Food + Drink

What is Heritage Wheat?

Hand forged, artisan bread. That is the mission of Hewn, an independently-owned bakery in Evanston, Illinois. Co-owner Ellen King then joined up with cookbook author Amelia Levin to produce the book Heritage Baking, a go-to resource for bakers of all skill levels for delicious, nutritious, good-for-the-gut breads and pastries.

Heritage Baking

The unique spin is that the recipes use a wide range of artisanal flours that are now readily available to home bakers. These flours add layers of flavor and texture and, when combined with a natural starter and long fermentation, make these baked goods enjoyable even by those who have difficulty with gluten.

The cornerstone of Hewn and Heritage Baking is the use of “heritage wheat.” But what exactly does that mean? Read on for an excerpt from the cookbook.

What is Heritage Wheat?

The official definition of heritage wheat remains a subject of debate, but most agronomists define it as varieties that were grown in the United States before World War II. At that time, synthetic fertilizers and other chemical-laden inputs were introduced to grow crops on a much wider scale in order to feed the growing masses.

Landrace wheat is a label given to heritage varieties that have grown in a region for decades—even hundreds of years—and have adapted to the region’s environment. The term landrace in general refers to a domesticated variety of animal species or plants that have developed over time through adaptation to the natural environment and with or without agricultural inputs.

Heritage Baking

Before industrialized wheat became more commonplace in the mid-1900s, many heritage varieties were selected in the fields by smaller farmers for the specific traits they wanted. Some varieties were grown for their flavor and bread-baking ability. Others were grown because they could withstand harsher winters and had higher yields. A few wheat varieties could grow as tall as a person. But even though tall wheat blocked out weed growth, it became more vulnerable in the fields, as storms can tip over wheat stalks.

After World War II, a dwarfing gene was added to wheat to help the crops grow shorter. This helps them better stand up to harsh weather conditions. But shorter stalks meant the wheat competed with weeds for the nutrients in the soil, so herbicides, fertilizers, and insecticides were added to the fields to ensure the wheat would outcompete the weeds and pests.

This was during the height of the Green Revolution in the United States, a time when agricultural production was ramping up fast thanks to the widening use of synthetic fertilizers on farms across the country. Whereas in the past, thousands of wheat varieties naturally adapted to their region, the Green Revolution spurred the narrowing of this selection through large-scale inbreeding to create a more uniform wheat-growing standard and more consistent yields. Modern heritage varieties came about after the 1960s by breeding heritage varieties with newer strains favored for their yield. As a result, today there are only a handful of commodity (modern) wheat varieties that are grown by conventional wheat farms. Also, conventional farms source seed from large seed companies that cannot save seeds. Seed saving is vital for heirloom varieties and held sacred by many cultures. Once, more than 19,000 wheat varieties grew around the world.

Heritage Baking

It’s important to note that heritage wheat differs from ancient wheat—the group that includes biblical grains like einkorn, emmer, and spelt—which many people favor regardless of their region. These varieties have been grown for several thousand years in all parts of the world. They were the basis for some of the heritage wheat breeds that came later. While we use some of these grains in our baking at Hewn, our focus is on heritage wheats.

One of these heritage varieties was introduced to Central America and the western United States by the Spaniards, who grew wheat for the wafers used in Catholic communion and related religious ceremonies. Over the years, immigrants from other parts of Europe and the Fertile Crescent, which includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of Turkey and Iran, brought with them their own strains of the crop. These strains coexisted with wheat strains already here, and were eventually bred together either by accident or on purpose.

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For delicious recipes for baked goods and breads, get your copy of Heritage Wheat here.

Jenna Homen

Jenna Homen

Content and Community Manager at Chronicle Books. When she's logged off, she can be found painting, cooking, camping, or petting her dog Harley. You can follow her on Twitter at @jn_na.
Jenna Homen

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