A Chef's Perspective on Wheat: It's Time to Bring Sexy Back

Let's make those slender grains of wheat tasty, important and yes, sexy again.
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Wheat is a touchy subject these days. The truth is that wheat is an integral part of our lives. It's been a staple crop that we have cultivated for centuries, and if we're going to live with wheat, the question to ask is how should we grow it? We're in need of more wheat to meet demand, and a recent New York Times op-ed piece argued how genetically modified wheat -- aka GMO wheat -- is the answer. This of course stands in stark opposition to the folks who are anti-GMO anything.

Instead of being squarely pro or con on GMOs when it comes to wheat, perhaps there's a third side of the debate we need to consider -- a middle path stretching somewhere between the pure, untouched organic farmers of the world, and the big industrial agriculture world of Monsanto. A place where the benign manipulation of breeding lines takes place, even though scientists don't have all the answers about their effects. A place where we can all agree that a healthy path for our society is probably some form of small-scale, intensive local plot farming; yet at the same time we can accept that certain GMO crops and initiatives in Third World countries is not only necessary, but it can save millions of lives.

First, let's not think that wheat breeding is a new thing. In the 1940s, a scientist named Norman Borlaug studied ways to minimize the loss of wheat production due to stem rust, an infectious fungus. He developed simple techniques for cross-breeding, harvesting and planting seeds to produce disease-resistant strains of wheat. These agronomical innovations made major strides in combating world hunger and resulted in what has become known worldwide as the Green Revolution, earning Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug made an important statement. He said that genetic engineering was a technology that should be embraced by countries whose food supply is threatened by the inequalities of the world. This is key. In America, our food supply is not threatened by the inequalities of the world, but instead it is threatened by our lack of respect for nature and the loss of our spiritual connection with food. We have all of the resources, tools and knowledge to grow more wheat, but we're just not doing it. Why? Mostly because of supply and demand. We are not demanding wheat to be anything but pure lily-white commodity flour or a cover crop so farmers can simply -- for lack of a better explanation -- lose less money. This is the crux of the wheat problem. It's not that we need to genetically modify wheat to grow more of it. We simply need better wheat, and a stronger demand for higher-quality, diverse-varietal wheat.

The commercial flour that many of us use only has limited functionality, and it's nearly absent of flavor. In fact, most flours nowadays are crossbred and designed for high-speed mixing, durability and longevity, and not for flavor and diversified applications.

Basically, wheat flour just isn't sexy.

Now, fruits and vegetables are sexy! Chefs are always looking for local farmers to grow new heirloom varieties for them. They visit farms, go on field trips, and come home with bountiful baskets of multicolored vegetables and beautiful leafy greens.

Animals are sexy! Grass-fed, grain-fed, apple-fed, chestnut-fed, hormone-free, free-range, weaned-on-mothers'-milk, antibiotic-free. These are the cool terms and phrases we chefs look for. Chefs are true champions of humane practices when it comes to cultivating, slaughtering and serving animals.

Fish are sexy too! Line-caught, day-boat, wild-caught, sustainable. Now, that's hot! No clubbing seals here, just beautiful fish.

Even rice is sexy! Sushi rice, Jasmine rice, Basmati, Thai purple, Wehani, Pecan, Bomba, Valencia, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano. They each have a unique flavor and function.

But when it comes to our most basic grain -- wheat -- it's a completely different story. Chefs will request all kinds of special practices for their fruits, vegetables, animals and fish, but when they need wheat most of them say, "Gimme a bag of that bread flour."

Well, here's something nobody seems to know: Wheat has flavor! Amazing flavor! When ground fresh and used within a week, the flavor of wheat is nothing like you could ever imagine. You taste sweetness, depth, tobacco, nuts and all the other exciting descriptive words that are usually synonymous with wine tastings. If we thought of wheat in this way, like we do wine, then maybe we'd be more inclined to create delicious varietals and rediscover heirloom strains.

While doing research for my new cookbook, Mastering Pasta, I visited Dr. Stephen Jones of Washington State University, who's one of the nation's leading authorities on wheat cultivation. He and his team ground a variety of wheat for us to test with different pasta-making techniques. One variety in particular, Red Russian, was one that they had planted and tried desperately to make breads with. As much as Dr. Jones and his team tried, the bread they produced was unsatisfactory. But when we tested different recipes for pasta with the same wheat, we found that it made a beautiful product. Most likely, the gluten in the Red Russian wheat, although high in protein, was a weaker gluten and its structure was not strong enough to make bread. But for pasta, it's probably some of the best wheat you can use, and the flavor of the pasta -- just cooked on its own with no accompaniment -- was like nothing I had ever tasted.

This is just one example of the enormous variety and adaptability of wheat, not only in growing, but in applications as well. There is an amazing genetic diversity in wheat we have not yet begun to fully explore. There are so many long-forgotten varietals of wheat stored in seed banks all over the world, and wheat can thrive in so many different environments. The great potential is there.

What better group of people to bring wheat back to the forefront of discussion than chefs? Like we have done for fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and farmers markets, we need to champion the case for better-quality wheat. We need to talk to our local farmers and get them excited about growing different varieties. We need to challenge them to invest time and effort into growing heirloom wheat and wheat for an array of applications. Wheat needs to have a higher purpose and function -- it wants to! I have yet to speak to a farmer who isn't excited about this prospect.

Think about how amazing it would it be, Chefs, if instead of buying that immersion circulator, we instead bought a mill to grind our own fresh flour? Instead of using commodity flour ground between industrial rollers, we could grind wheat berries into flour between two stones like our ancestors did for generations before us.

It's time we started a revolution -- a wheat revolution! Let's make those slender grains of wheat tasty, important and yes, sexy again.

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