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S-wheat Thanksgiving delights

This week, a familiar scene will be playing out in homes across the nation with families gathering around elaborate spreads to give thanks.

But, before biting into warm homemade biscuits, slicing into savory pies, forking up fluffy dressing or sampling moist cakes, all of us should take a moment to add Oklahoma wheat producers to the list of people for whom we’re grateful.

After all, without them – and other growers across the nation, of course – our beloved traditional Thanksgiving meals just wouldn’t be the same. This is due to the fact the flour that goes into making many of the favorite dishes that add so much to our holiday celebrations begins humbly as a seed in a field as part of a wheat crop.

Wheat is Oklahoma’s largest cash crop, with approximately 5-6 million acres of winter wheat sown each year. Depending on market conditions, 30 to 50 percent of the state’s wheat acres also may be grazed by stocker cattle over the winter months.

Now, back at the dinner table…

There are actually six classes of wheat, including hard red spring, durum and soft white, which are cultivated predominately in the northern, southwest and western portions of the country, respectively.

Hard red spring wheat is used in “designer” wheat foods such as hearth breads, rolls, croissants, bagels and pizza crust, while durum, the hardest of all wheats, is incorporated into premium pasta products, couscous and some Mediterranean breads. Asian-style noodles, along with cakes, pastries and other confectionary products, make use of soft white wheat.

Soft red winter wheat, good for making a large variety of confectionary items such as cookies, crackers and cakes, can be found in some pockets in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, hard white wheat, often used in Asian noodles, whole-wheat pan breads and flat breads, is becoming an ever-more-popular growing option for the state’s producers.

“There’s always been a demand for hard white wheat, but we just hadn’t felt it in this part of the country. There is demand internationally for it,” said Brett Carver, Oklahoma State University wheat breeder and lead expert for the OSU Wheat Improvement Team, an interdisciplinary team of researchers. “There’s also soft red winter wheat in our state. We can produce a soft red winter wheat that is highly desirable in the marketplace. We need to focus on that a little more.”

Here in Oklahoma, though, the focus is mostly on hard red winter wheat, which is considered to be one of the most versatile of the classes.

“To make a parallel to football, hard red winter wheat is the guy that can play any position on the offensive line and on the next series of downs, turn right around and play defense at any position,” Carver said. “It’s that versatile and can be used in many different food products.”

The OSU WIT concentrates primarily on hard red winter and hard white varieties. This is partly because of geography.

Oklahoma sits right in the middle of the hard red winter wheat producing region, a roughly five-state region that stretches from Nebraska to Texas and over to Colorado, though it can expand all the way up to the Northern plains.

The OSU wheat breeding program’s targeted focus on red winter wheat also is financial.

“I’ve always said no matter what the audience, wheat is not just wheat. There are different kinds of wheat used for different kinds of foods,” Carver said. “In Oklahoma, being in the region of the country where hard red winter wheat is so prominent, it’s important that we produce wheat that matches those characteristics expected of hard red winter wheat. If we fall outside the expectations, our wheat will probably fall out of the supply chain. We don’t want that to happen.”

So, what’s this all mean for Oklahoma consumers?

Well, color and taste are among the few differences between products using hard red and hard white wheats.

“If you go to the grocery store, one of the main new breads you see is white whole wheat. It has a physically different appearance as the kernel isn’t as dark red compared to hard red winter wheat,” said Renee Albers-Nelson, OSU Cooperative Extension milling and baking specialist. “As people learn what it is and taste it, hard white wheat doesn’t have the slight bitterness so kids usually like the whole white wheat products better.”

Beyond that, most times, when you swipe a loaf of bread off the store shelf, it’s going to be difficult to taste or read on the label the type of wheat used to make the flour that makes the bread.

It’s also going to be near impossible to tell when savoring a warm biscuit or flavorful cake.

Moreover, there’s very little nutritional difference between the various wheat classes.

It’s not even set in stone anymore that cooks and bakers have to use certain types of flour to create specific types of baked goods.

“More and more today, and this is completely my opinion, you can read in textbooks where they say yes, we use hard red winter wheat for breads. But it also can be used in all-purpose flour and it can make a halfway decent cake and it can make pizza crust and other things,” Albers-Nelson said. “There are tricks to taking one thing and making something else with it.”

All that said, Oklahoma wheat, particularly varieties developed by the OSU WIT, have excellent baking and milling properties.

“Normally, in Oklahoma we hear our wheat is great for bread. It’s hard red winter wheat and that usually makes great all-purpose or bread flour which makes good bread,” Albers-Nelson said.

In fact, it is a point of emphasis for the OSU WIT to ensure the varieties it develops not only perform well for producers, but also fulfill the needs of bakers and millers.

“That’s what we want to make sure of, that we do our part getting high quality wheat in the mill, whether it’s hard red winter or hard white,” Carver said. “Quality maybe means different things to different millers, but we know the ones we’re trying to satisfy with our breeding program want high quality.”

So, this Thanksgiving, don’t forget the Oklahoma wheat producers and the role they played in making the holiday memorable for you and your family.


Leilana McKindra
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
158 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-6792
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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