Wheat (Triticum sativum) is the world’s most important grain crop, serving as a natural food source for much of the world’s population. The wheat grain is easily refined to raw foods such as flour, which can be used in countless recipes.

Throughout the world, large portions of agricultural land are devoted to the production of wheat. Wheat is the national food staple for more than forty nations and provides 20 percent of the total food calories for the world’s population; it is the major staple for about 35 percent of the people of the world.

In the United States, wheat constitutes a large part of the domestic economy, makes up a large part of the nation’s exports, and serves as the national bread crop.

The cultivation of wheat is older than the written history of humankind. Its place of origin is unknown, but many authorities believe that wheat may have grown wild in the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys and spread from there to the rest of the Old World.

Wheat is mentioned in the first book of the Bible, was grown by Stone Age Europeans, and was reportedly produced in China as far back as 2700 b.c.e. Wheat was brought to the New World by European settlers and was being grown commercially in the Virginia Colony by 1618.

Botany and Classification Wheat is an annual grass, but its structural morphology varies considerably, depending on the type. The wheat flowers and subsequently the seed are borne on spikes originating from the top of the plant.

Wheat is widely adapted throughout the world and can grow in many climates. It can be found growing from near the equator to 60 degrees north latitude. About the only places wheat does not grow are those with climates that continually stay hot and moist.

Most commercially grown wheats can be separated into either hard grain wheat or soft grain wheat. Hard wheat is usually dark in color and possesses no white starch, while the soft wheat is generally much lighter in color and shows a white

Both hard and soft wheat contain a protein called gluten, which enables leavened dough (dough after yeast has been added) to rise by trapping the gas bubbles produced during fermentation by the yeast, but hard wheat contains more glutin than does soft wheat. As a result, the hard wheats aremuchmore desirable for making bread.

The weaker flour produced by the soft wheats is preferred for making biscuits, crackers, pie crusts, and starchy breakfast foods. The most common types of commercially planted wheat are common wheats, durum wheat, and club wheat.

The common wheats include hard red winter wheat, grown in Texas and northward up through Kansas; hard red spring wheat, grown in the north central states (North and South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, and Minnesota); soft red winter wheat, grown in the east-central United States (Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana); and whitewheat, grown around the Great Lakes and in the far West.

Hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat are primarily used in making bread, while soft red winter wheat and white wheat are used chiefly for making cakes, cookies, pies, and other pastries. Durum wheat is a very hard wheat also grown in the north-central United States.

Durum wheat is primarily used for making pasta such as macaroni and spaghetti. Club wheat, also grown in the far West, is used to make the starchy flours required for making pastries. Additional wheat types include poulard, emmer, spelt, polish, and einkorn; these types are of little importance in the United States.

Production and Harvest

Harvesting wheat
Harvesting wheat

Production begins with the selection of the seed. So that high yields can be obtained, extreme care is taken to select only the highest-quality seed.

For winter wheat, the seed is planted in the fall, generally at the time of the average first frost. This timing allows the crop tomake a stand before winter but is not so early that it begins rank growth or starts to send up tall shoots.

Spring wheat is generally planted as early as is practical in the spring, which is usually early March in the areas where spring wheat is normally grown. In the United States, almost all wheat is planted by drilling the seed into the soil. Drilling provides for the best germination and the least amount of winter killing.

Harvest time for wheat is determined primarily by the moisture content of the grain. Most wheat in the United States is harvested with mechanical combines, and the ideal seed moisture for combine harvest is 12 to 13 percent. After harvesting, the grain is taken to the mill.

During the milling process, the grain is washed and scoured to remove fuzz and foreign material. The grain is then tempered by soaking in water to toughen the bran. After tempering, the grain is crushed by a series of corrugated rollers. The bran, produced primarily in the seed coat, is then separated from the starch.

The milled flour is often chemically bleached to improve the color and baking quality and enriched with vitamins and minerals to replace those lost by removing the bran. The average flour yield is 70 to 74 percent of the weight of the grain.