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Friday, May 13, 2011

Triticale and Spelt Bread Bake-off

Triticale and Spelt Bread Bake-off

This was to be a bread-off between two whole grains that are utterly different but in some ways are curiously similar.  One is Spelt, a very old grain that has barely held on to its lesser place among other grains in the human diet , and the other is Triticale, a very new grain that is almost entirely man-made, that has also failed to move beyond its minor role among the many grains that humans eat.

I originally just wanted to bake a bread that would allow me to taste these grains in their 100% form.  I had baked with spelt before, tossing some in breads with other grains, but I had never tried a 100% spelt bread.  And triticale was still a mystery.  While browsing the bread-baking blogosphere recently, I noticed that LeadDog of the Sourdough Companion was experimenting with a 100% spelt bread recipe.  His bread used a sourdough starter (naturally), and was 68% hydrated.  I was also following the exploits of proth5, of the fresh loaf blogs who was experimenting with breads made with triticale.  My curiosity about triticale was roused again, and I began to read a couple of articles and online theses about it.  One doctorate I skim-read suggested that a 68% hydrated dough was the right hydration to make a great 100% triticale bread.  The serendipity was striking, and so this bread-off was conceived.

I am old enough to remember the 'Trouble with Tribbles' episode when Harry Mudd's tribbles ate all the Quadrotriticale seedstock housed in the Starship Enterprises' hold.  In fact, I remember knowing what 'triticale' was (so I knew that 'Quadrotriticale' was a fictional embellishment) when that episode aired: and I remember the fleeting pride I felt that, for a moment anyway, I assumed I was as smart as Spock.  You see, I had recently visited my grandparents farm at a time when my uncles were discussing the new grain triticale.  They too were farmers, and they were wondering if indeed triticale's promise would live up to its hype.  The early claims for this wheat-rye cross were grandiose: a more perfect protein, can easily be baked into bread like wheat but had a taste closer to rye, was easy to grow, disease resistant, higher yields, yada yada.  It was being sold, back in the 60s and 70s.  But in the intervening years, it simply did not take off, it did not establish itself as mainstream food for humans.  Rather, it has taken its place as yet another grain among many, for livestock -- mainly pigs and chickens.  Only now is it being dusted off, so to speak, and one can find it in health food stores and specialty mills.
Tribbles are mostly sex organs...and they make you feel good
(unless you are of Klingon or Romulan ancestry)

Right about that time, I remember having a discussion with a friend, which lead from the adolescent question "which Star Trek figure do you most admire?"  He said Captain Kirk, cause he was the leader, and he always got the hot chicks.  I said Spock, because he knew everything.  But in this Tribble episode, there is a point where the agricultural specialist who is transporting the grain to a starving planet suggests that the bored Kirk doesn't understand its true importance.  Kirk merely turns to Spock and asks Spock if he knows anything about Quadrotriticale.  Spock does indeed, and he begins to riff on the subject.  Within a few sentences, Spock gives the impression he actually knows more than the aggie expert.  And with a mere look, Kirk gives the impression that the Captain doesn't need to know anything about it, as long as he has someone trusted who does know everything.  It is a wonderfully written -- and acted -- scene.

I think, in the intervening years, I have not really changed my mind about wanting to be Spock.  I'd rather know everything than make the decisions that a leader needs to make, especially a leader without all the facts.  Because quite frankly, there is no one I would trust enough to know everything about things I do not yet understand.  Even teachers have a vested interest.  And I do not believe that we know enough about anything yet to make the right decisions.  Even the experts do not know everything; even the leaders have to make decisions based on insufficient facts.

And yet we all still have to eat something for breakfast.

The story of the real grain triticale is interesting in its own right, even without resorting to science fiction.  Wheat and Rye are both grasses, but they come from completely different genera.  That means that normally, you would think that they would not be able to interbreed.  I mean, you might as well ask a human being to interbreed with a neanderthal*.  

Yet I have read that in 1889, Rimpau in Germany reported having seen a natural cross of the two grasses in the wild that did not, of course, breed true in the next generation.  He probably knew what to look for, because a proof-in-principle was previously achieved In the laboratory.  In 1873, the Scottish botanist Steven Wilson successfully hybridized wheat and rye by painstakingly removing the wheat antlers of hundreds upon hundreds of plants, and painting on rye pollen with an extra fine paint brush.  As reported in The Botanical Society of Edinburgh, most of his attempts failed.  But eventually, his persistence paid off, and he was able to create a hybrid.  However, again there were problems with getting this plant to breed successfully in successive generations.  The cause wasn't known until later, as the science of genetics developed.  People around the world continued to work on the hybrid -- most notably Meister, in 1918 Russia, who grew many fields of the plant, all of which were ultimately sterile.  It was Swedish botanist Arne Muntzin who first called the plant 'triticale' in print, and he achieved high yields of various triticale hybrids (again, all sterile), but he also noted some rather disturbing mutations.  He did predict that the problems would eventually be solved.

The problem is that the two grasses have entirely different genetic structure.  Wheat is complicated: scientists around the world are only now sequencing wheat -- it is an international effort.  (I have read somewhere that wheat's gene sequence is 11x more complicated than the human genome).  By itself, wheat appears to be a (natural) hybridization of two or three other grasses: (1) Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) , (2) a grass that is similar to the modern Aegilps speltoides (not to be confused with Spelt, see below), and (3) the goat-grass Auegilops tauschii.  In the course of hybridization and mutation, it seems that wheat's chromosomes became quite complex.  Einkorn is diploid (2 sets of chromosomes), but later wheats are polyploid -- i.e. they have four or six sets of chromosomes.  Spelt, for example, is hexaploid -- it has six sets of chromosomes.  Rye is diploid.  So if you can get the parent plants to hybridize and create the daughter triticale, the triticale won't breed true because the seedling contains only a single set of wheat chromosomes and a single set of rye chromosomes, and they don't match.

In 1937, the French scientist Pierre Givaudon discovered that if you treat seedlings with cholchicine (an alkaloid derived from crocus plants), you can cause chromosomes to double.  In the 1950's, Canadian universities (Manitoba and Guelph) were working in Mexico to use these and other new techniques to come up with a viable, self-reproducing triticale.  There was real excitement behind the project: they felt that they were doing humanitarian work, that they were doing this to provide food for developing countries that had soil too poor for wheat, but that could grow a plant like triticale.

Norman Borlaug was also working in Mexico, developing his dwarf wheats, which would ultimately usher in the most recent Green Revolution, and he was also interested in triticale.  In Mexico, botanists could get two generations of plants to grow in one year, thus doubling the amount of work they could do.  Borlaug later reported, "while scientific man was still in bed, one promiscuous, venturesome stray wheat pollen grain with a potent and valuable 'genetic load' from the nearby wheat breeding plots floated across the road under cover of darkness and fertilized a sad but permissive tall, sterile, degenerate triticale plant."  Obviously, this is the sort of thing that Borlaug got excited about.

Chance favours the prepared mind, so we can hardly call this an accident, but Borlaug reports he was humbled by it.  Working with this single plant, the scientists found that its daughters were much shorter than the mother plant; and in two generations, the progeny exhibited "inheritable fertility."  Triticale was finally a viable new species.  it took nearly a hundred years of trying.

Many of the triticale species that we now have -- and there are several, for triticale's genetics are continuously tinkered with -- trace their origin to this single remarkable event.  Modern triticale generally will have 14-20% protein, higher than that of wheat: and unlike wheat, it has lots of lysine.  It has more thiamin and folate than wheat; but less niacin and less vitamin B6 than either rye or wheat.  Like wheat, it contains natural benzoxazinones, which provide defense against fungi, bacteria and other dangers to the plant.  They have now achieved an ergot-free triticale (originally it was susceptible as rye is).  Triticale does have gluten, but some who are sensitive to wheat can tolerate triticale because it is reportedly less acid-forming.  Like its parent rye, triticale has pentosans, which some people consider anti-nutritive.  But triticale has lots of fibre, too. The germ is also high in Vitamin E -- although soft wheat has slightly more.

I get my triticale -- both the milled flour, and the whole grain -- from the nearby Arva Flour Mill.  It is grown in Canada, most likely out west.  Other than that, I know nothing about it.

We don't know the origin of wheat, although most scientists believe it was a natural hybridization.  I'm not so sure, personally.  I have this feeling that the ancients had a lot more savvy than we generally give them credit for.   It could be simply that somewhere in our human past, someone somewhere in the Fertile Crescent had a prepared mind, and noticed a natural hybridization that they considered fruitful.  They tended it, they nurtured it, and the result was wheat.  It fell, not just into a fertile soil, but into a fertile mind.

This is no idle speculation.  There are exemplars that the ancients knew a good deal about the plants they used.  When the Europeans came to North America, they brought with them a lot of plants that they thought were essential, and dissed the native flora and the native knowledge of those plants, that had been doing quite well, thank you very much, for several thousand years on this continent already.  Today, we see mullein as a weed.  It was introduced because the Spanish thought it was beneficial.  On the other hand, Ragweed is also considered a weed by us, yet at one time, the indigenous people farmed it and knew what to do with it.  Whatever it was to them -- and it was likely a staple grain something like amaranth is in some quarters -- it has regressed through disuse.  There was a knowledge, an agrarian technology, that once made ragweed a viable food.  And that was without knowledge, one supposes, of chromosomes or use of colchicine.

The nomenclature "hunter gatherer" is somewhat pejorative.  Indigenous people lived in concert with the plants and animals, and they contributed to the cycles of life of the native flora and fauna.  They were "tending the wild", as M. Kat Anderson so eloquently titled his book.

For better or worse, from somewheat humble beginnings, the human race slipped into agrarian-based societies, and human civilization, with all that this entails, took off.

Spelt (Triticum spelta, which the Germans call "Dinkel") is thought by some to be a hybrid of an early domesticated wheat called emmer, and the wild goat-grass A. tauschii.  It may be older than common bread wheat.  Whatever its origins, it has been around since Neolithic times (at least 2500 BCE), and it was popular throughout Europe with the spread of agriculture until the middle ages.  It appears to have fallen out of favour, and was nearly lost to the modern age, because wheat was preferred.  But spelt was continuously grown in some poor-soil, high-altitude areas in Europe, where it was kept viable by independent farmers who thrived on it.  Recently there has been a greater interest in it.  And so it continues to find a small niche market for those who like its taste and other properties.

Economies of scale are still keeping Spelt alive.  It is curious that it was once kept alive by the poorest of the poor farmers.  Now, it is expensive to buy: but those who are willing to pay a premium for it, continue to do so.  Compared to wheat, it is just not practical for a farmer to grow, unless she has a ready market, that is, a buyer who is willing to pay extra to make such a crop worth her while.  This is Darwinian economics at work: survival of the cheapest.  That means, of course, not necessarily the best at everything.  Wheat continues to be the best bang for the buck, even though it may not be as nutritional, may be more costly in the long run to grow, may not taste the best.  People are willing to make sacrifices in one or more of these areas for a high starch, relatively high protein meal that uniquely makes the most dramatic rise for bread -- and for this, wheat remains unbeatable.  But which wheat?  There are over 16000 species of wheat now catalogued.  The most common for bread is of course Triticum aestivum, and we also use a lot of Triticum durum, a softer variety used in noodles. The many other varieties continue to be played with, and scientists regularly mine this multivariate genetic material for better traits, for different locales and growing conditions.  You do not, of course, have to trust the experts.  You can grow what you like.

I had read reports that spelt's gluten is weak and is easily overworked, rarely a problem with wheat when one is kneading by hand, but it may be a problem with spelt.  Spelt has a lower water absorption value than wheat -- it holds less water.  In general, spelt is used in place of soft, rather than hard, wheat.

The spelt I had purchased is Hockley Valley's "Light Spelt", and this turned out to be a problem for me.  What I really required for this recipe to work is their Natural Whole Spelt Flour.  But the store nearest me doesn't have it.  Light Spelt is sifted, so it has all the good stuff I like -- the bran, the germ -- removed.  Because of this, this bread off was a total failure.  My spelt loaf was a disaster.  I'll have to try this again with whole spelt, when I find it.

This is entirely LeadDog's recipe and method.   I used my 70% rye sourdough to elaborate both a triticale and a spelt sourdough at 80% hydration, the night before baking.  Right away I saw a great difference in the volume and texture of the two flours at a similar weight.

The recipe for both breads was the same:

  • 633g Flour (Spelt/Triticale)     100%
  • 431g Water                68.09%
  • 10g Salt                    1.58%
  • 127g Sourdough Starter (Spelt/Triticale) 20.06%

Spelt dough ingredients:

Triticale dough ingredients:

Water is added to the starter, and then the flour is mixed in.  The dough is rested 30 minutes.  Then the salt is mixed into the dough, taking care not to overmix it.  Both triticale and spelt have gluten, but it is different from bread wheat.  You really don't want to over-work these doughs.

mixing triticale:

after 30 min:

mixing spelt:


after 30 minutes:

I noticed right away the extreme difference in the way these flours soak up the water.  The spelt is really gooey.  It has wheat's elasticity, without the springiness.  The triticale is not quite like rye, and not quite like wheat.  It is very tight, definitely more elastic than rye, but not as stringy as wheat.  The triticale dough cried out to be kneaded.  The spelt was not kneadable.

These are bulk fermented in an oiled bowl.  I decided to take the suggestion of one of LeadDog's commenters, and every 30 minutes for 2 hours I did a fold in the bowl (of both the spelt dough, and the triticale). 

At the beginning:

30 min mark:

1 hour mark:

90 min mark:

2 hour mark:

Then I shaped the dough into a boule shape and left it in a basket lined with floured cloth to proof, for 2 hours. 

The spelt loaf stuck to the floured cloth, and deflated on the pizza peel as I tried to extricate it. The triticale loaf remained firm.

I had preheated the oven and stone to 460 degrees F; then I baked for 45 minutes.  The spelt loaf had the first 30 minutes of that under a roasting pan.  The triticale wouldn't fit.


Wow.  These breads taste good.  The spelt spread out because it was too wet and I mishandled it, but it tastes great and I especially like the crackly crust.   The triticale is a much tighter loaf, and probably didn't benefit from being handled during the bulk fermentation.  But it tastes wonderful: I am trying to decide if it tastes like a 60% Rye and wheat bread, but it isn't quite the same, not really.  Many describe the taste as 'nutty'.  Well, it sort of is.  But that isn't all of it.

The scent of the spelt loaf right out of the oven is unique.  Something funky, something of the earth in springtime.  The triticale loaf smells different: like a dusty, ten thousand year old village on the edge of a river that overflows its banks every spring.  What's up with that?  But its true.  That is what I smell in the baked grain: the total reversal of what the grains actually are.

There is no clear winner in this version of the Spelt-Triticale bread-off.  I quickly gorged myself on several pieces of both breads, eating one slice after another, first plain, then with butter, again with cheese, and finally toasted with peanut butter… and then I collapsed in front of the keyboard while blogging about it all, sleeping off the carb loading, waiting for blogger to come back on line so I could post this. 

Generally at peace with myself and at one with the Universe.

"Fascinating, Captain: I have perfected the perfect spelt boule."

However, there is one nagging thought: Spock would never have let his spelt loaf fall so flat.

Notes to Myself
  • Get the 100% Whole Spelt Flour, or grind your own, before you make up your mind about this grain.
  • Notice the way the sourdough loves the spelt: the wild yeast really ate up this sieved flour. Does that mean it is sweeter? But what about the amylase in the bran? Does triticale have less amylase in its bran than wheat? Most of the sources I've consulted have suggested that in fact, it has more amylase. In fact, it was suspected at one time that this was the reason why early hybrid kernels were somewhat shrivelled. That was not the reason for the shrivelled appearance, though: it was later determined that the early hybrids had occasional mutations where the starch synthase was somewhat altered.
  • The whole wheat triticale needs a bit more hydration, or less handling during the bulk fermentation stage. The light, sieved spelt needs less hydration to get a proper, kneadable dough that will stand up to being baked on an oven stone.
  • *Recent evidence suggests that early homo sapiens actually may have been interbreeding with other homo species -- perhaps including but not limited to Homo neanderthalensis.
  • Modern triticale uses more genetic material from wheat than from rye, because wheat is the original parent plant: we have a wheat-rye cross. But the reverse has also been achieved -- a rye-wheat cross -- and scientists have coined the term secalotricum for this rather different species. It doesn't really trip off the tongue like triticale though, so it really hasn't caught on.

1 comment:

  1. I was actually doing a google search for why Bob's Red Mill 7-grain Hot Cereal smells like oil paints. Assuming the scent is akin to the linseed oil emulsifier in the paint, I am still not sure which of the 7 grains is the culprit. Triticale is listed, which led me to your delightful blog. Thanks for the Spocktastic comparison. Very nice.