Friday, June 21, 2019

At WSU, the future of bread lies in the past

Karla Salp

Walking into the Washington State University Bread Lab evokes feelings of both the comfortable familiar and wonder of the strange and unusual.

Baking bread, of course

PhD Student, Robin Morgan from Italy,
sets out loaves to cool. 
As one might expect when walking into a bread lab, you are greeted by the intoxicating smell of fresh-baked bread – whether being whipped up in the professional kitchen by PhD students or in the on-site King Arthur Flour Baking School.

On a visit to the lab while Washington Grown was shooting a piece for their television show, the crew experienced three types of bread. First, the baking school was packed with attendees from the public learning how to make a traditional French baguette. In the bread lab’s kitchen, PhD student Laura Valli from Estonia shared a fresh-baked rye spice bread. And trials of an “approachable loaf” came hot out of the oven.

Creating an “approachable loaf” is one of the current Bread Lab projects. The goal: to create an affordable, nutrient-dense whole-wheat loaf of bread with simple ingredients that Americans will enjoy. The object is to offer an alternative to the standard white loaves sold in most grocery stores which, while popular and well-known, are nutritionally inferior.

"Approachable loaf" trial

Keeping the past alive, literally

"Miracle" wheat variety
But baking the best bread starts with breeding the best grain. As you enter the Bread Lab, one of the things you notice even at the entrance are the displays of various types of wheat – many of which most people have never seen.

Take for example the “Miracle” variety of wheat, which has been around for centuries, but is scarcely known now. Rather than the single-branched head of wheat on a stalk, this variety is multi-branched. Gracing the hallway are mounted wheat varieties developed by WSU. And in a back room of the lab, over 1,000 varieties of wheat and hundreds of other varieties of grain are stored and maintained for breeding purposes.

This “wall of wheat” provides the genetic material used in traditional breeding programs to evaluate existing grain varieties and breed new ones that will benefit farmers, processors, and consumers. Varieties are grown and evaluated for qualities such as flavor, color, baking quality, disease resistance, and nutrition.

Reinvigorating a local grain culture

Wheat variety trial fields. Photo credit: WSU Bread Lab
With an emphasis on developing publicly available grain varieties that thrive in Washington’s climate, the WSU Bread Lab is helping to reestablish a unique culture around local grains. From small grain growers to mills to baking or even brewing, the program is restoring a grain-centered culture that faded from American memory once milling became a larger industry and white flour became the norm.

The WSU Bread Lab is creating not only healthier bread but reviving a craft-grain culture that has nearly been lost in the United States. We'll drink - and eat - to that. 

After touring the WSU Bread Lab, fresh-baked bread,
local strawberries, and cheese seem like the perfect dinner.