The thousands of known varieties of wheat all fall into one of six classes, determined by the planting season, hardness of the grain, and the color of the kernel. Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Soft Red Winter, Hard White, Soft White, and Durum wheat are the major classes.
- Winter wheats are planted in the fall. They lie dormant during the winter, revive to grow again in the spring, and are harvested early in the summer.
- Spring wheats are planted in the spring and harvested late in the summer. The hard wheats have a higher protein-to-starch ratio than the soft wheats.
- Durum, the hardest wheat of all, is processed into semolina and used to make pasta.
- Hard Red Winter and Hard Red Spring wheats are milled into bread flour and all-purpose flour, as are Hard White wheats.
- Soft Red Winter and Soft White wheats produce flours that are well suited for making cakes, crackers, cookies, and pastries.
There are over 30,000 varieties of wheat, all of which developed from one common ancestor called wild einkorn. The wheats most commonly grown today are different genetically from this original wheat, but two ancient strains are now being marketed, mostly in health food stores. Called kamut and spelt (or farro), these were among the wheats found growing when humans first walked the earth.
Here are the main types of wheat you may find in the market or in specialty food stores:
Bulgur: Bulgur is a processed form of cracked wheat, but with a more pronounced flavor. The whole-wheat kernels are steam-cooked and dried, and then the grain is cracked into three different granulations. Traditionally, the coarsest bulgur is used for pilaf; the medium, for cereal; and the finest, for tabbouleh. Bulgur requires less cooking time than cracked wheat. It can also be “cooked” by soaking, without heat.
Cracked wheat: This product is made from wheat berries that have been ground into coarse, medium, and fine granulations for faster cooking. Cracked wheat has an agreeably wheaty flavor and can replace rice or other grains in most recipes. It cooks in about 15 minutes and retains a slight crunchiness afterward. It’s possible to make cracked wheat at home by processing wheat berries in a heavy-duty blender. Process 2 cups of wheat at a time on high speed for about 4 minutes.
Farina: Also sold as Cream of Wheat, farina is made from the endosperm of the grain, which is milled to a fine granular consistency and then sifted. Although the bran and most of the germ are removed, this cereal is sometimes enriched with B vitamins and iron. Farina is most often served as a breakfast cereal, but can also be cooked like polenta.
Farro: The same as spelt, farro is high in fiber, protein, and B vitamins. This ancient wheat relative has a nutty flavor and a slightly crisp texture.
Flour: The primary use of flour is in baked goods, such as bread, cakes, and muffins, and as the main ingredient in pasta and noodles.
Kamut: An ancient relative of modern-day wheat, this high-protein grain has a buttery, nutty flavor. It is generally available both in whole grains and in processed forms, such as pasta and puffed cereal.
Pasta: Rich in complex carbohydrates and low in fat, pasta is a highly nutritious food. Enriched wheat pastas, which make up the bulk of commercially available pastas, also offer good levels of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, and selenium.
Rolled wheat (wheat flakes): These are wheat berries that have been flattened between rollers and are not to be confused with ready-to-eat wheat-flake breakfast cereals. Rolled wheat flakes resemble rolled oats, but are thicker and firmer.
Seitan (wheat meat): This vegetarian stand-in for meat is derived from high-gluten wheat flour. Chewy and dense, seitan is a "flavor sponge" that absorbs sauces and seasonings very well.
Spelt (farro, dinkle): High in fiber, protein, and B vitamins, this ancient wheat relative has a nutty flavor and a slightly crisp texture.
Triticale: Triticale is a specialized high-fiber, high-protein grain that is also a good source of thiamin and minerals.
Wheat berries: Also called groats, these are wheat kernels that have not been milled, polished, or heat treated. Wheat berries are brown and nearly round in appearance. They take over an hour to cook, but the time can be reduced if they are presoaked. Wheat berries have a robust, nutlike flavor that goes well with other hearty foods. They can be used for grain-based main dishes, served as a side dish, or added to soups and yeast-bread doughs.
Wheat bran and wheat germ: For years people have been buying wheat germ—the nutrient-packed embryo of the wheat berry—to sprinkle on breakfast cereals, yogurt, and salads, as well as to add to baked goods and casseroles.Now, with nutritionists emphasizing the importance of fiber, wheat germ has been joined on supermarket shelves by wheat bran, which is the rough outer covering of the wheat kernel.
There are nutritional differences between the two. Wheat germ contains a fair amount of polyunsaturated fat, deriving almost 25 percent of its calories from fat. It is an especially good source of thiamin, vitamin E, and selenium. Two tablespoons supply 3 grams of protein and 2 grams of dietary fiber. Defatted wheat germ is available, but it’s lower in vitamin E. Unlike regular wheat germ, it doesn’t have to be stored in the refrigerator. Wheat bran offers magnesium, iron, and selenium and is notably high in insoluble fiber. Two tablespoons contain 1 gram of protein, less than a half-gram of fat, and 3 grams of dietary fiber.
Wheat germ oil: Cold-pressed from whole grains of wheat, this oil has a nutty flavor and can be used along with lighter oil for salad dressings.
Wheatena: This is the trade name for a very finely cracked wheat product sold for use as a hot cereal. It has a pleasant, nutty flavor and is among the most nutritious of hot cereals.
How to choose the best wheat
When buying whole grains, they should be whole, not cracked, and with little or no chaff. Purchase wheat products from a store that has a brisk turnover and keeps the grains out of the heat. If you buy in bulk, wash the whole grains to remove dust or debris before cooking.
How to store wheat
Store in a cool dry place for up to two months. Freeze for longer storage.
10 wheat recipe ideas
- Add spelt (farro) to a minestrone instead of pasta.
- Cook wheat berries and toss with a lemon vinaigrette, dried fruit, and shredded grilled chicken.
- Add wheat germ to pancake, waffle, and bread recipes in place of some of the flour.
- Make risotto using wheat berries, spelt, or kamut instead of rice.
- Replace some of the meat in a chili with soaked and drained medium-grain bulgur.
- Substitute cooked cracked wheat for bread in a poultry stuffing.
- Cook rolled wheat flakes as you would oatmeal.
- Add wheat flakes or cracked wheat to casseroles or stews.
- Substitute seitan for chicken in a stew or add it to a soup or stir-fry.
- Lighten meatball, meatloaf, or hamburger mixtures by replacing some of the meat with soaked and drained bulgur.