BLOG Archive for April, 2021

What Can I Make With This Smoke-Tainted Wheat?

April 9, 2021

How do wildfires affect the smell, taste and texture of bread? Wildfire Loaf is a multi-year research project to taste-test and genetically sequence sourdough starters made from smoke-tainted wheat. Climate change is increasing the number and severity of wildfires and this has direct implications for the ways that food products are farmed, assessed, processed and eaten. As we make connections across scales—from the microbial to the planetary—we are asking: what is the future of this iconic and commodified ingredient?

There are many varieties of wheat: hard, soft, red, white, and durum. As we search for wheat affected by wildfires, the one of the first questions we ask is ‘What can I make with this smoke-tainted wheat?’ Our aim is to experiment with making bread, using traditional leavening processes, from this abnormal/new-normal/smoke-tainted wheat. Here’s the reference guide we made for ourselves.

WHEAT GLOSSARY

For the glossary below we’ve focused on wheat classifications common in the United States and in trade terminology. The broader concepts we outline (Winter, Spring, Hard, Soft, White, and Red) are used around the world, but of course there are many other varieties and sub-varieties. “Winter” and “Spring” refer to both the season (and relatedly) the distinct cultivar or variety of the crop that is planted. “Hard” and “Soft” refer to the ease of milling and protein content, hard is protein-rich and more difficult to mill while soft has less protein and is easier to grind into a smooth texture. “White” and “Red” refer to the color, protein and flavors; red typically contains more protein, meaning stronger gluten and has a nuttier, almost bitter flavor, and white varieties are known to have less gluten and feature milder flavors.

This interactive map by US Wheat Associates shows where varieties are grown. 

If you want to bake bread, it’s best to reach for the hard stuff. Hard wheats are high in gluten and offer impressive stretchiness.

Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Hard White

HARD RED WINTER (THE VERSATILE WHEAT)

EXCELLENT FOR: rustic breads, hard rolls, croissants, flatbreads, some Asian noodles and general purpose flours

TEXTURE: elastic, chewy

EXAMPLE OF A LOCATION WHERE IT IS FARMED: The Great Plains and Northern parts of the United States, with pockets in the Pacific Northwest and Central California


HARD RED SPRING (THE FANCIEST WHEAT) 

EXCELLENT FOR: hearth breads, rolls, croissants, bagels and pizza dough, and flour blends

TEXTURE: tensile, stretchy

EXAMPLE OF A LOCATION WHERE IT IS FARMED: Upper central region of the United States and lower central region of Canada


HARD WHITE (THE SMOOTH WHEAT)

EXCELLENT FOR: tortillas, pan loafs, flatbreads, and some noodles

TEXTURE:  fine, smooth

EXAMPLE OF A LOCATION WHERE IT IS FARMED: Central California and The Great Plains in the United States

And then there’s durum, the hardest of all wheats with the highest gluten content.

Durum

DURUM (THE HARDEST WHEAT, A.K.A. THE PASTA WHEAT) 

EXCELLENT FOR: Excellent for: premium pastas, couscous, and Mediterranean-style breads

TEXTURE: snappy

EXAMPLE OF A LOCATION WHERE IT IS FARMED: Specifically, North Dakota and Central California in the United States

If you want to bake cakes, crackers, or some Asian style noodles, it’s best to reach for the soft stuff. Soft wheats are lower in gluten and have reduced stretchiness.

Soft Red Winter, Soft White

SOFT RED WINTER (THE LOW-COST WHEAT) 

EXCELLENT FOR: cookies, crackers, cakes, blends for baguettes and other bread products

TEXTURE: fine, soft

EXAMPLE OF A LOCATION WHERE IT IS FARMED: Midwest and eastern regions of the United States


SOFT WHITE (THE LOW-MOISTURE WHEAT) 

EXCELLENT FOR: Asian-style noodles, cakes, pastries, and snacks

TEXTURE: crumbly, meltaway

EXAMPLE OF A LOCATION WHERE IT IS FARMED: Pacific Northwest region of the United States


SOURCES

US Wheat Associates: Wheat Classes

Master Class: Essential Guide To Wheat

Wildfire vs. Wheat

How do wildfires affect the smell, taste and texture of bread? Wildfire Loaf is an ongoing research project to taste-test and genetically sequence sourdough starters made from smoke-tainted wheat. Climate change is increasing the number and severity of wildfires and this has direct implications for the ways that food products are farmed, assessed, processed and eaten. As we make connections across scales—from the microbial to the planetary—we are asking: what is the future of this iconic and commodified ingredient?

Wildfires impact many landscapes including the agricultural lands that are used to grow wheat. For the WILDFIRE LOAF project we are particularly interested in locations and moments where wildfires on or near wheat fields have impacted the crop, either by direct burning or through smoke taint. Wheat is graded before it is sold based on a number of factors, smoke taint being one of them. If increased fires will increase the number of crops with smoke taint, then value will decrease.

We have recently contacted the USDA to start the process of locating samples of smoke-tainted wheat to begin our testing and research into sequencing their microbial communities.

What is the ecology of fire? There are many types of fire that affect agricultural lands. The delineation is simple: a wildfire or brush fire is unplanned, unwanted, and uncontrolled. An agricultural burn is planned, wanted, and controlled.

Where are there wildfires? We are using this NASA Fire Map to track wildfires around the globe over time. 

FIRMS Map for March 7th 2021; NASA

Where is wheat grown? We are using a variety of resources to track wheat production in different regions of the world. As new wildfires arise on agricultural land, we look for local tools to aid our research.

—In the US, we are using this interactive map

—For the European Union, we are using this data browser

—For global production we are referring to this export map and this international trade database.

Global Wheat Cultivation. Darker colors indicate areas where more wheat is grown. Map based on You, L., U. Wood-Sichra, S. Fritz, Z. Guo, L. See, and J. Koo. 2014. Spatial Production Allocation Model  (SPAM), 2005 Beta Version, from IFPRI (Harvest Choice).

Obtaining smoke tainted wheat will likely be a difficult task considering that most smoke tainted crops are considered waste. For this logistical reason, our investigation will start in locations where wheat and fire overlap with places that we live or where we have an established network of contacts. As we progress we may try to learn more about and include sites that we are less familiar with.

RECENT WILDFIRES

We need to find wheat affected by wildfires to conduct our experiments. We’re looking into these three recent wildfires that have impacted the harvest of wheat starting in 2018: 

A. Oregon, United States: The 2018 Substation Fire

Over 50,000 acres were charred, destroying an estimated $5 million worth of soft white wheat just a few weeks into harvest season. Ripe wheat burns hot and fast because it’s dried out to less than 10% moisture this time of year before it’s harvested. Each crop takes two years to grow. This damaged 3% of Oregon’s $186 million wheat crop in 2018. 

  1. CAUSE OF FIRE: this fire was man made
  2. WHEAT VARIETY AFFECTED: Soft White Winter
  3. USE: This variety used to make ramen noodles, steamed breads and flatbreads. 
  4. MAP: Wheat Map
  5. REGIONAL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: Oregon Wheat Industry

Wildfire affected wheat. KGW News

B. Oise, France: The July 2019 Fire

More than 500 acres of wheat burned in this wildfire in the midst of harvest season. France is the European Union’s largest grain producer and exporter. Oise is the fifth largest producing department of soft wheat in France. The 2019/20 harvest of soft wheat fell 21% due to weather woes due to heavy rains in autumn and a drought in spring that caused sowing difficulties.

  1. CAUSE OF FIRE: a heatwave started this fire
  2. WHEAT VARIETY AFFECTED: Soft White
  3. USE: This variety is mostly used to make breads and crackers.
  4. MAP: Wheat Map
  5. REGIONAL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: French Wheat Industry

French firemen extinguish a fire in a burning field of wheat during harvest season in Anneux, France, July 22,2019. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

C. Perth, Australia: The February 2021 Wooroloo Fire

In early February, over 26,000 acres burned north east of the Perth central business district in the Wooroloo bushfire. It spread to several Shires in the wheatbelt including: Mundaring, Chittering, Northam and the City of Swan. Scientists have recently started researching the vast diversity of microbes, bacteria and fungi that are present in smoke plumes. This is difficult research to conduct as you need to know everything that fueled the fire, how long it burned, how severely it burned, and then find a way to capture samples. We’re just beginning to understand how smoke taint may be touchable and tastable.

  1. CAUSE OF FIRE: extreme heat started this brushfire
  2. WHEAT VARIETY AFFECTED: This region grows Australian Hard, Australian Premium White, Australian Standard Noodle, and Australian Standard White wheats.
  3. USE: These varieties are used to make breads, noodles, steamed and flat breads.
  4. MAP: Wheat Map
  5. REGIONAL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: Australian Wheat Industry

Fire crews control bushfires as they approach properties in Perth, Australia, on February 2nd. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty

OPEN INQUIRIES

Often our research turns up more questions than answers. Here are a few we are starting to look into:

1. What happens to wheat that has been smoke tainted or worse yet burned? How is it analyzed and graded?

2. Can smoke-tainted wheat still be used to make bread that is safe to eat?

3. What happens to agricultural lands ravaged by wildfire and how are they restored for farming? How long does this process take?

4. How far away are affected agricultural lands? How far from a fire does wheat need to be grown to not be smoke tainted?

CURRENT & UPCOMING

October 24 - November 21, 2019
ClimATE, Aalto University, Espoo, FI.
March 1, 2018
Climate Fiction PT
October 21 - 29, 2017
Dutch Design Week: Embassy of Food
October 19 - 21, 2017
Experiencing Food (Lisbon)
Nov. 5 - Apr. 2, 2016
2116: Forecast of the Next Century
Nov. 5th, 2016
KiKK Festival Workshop