English Durum Wheat Loaf

I’ve been told by three different reliable sources that various attempts have been tried in the past in this country to grow durum wheat for making British pasta but one attempt after another have seen these experiments fail, the bottom line being, ‘you can’t grow good enough quality durum wheat in this country, it doesn’t produce good pasta’.

Durum wheat has been the traditional wheat grown in southern Italy, the hot sunny climate suits this very hard wheat.  Pasta production was recorded as far back as the 12th century by the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, according to his records production was in full-flow in a town near Palermo.  Al-Idrisi worked for King Roger II of Sicily.  Durum wheat is also used for speciality bread in Italy.

I don’t know why the durum wheat grown in the UK was inferior quality for pasta making.  I haven’t spoken with anyone who knows what the problem was exactly, and without knowing that I have no idea why growing durum in the UK is inferior for manufacturing pasta.

I’ve been chewing things over in my head this morning while writing this post and eating my durum wheat toast below, thinking about this very hard wheat, the sunny climate, lots of broken starch granules, a lot of enzyme activity, how sun and hot temperatures produces a higher protein (gluten protein).  I can theorise, but that is all, there is no paper I’ve seen that answers the very specific question I have, research papers rarely do.

Why does having good quality gluten (high glutenin HMW subunits) help with the durum wheat flour problem of containing a high amount of damaged starch granules?  How does quality gluten help with the starch?

Durum wheat grown in Cornwall

This sourdough is my first attempt using some English durum in a loaf.  I used half durum to roller mill white flour, I can only buy it as wholemeal.  It was the talented chef Ben Spalding who told me of this English durum wheat, buy it through link here.  Ben has successfully made fresh pasta using the flour, making adjustments for it.

As with all first attempts I pushed the dough to its limits and it’s slightly over-proved, next time instead of letting rise after shaping at room temperature and then further in the fridge overnight, I would opt for cutting down the room temperature time.

I’m pleased with the openness of the crumb regardless of being a tad over-proved.  The crumb suffers from that rye-syndrome, the tendency to have a slight “dampness”, this again firms my view I should next time limit the room temperature proving time.

Broken Starch Granules

Durum being such a tough seed to crack is much harder to grind than normal bread wheat, resulting in more broken starch granules in the flour.  This matters because broken starch granules are easily attacked by enzymes, they will proceed quickly on the broken starch, and for an ideal loaf you want to limit this breakdown.  Broken starch also absorbs and holds on to water and too much will result in a wet and undercooked crumb.

In a good loaf there should be a balance with some starch broken down by the enzymes for crumb softness, food for the microbes, crust quality and stalling staleness, but there should also be enough unbroken starch in order to form a good crumb structure.

The other factors that will speed up the process of enzyme activity is temperature and water, and I was generous with hydration in this loaf.

These experiments are necessary for learning, if things were perfect the first time I wouldn’t learn anything from success.

My trail of thought…bear with me.  

Hot climate produces higher protein flour, hence well known producers of high protein flour like Canada and Kazakhstan.

I have to point out here that protein in flour is not all equal, there will be protein in flour that is not gluten forming, this is why wholemeal flour is higher in protein, there will be protein for example around the bran which is not gluten forming.  Also percentages of protein in white flour will be misleading as it’s not the quantity that matters but the quality of it.

The gluten forming protein in wheat are glutenin and gliadin, and it’s the quality of these not just the amount that matters for bread making.  It’s their ability to hold the gas while proving and then hold the shape during initial stage of baking while the steam/gas is escaping and the starch sets in place, that is essential in producing a good loaf.  There is an ideal ratio between glutenin and gliadin.

There’s a large amount of research on the crucial importance of the quality of the glutenin HMW (high molecule weight) subunits, which are seen as the backbone of the gluten structure in dough.  Durum wheat is thought to have poor quality glutenin HMW subunits.  Gluten is dispersed in a matrix throughout the starch.

Broken starch is ok if gluten quality is good

Durum wheat grown in sunny weather with high quality gluten will cope better with large amount of broken starch granules in the flour, at least that’s how I’m picturing it in my mind right now.

The durum wheat grown here in damp conditions will have the same large portion of broken starch granules in the flour but with a lower gluten quantity and quality as a result of the growing conditions.

I can’t help but theorise the higher quality gluten will help dealing with the broken starch problem.  How this may be happening at molecule level I don’t know, this area of gluten subunits and starch matrix is not clearly understood.

According to a research review paper on durum wheat, Role of Durum Wheat Composition on the Quality of Pasta and Bread,  it says ‘durum wheat varieties were far too weak to make good bread pre 1980s.  The development of stronger durum wheats in Canada and USA allowed durum wheats to approach but not match a good baking flour’.

What I’ve learnt through researching is how there’s a lot of tinkering happening with cereal gene varieties in order to make them perform better, and I’m sure this wheat will be further developed.

How this durum flour performed

I was surprised how well it performed in the loaf, being a hard wheat and in wholemeal form I was expecting the crumb to have a “bitty” texture like Khorosan (kamut), see my post here  which I didn’t care for, but it didn’t, instead it baked into a soft texture crumb.

If I had to eat wholemeal flour I would rather eat this durum than normal wholemeal wheat, I found it much lighter.

My next attempt is a 100% durum yeast loaf to see how it performs.  Flavour was pleasant enough, not a strong flavour like some of best normal wheat stoneground flours.

Where this flour excels itself is in adding crispness to bread dough.  I added a small amount of it to my normal pizza dough and noticed how much more crisp the base was.  The durum loaf above also produced a very good crunchy textured toast.

Colour, yellow or not?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but this flour is creamy white and not the golden yellow I expect with durum wheat.  This puzzled me for a while until I was talking to Anne (Felin Ganol) and as I uttered this to her I remembered my expensive pasta is also creamy white and not golden yellow like so many other pasta.

Below the De Cecco brand pasta cooks into a more golden colour as expected but the more expensive Cav. Giuseppe Cocco brand when cooked is a creamy white colour.

The yellow colour in durum is down to a higher amount of carotenoids, and I don’t know if some varieties simply don’t have as much.

Durum wheat is genetically different from normal wheat and spelt

Durum wheat is genetically different from normal wheat and spelt, if you want to get away from normal wheat then this would be an ideal flour to pick.

Normal wheat (Triticum aestivum) and spelt (Triticum aestivum subspecies spelta) are genetically the same as each other, they are both a hexaploid, have 42 chromosomes and both have AABBDD.

Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum) is a tetraploid, 28 chromosomes and only has AABB.  It’s in the same category as emmer, and I believe khorosan (kamut).  (Genetic Reference: Domestication of Plants in the Old World third edition by Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf)


Go and experiment is my motto!