White wheat flour has only been getting attention for few years in the States. It is, quite simply, a white strain of wheat which when milled yields a whole wheat flour that’s far paler than traditional whole wheat flour. Historically, American agriculture has produced two basic strains of wheat: hard red wheat and soft red wheat (Italian durum was popularized in the middle of the 20th Century, but that’s another discussion). Red wheat is called “red” wheat because of the reddish-brown hue of its seed coat (bran). White wheat has a much lighter, yellow-brown seed coat. Grind it, and it looks almost white.
White wheat is nothing new in Asia, where it’s used to make noodles and breads, nor in Australia where almost all the wheat they produce is hard white. Here in the States, though, it has never grown very well. Hence our confusion when we see “White Whole Wheat Flour” on King Arthur bags. The reason we’re seeing it now is because over the last 12 years or so, new strains of hard white wheat with names like “Argent”, “Wendy”, “Snowbird” and “Lolo” have been introduced. They grow well in our climate and have test weights comparable to those of hard red wheats.
So what’s the difference between hard white wheat and hard red wheat? Other than the color, there are some important differences. In the field it’s fussier, a bit more prone to disease and early sprouting. On the plate, however, it’s far milder tasting than hard red wheat, especially in its “whole wheat” form. Why? It turns out those red pigments in hard red wheat contain phenols and tannins which are responsible for those bitter and astringent flavors that many people (like me) find unpleasant. White wheat offers people who have traditionally been less than enthused by the taste of of whole wheat bread a milder alternative, one we could almost be fooled into thinking was regular white flour if nobody told us.
Of course this week I surely will know, since I made my whole wheat sandwich bread out of it. Darnit! Me and my big fingers. I ruined the surprise!