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Thought for the Day: Stuff About Wheat as Prerequisite to Understanding הפרשת חלה

I was once listening  to R' Yisrael Belsky, ztz"l, giving a shiur on Iyov and in the middle he asked if anyone knew the two enzymes present in the stomach.  When no one knew, he banged on the table (shtender?  how to tell over mp3) and exclaimed, "Do you you think I just looked that up for this shiur?  I know that because I am interested in understanding as much as I can about the wonders of the Creator!  Why aren't you?"  (The enzymes are pepsin -- to digest proteins -- and gastric lipase -- to digest fats.  Cows and such also have the enzyme renin in their fourth stomach.)

That struck a chord in me as there is one area of science that I have always avoided -- botany.  I just couldn't see what was interesting about plants.  Then I started listening to R' Dovid Cohen's excellent shiurim on the CRC web site.  I heard a few on topics I thought would be interesting, found it all interesting, so finally started listening to one that I absolutely thought would not be interesting -- הפרשת חלה/separating challah.  It was kind of the botany of halacha for me.  Surprise, surprise, there are lots of interesting issues; and to really understand them... you need to know something about grains.  For example, challah need not be separated until you have a sufficient volume of dough.  However, only wheat flour counts toward the shiur -- not added bran nor wheat germ; even though bran and wheat germ are part of wheat.  Oh, by the way, if you are making bread from whole wheat or stone ground flour (what's the difference?) then you do count the bran and wheat germ in the shiur.

So here you go.  The wheat berry (the entire kernel sans husk; see?  you are learning already) has three components: bran, germ, and endosperm.  Bran is basically inedible (aka dietary fiber, aka "roughage") and comprises approximately 14% of the berry.  The germ is actually the part that would grow into a new wheat plant; it contains fat and protein and comprised 3% of the berry.  The endosperm is the bulk of the berry (the final 83%) and contains mostly carbs, a little protein, and no fat; white flour is ground endosperm.

The protein is the infamous gluten; it's nice and stretchy and gives bread its texture.  The gluten can be removed by washing and then sold separately as "vital wheat gluten" or processed into seitan (ah... so that's what's in my veggie burgers!)  They also sell vital wheat gluten as an additive to... flour!  Why take it out and put it back?  Spring wheat has less protein, making it better for pasta than for breads.  Add some gluten to your spring wheat, and ...tada... you have winter wheat.  In broad strokes, bread flour is from winter wheat and all purpose flour is a blend of winter and spring wheats.  Winter and spring refers to when it is planted, by the way.

Flour is mostly ground with counter-rotating steel wheels that break apart the bran, endosperm, and wheat germ, which can then be separated.  Removing the germ yields a longer shelf life since the fat has been removed.  Removing the bran yields white flour.  (There is nothing really wrong with white flour, by the way; it is full of vitamins.  There is a process called bleaching that does significantly lower the vitamin and mineral content.  Bleaching is done to accelerate the process of getting to market.  A quintessential American food -- faster and cheaper to produce, great junk food starter.)  By separating the ingredients, they can be blended to give a consistent product and gives a measure of control over the relative percentages of fat, protien, and carbohydrates.  Stone ground wheat has two features: (1) All the components are used; so it is a type of wheat flour.  (2) It is a cooler processing than with steel wheels, so fewer nutrients are damaged (that's the claim, anyway).

I said that stone ground wheat is a type of whole wheat flour.  Another way to get whole wheat flour is to add bran back into white flour.  Why would you do that?  Marketing (new! improved! high fiber flour!!), consistency (this is America, after all), convenience (see previous note about America).  The practical difference for us is that dough made from five lbs (or so) of flour requires a bracha when separating challah.  For flours that had the bran removed and added back, that means you'd need almost six lbs.

Now you're ready to start learning about הפרשת חלה.

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