Wheat Breeding for Flavor

Much has been written about the soaring popularity of heirloom wheat varieties among artisan bread bakers, but little has been reported on the yield potential of new varieties on the horizon. During an Oct. 10 education session at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) in Las Vegas, Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University, elaborated on the potential of new wheat varieties (1109, as one example) developed in the past six years that offer great promise.

Notable bakers like Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco have tested 1109 and preferred the modern variety over heirloom. “This is a variety that will yield up to 10 times what an heirloom variety will do,” Jones says. “We want the yield to bring price points down, so that very good nutritious foods can become available for the same price.”

Heirloom, or sometimes called historical, varieties like Einkorn, Emmer, Red Fife and Turkey Red have become the darlings of the artisan bread community in recent years, largely due to America’s growing fascination with nostalgia and all things local. There’s a small wheat farm in northeast Kansas, for instance, that grows historical Turkey Red for a retail baker just five miles away.

Julie Dawson, a wheat breeder and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who spoke at the IBIE session, explained the historical significance of varieties like Red Fife that have the genetic diversity to be grown on large geographic areas. “We used to grow wheat everywhere in the United States,” Jones points out.

The problem with historical wheat varieties is they are no longer abundant. Thus, wheat breeders like Dawson look to overcome limitations of historical varieties while preserving their baking qualities. Their ultimate goal is to develop varieties that increase farmer autonomy and choice, in addition to offering flavor and functionality that bakers and chefs desire.

“It really depends on whether the baker can work with (the variety),” Dawson says. “It takes a big commitment from the farmer, but they are happy with what they get out of the process.”

Tom Hunton, a wheat farmer who works with Jones, advocates building a bridge from the farmer being profitable to the retail baker producing a great loaf of bread, “so the baker has some unique capabilities to be successful.” This means the pipeline needs new varieties with desirable traits.