Wheat lab’s proof is in cookie test

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SALEM, Ohio – Give us this day, our daily bread … and cookies … and how about some cake, too?

Without one crucial ingredient – flour – the sweets and breads would be nothing but mush.

Behind bakers and flour millers stand dozens of food scientists who rely on tradition and new technology to find the best flours through development of wheat varieties.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Soft Wheat Quality Research Unit works to satisfy customers who love “soft wheat” in pastries, cookies, crackers and flat breads.

The lab is housed at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio.

Food science. As a matter of food technology, scientist Charles Gaines bakes up cookies and performs other laboratory quality tests to find the best wheat cultivars.

The ultimate test of wheat softness? The lab’s sugar snap cookie’s size, softness, and spread on the baking sheet.

“It’s a matter of geometry. The larger the diameter, the better,” Gaines said.

Gaines, who serves as the lab’s director, estimates the unit tests nearly 6,000 samples of wheat each year, evaluating them for their milling and baking qualities.

The samples are drawn from thousands of wheat seed crosses developed by breeders each year.

Ultimately, the research done at the Wooster lab tells breeders which of those samples are best – usually only one or two of the thousands of hopefuls – and those go on to be marketed to farmers, Gaines said.

Research and tests on each cultivar often take between 10 and 13 years, Gaines said.

“Our research here is why the quality is so good, why we’ve got the best pastry wheat in the world in this region. Not another country even comes close,” he said.

The cookie test. In testing, Gaines and other researchers look for varieties with the lowest water absorption, among other qualities.

According to Gaines, higher water binding characteristics are not as good for pastries and affect the wheat’s gluten content.

“We really try to avoid gluten to get the geometry needed. Baking out water costs money,” he said, noting a great majority of commercial bakeries use high-speed baking methods.

“The art of the miller is to blend [flour] to meet the specifications of the baker, who needs to make a lot of product quickly.

“Variations in flour quality causes problems [in baking], and some of that goes back to the wheat,” he said.

Other cultivars. The type of wheat grown in Ohio, soft red winter wheat, is used in cakes and cookies.

Hard winter wheat, grown further west in the Plains states, is used to make white pan bread, hot dog and hamburger buns.

Hard red spring wheat and durum wheat from the northern plains are used for pizza and bagels. Durum is also milled into semolina, used in pastas.

The Pacific Northwest grows soft white western wheat, used in flatbreads, noodles, Asian foods, and some American cakes and cookies.

Regional meeting. Earlier this month, Gaines met in Wooster with fellow researchers, chemists, millers and bakers – from as many as 39 private and university labs, from Michigan to Georgia – many of whom belong to the American Association of Cereal Chemists’ Cincinnati Section.

The conference is the main way the Wooster unit interacts with the milling and baking industry.

This year’s conference is a mark of the close cooperation with industry that started the year the lab opened.

Ohio’s lab, the first in the country, was set up by Congress in 1936 -in response to crop problems. The lab’s job was to help breeders through evaluation of test lines.

A series of annual conferences has continued since 1953.

Testing program. To maintain the highest standards for soft wheat-screening lab tests, the Cincinnati Section has held a prestigious annual testing program since 1985.

The Wooster soft wheat unit received the Best Overall award in 2002, as it did in 1989, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The award recognizes the lab whose research comes closest to the means of 44 other test labs across the country.

The unit won in other categories in 1993 and 1995.

Research is also conducted at sites in Manhattan, Kan.; Fargo, N.D.; and Pullman, Wash.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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