and pantothenic acid.
- Contains vitamin E.
- Contains iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium (depending on the soil content of selenium).
- Contains small amounts of copper, manganese and calcium.
- Contains phytochemicals including lignans, phenolic acids, phytic acid, plant sterols and saponins.
Main culinary uses of wheat:
Wheat is typically milled into flour which is then used to make a wide range of foods including bread, crumpets, muffins, noodles, pasta, biscuits, cakes, pastries, cereal bars, sweet and savoury snack foods, crackers, crisp-breads, sauces and confectionery (e.g. liquorice).
Other culinary applications of wheat include:
- Flaked, puffed and extruded wheat – All three forms are commonly used to manufacture breakfast cereals and cereal snack bars.
- Wheat bran – Added to biscuits, cakes, muffins and breads to increase the dietary fibre content. Wheat bran is also used in the manufacture of some breakfast cereals.
- Wheat germ – Can be added to breads, pastries, cakes and biscuits or sprinkled onto yoghurt, breakfast cereal or fruit dishes.
- Semolina – Mainly used for making pasta. The preferred variety of wheat for pasta is Triticum durum. It can also be cooked in milk to make semolina pudding or fried golden brown and then mixed with plenty of sugar to make Halva, as eaten in the Middle East. In Greece, semolina is used in baked cakes.
- Couscous – Used widely in North Africa, couscous is made from semolina grains which are sprinkled with slightly salted water and rubbed to make tiny pellets which are steamed and then dried. Instant couscous is available in Australia which needs only 5 minutes soaking in hot water.
- Burghul (also known as bulgur or cracked wheat) – Is made by parboiling wheat, drying it and then coarsely grinding it. It can be steamed or boiled and used in a wide range of dishes, such as tabouleh, kofta or kibbeh.
- Kibbled wheat – Grains are cracked or broken into smaller particles and then moistened or steamed and dried. Kibbled wheat is used as an ingredient in mixed grain bread or cooked as a side dish.
- Boiled wheat – Puddings are made from boiled wheat in Lebanon and the Balkans.
- Wheat starch – Used as ‘cornflour’ or converted to glucose, dextrose and other sugars for use in confectionery and other manufactured foods.