Washington wheat providing sweet treats around the world
Eighty percent of Washington wheat is soft white, which, once milled into flour, is perfect for cakes, cookies, and other sweet favorites
July 29, 2021
If you drive anywhere in Eastern Washington, you are almost guaranteed to pass wheat fields. There are more than 3,700 wheat farmers on the east side of the Evergreen State, who, in 2020, represented an industry that reached nearly $800 million across the state.
Wheat is one of the world's most essential crops, providing 20% of all calories necessary to sustain the seven billion people across the globe. Of the six different types of wheat grown across Washington state, roughly 80% of that is soft white wheat. Once milled down into flour, soft white wheat is the main ingredient in favorite sweet treats, including cakes, cookies, pastries, crackers, and Asian delicacies.
A lot of work goes into the process of turning that wheat into flour. Growers choose which wheat, where, and when to plant. Weather and environmental factors outside of the farmers' control, like this year's drought, impact the size and price.
After crops are harvested, wheat is often offloaded to local grain elevators, where it is weighed and analyzed before being transported for sale.
Once sold, soft white wheat makes its way to a mill, where the wheat berries are separated from field debris; weeds, seeds, chaff, and whatever else get picked up by the combine. The wheat berries are then pushed through scourers, where they are pushed against steel casings to remove the dirt in the crease of the berry.
Once cleaned, the berries move on to a tempering process to make it easier to separate the flour-producing part of the berry from its tough bran coat.
With the bran removed, the berries go on to the crushing stage of the milling process. While 'crushing' is the technical term, the berries are actually cracked as they are run through large steel rollers. The first set of rollers are corrugated, and break the berries into coarse bits which then pass through screens of increasing fineness. Air currents are used to remove impurities from the middlings, coarse fragments of the endosperm.
The wheat is separated into five or six different streams which go through multiple screens. The finest mesh screen is as fine as the final flour product. In the final step of the crushing process, the wheat is sent through smooth steel rollers, and the flour is bleached and stored. Some flour producers will enrich their products by adding thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and iron. Once enriched, the flour is bagged up and off to the store!
According to the gourmet magazine, Bon Apetit! "Soft wheat flour is typically packaged as cake flour or pastry flour and is best used for cakes, cookies, and pastries that should be tender and crumbly. It can also be used in fresh pasta, and produces a tender noodle."
Soft white wheat has lower protein levels than hard red wheat, so the gluten works slightly differently, making it less than ideal for bread. The gluten in soft white wheat is weaker which makes it perfect for more delicate baked goods.
Of course, when given the option between a warm chocolate chip cookie or a slice of bread... we all know what the obvious choice is!