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Specialty Wheat - Categories and Definitions

There are many lenses to look at at the wheat that we consume. Let's explore a few of them in this blog.

Heritage, Heirloom, Ancient & Landrace :

The bread magazine article defines comes closest to the contemporary understanding of what these words mean in context of wheat. Let's look at them one by one:

Heirloom: As per Merriam Webster dictionary, Heirloom means “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.”

Heritage: As per Merriam Webster dictionary, Heritage is "something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor.”

As Bread Magazine article puts it out, Heirloom and Heritage grains come very close to each other in their definitions and do not remain fixed in time. They also go through their adaptation cycles, pick the traits that are needed to survive and reproduce at their best as a part of evolving naturally. Their quality, flavour, and resilience is embedded in the mindset and harvesting practices deployed by the farmer producer.

Ancient: As per Merriam Webster dictionary, Ancient is "relates to the period that begins with the earliest civilizations and which ends with the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century CE."

Einkorn, Emmer and Spelt (which is also the order of their evolution) are labelled as ancient grains, all of them are hulled and also called 'FARRO' collectively, which is an ethnobotanical term.

Landrace: As per Oxford dictionary, Landrace is “a local cultivar or animal breed that has been improved by traditional agricultural methods.” The closest word to landrace in french is 'terroir', both accounting for local territory, history and agricultural practices.

Hulled and Free-Threshing:

Hulled: The meaning of word 'hull' essentially means "the outer covering of a fruit or seed, especially the pod of peas and beans, or the husk of grain." As per Wikipedia, "Hulled wheat species consist of toughened glumes that tightly enclose the grains, and (in domesticated wheats) a semi-brittle rachis that breaks easily on threshing. The result is that when threshed, the wheat ear breaks up into spikelets. To obtain the grain, further processing, such as milling or pounding, is needed to remove the hulls or husks. Hulled wheats are often stored as spikelets because the toughened glumes give good protection against pests of stored grain." The only hulled wheat sub-species & varieties which exist today include Einkorn, Emmer, and Spelt.

Free Threshing: Commonly also known as 'naked' wheat type, these have fragile glume and tough rachis. On threshing, the chaff breaks up and the grains are easily released. The free-threshing sub-species and varieties which exist today include durum and common bread wheat.

Brittle and Non-Brittle:

This is typically defined by the rachis of the plant. The inflorescence of a wheat plant consists of a rachis (stalk) to which spikelets (basic unit of a grass flower) are attached. Each spikelet contains between two and nine florets (individual flowers).

Brittle Rachis: If a grain species has brittle rachis, the flower stalk would disarticulate at a number of sites and spikes would disintegrate at maturity, allowing the grain to fall to the ground. As a result, the early farmer would have tended to harvest grain from non-brittle spikes much more often than from brittle ones, thereby imposing a heavy selection pressure for the trait. Some of the species which have gone extinct now due to the same reason are Wild Triticum Monococcum, Wild Triticum Urartu, Wild Triticum Turgidum, and Wild Triticum Timopheevii.

Non-Brittle Rachis: All the cultivated species & subspecies of wheat today have non-brittle rachis, which means spikes of this type retain the grain beyond maturity.

Bearded and Non-Bearded:

Beard is usually a bristly spike that protrudes from the seed shell and protects the seed kernel. They can grow as long as five inches in some varieties. Most commonly grown wheat varieties are all bearded.

Waxy, Partially Waxy, and Non-Waxy:

Waxy: Starch is the major component in the wheat kernel, which is mainly composed of amylose and amylopectin. The wheat without amylose in its endosperm is called “waxy wheat”.

Partially Waxy: Reduced amylose wheats have been termed `partial waxy'. Partial waxy wheats are sources of flours with optimal quality characteristics in certain Asian wet noodle products. Asian noodles are produced from wheat include Japanese udon, also known as white salted noodles, typically produced from medium-protein soft wheats, Chinese-style ramen or yellow alkaline noodles, are formulated from hard wheats, and buckwheat noodles, produced from a mixture of wheat and buckwheat flours. Consumers of udon noodles prefer a soft noodle with a firm surface. Wheats suitable for udon production typically have starch or flour with high swelling volumes, and high peak pasting viscosities. Both starch swelling power and high peak viscosities have been associated with reduced amylose contents.

Non-Waxy Wheat: As the name suggests and clearly from the distinction created above, this the commonly used wheat that we all grow and use, which has both amylose and amylopectin.

We will keep updating these categories as and when we discover new ones, if any left. The world of wheat is vast, sometimes it will take you by surprise on how one single gene or variation in characteristic will open a new world of applications and ways of consuming this grain.

We hope this was helpful, and you could learn something new about specialty wheat. If you have further questions and would love to know anything in specific, please carry on the discussion on our discord channel in #wheatywednesdays thread.


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