Are Heirloom Wheat Varieties the Next Big Baking Trend?

"You could give me dog-shit wheat, and I could still make it taste great." —Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Just as tomatoes have spent the last few hundred years getting the flavor slowly sucked out of them, in favor of more convenient attributes like uniformity in size and color and resistance to the rigors of transcontinental shipping, wheat has undergone a similar process.

Unlike tomatoes, which, discounting any Native American influence, have been bred for a mere few hundred years, wheat, a staple grain since the earliest civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, has had a 10,000-year breeding program. Modern wheat is designed for high yields, and to produce flours with consistently high protein contents. In the meantime, flavor has fallen by the wayside. At least that's what the well-meaning folks of the Northeast Organic Wheat Project (part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association) contend.

On Monday, I attended a discussion and tasting sponsored by this group at the French Culinary Institute. As I later explained to Ed in an email:

That wheat event yesterday may have been the most boring event I've ever been to! Four hours talking about the subtleties of growing wheat!"

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I don't mean that as an insult to the organizers of the event—they were doing the best with what they had to work with. But if farmers are really going to take the place of chefs as the food media's next set of rock-star celebrities, then tomatoes will be their rock and roll, and wheat their Peter, Paul and Mary—there's a place for it, but it's hardly an exciting one. The problem became clear when we moved into the most interesting part of the event: the tasting.

We tasted three breads made from three different locally grown, relatively modern heirloom wheat varieties (Arapahoe, Glenn, and Red Fife), baked by one of the instructors at the French Culinary Institute. While nobody could say the breads all tasted the same, I'd have a tough time telling you whether it was the wheats themselves that made the breads taste different, or if it was other factors, like hydration, or fermentation.

Immediately after the tasting, in a delightfully subversive moment, Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery fame got up to address the crowd and started with:

"You could give me dog-shit wheat, and I could still make it taste great."

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Jim Lahey.

His point?

Great bread is not about the wheat that goes into it. A skilled baker will know by touch how to handle wheats that you give them—whether they need more or less water, longer or shorter autolysis, a stronger fermentation.

The flavors of bread come partly from the wheat, but overwhelmingly more so from the way the wheat is handled. As proof he offered a loaf he himself had baked from Warthog, yet another heirloom variety. It handily blew the previous three samples out of the water.

He finished by claiming—and I paraphrase—that he supports the project because of its noble goals to support local farmers and create a locally sustainable food system, but the bread at Sullivan Street is made with flour from ConAgra, and it still tastes damn good.

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To be fair, I had to leave the conference shortly after the first tasting session to make another meeting, and so missed the second session on flatbreads and pasta (though I managed to sneak a bit from the kitchen on my way out). It's possible that had I stayed, I would have tasted something that could have changed my mind, but I'm inclined to agree with Lahey.

I'm strongly in favor of supporting local farms and re-diversifying our food system, but we need to be sensible about it. The consumer still rules, and in order for the concept of replanting an heirloom vegetable to take off, it requires consumer support.

An heirloom tomato or carrot that really tastes shockingly different from a commercial cultivar is one thing, but I find it hard to believe that anybody in their right mind other than a professional baker or some obsessive fringe nutso is going to go to a supermarket looking to buy a particular strain of wheat just because it's the one that Sarah used to bake Abraham's bread. Particularly because these wheats are so different from modern wheats that recipes calling for regular all-purpose flour won't even work with them.

The vast majority of us are not bakers, and wouldn't know what to do with these wheats even if we could get our hands on them.

There was a brief mention at the conference that in organic settings, some of these heirloom wheat varieties actually have slightly higher yields than commercial varieties, meaning that for smaller organic farms, picking these wheats to grow is a matter of production—not of flavor.

But then my question is: what farmer would choose growing slightly more of a less desirable crop over slightly less of a more desirable crop? Because let's face it—for most people, heirloom wheats are not even a remote consideration.

Or better yet, why not turn the whole field over to growing more of those delicious heirloom tomatoes, which at the height of summer, when sliced thin and placed atop a piece of toast, can overshadow the insipidness of even the most amateurish loaf of ConAgra wheat bread?

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