Durum wheat is a type of wheat that is very high in protein, low in gluten, and tends to be quite dense. It is often considered to be one of the most nutritionally significant forms of wheat, and is frequently found in pastas. As compared to other wheat varieties it tends to be very heavy, which can make it difficult for people to use it in breads and other baked goods that need a lighter, airier quality; it is often prized in the flatbreads and thicker loaves of the Middle East and North Africa, though. Scholars typically think it originated from Eastern Europe and North Africa, and many of these regions are still important growing areas. Much of the world’s commercial production of durum happens in North America, however.
Nutritional and Physical Specifics
Though wheat is a pretty standard ingredient in a lot of different foods, there are many different varieties. Some grow better in certain regions than others, and they often have different nutritional profiles, even if they look more or less the same as they’re growing. How they’re prepared and harvested often matters a lot, too. Durum wheat is a specific type of wheat that is part of the tetraploid family.
There are two main things that make durum unique. First is its color: it tends to be a light yellow, while most comparable whole-grain varieties are tan or brown. It also contains much higher percentages of protein, fiber, and other vitamins and minerals than do most other wheats Durum is usually considered to be a “whole grain” when it’s used in full, and in these cases the entire wheat berry is ground up during processing. This berry contains the majority of the nutrients, and when used in the grinding process it allows the wheat to remain a viable source of nutrition.
Durum wheat tends to be low in gluten. Gluten is a protein that has a number of different qualities, one of which is acting as a sort of adhesive when baking: it binds to other ingredients and helps keep the finished project from falling apart. People who can’t eat gluten for medical reasons aren’t usually able to eat durum, since gluten is present — but it is present in low enough qualities that bakers often get somewhat disappointing results when they try to use it in bread recipes that are designed for different types of more gluten-rich wheat.
Many of the traditional flat breads made in North Africa and the Middle East use exclusively durum, however, and this variety is also used to make many forms of cous cous, which is a grain dish resembling small “beads” that are pasta-like or rice-like in texture. This type of wheat is also very important in traditional Muslim cooking. Breads and related dishes made with durum tend to be very heavy and are often quite filling.
The texture of this wheat when ground makes it ideal for pasta, and most traditional Italian pasta recipes call for durum flour specifically. The relationship between durum and pasta is so strong that the wheat is sometimes referred to as “macaroni wheat.” Pasta made from this type of wheat is typically yellow in color because of the wheat's yellow endosperm, and it tends to be more nutritious than “white” pastas that are sold in many places, particularly in the West. Noodles that are white in color and not labeled whole-wheat or whole-grain have usually been processed without the berry, which may result in little to no nutritional value.
Relationship to Semolina
Pasta that is made from durum wheat is often labeled “semolina,” which is basically the name for milled or ground durum berries. Semolina is a grainy substance that may be off-white or yellowish in color. The next step after grinding the wheat is usually mixing it with water to form dough. Semolina dough is often very stiff, which generally makes it easier to use for molding into various pasta shapes. Pasta makers often use a variety of dies and metal discs to form the dough before drying and boiling it.
Where It’s Grown
This sort of wheat grows well in many different parts of the world, and is particularly prolific in the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Northern Africa, especially Egypt. It isn’t always grown commercially in these places, though. The state of North Dakota in the United States is where the majority of durum wheat is produced for export and commercial consumption. Roughly 73% of what is used in the United States comes from this state, although Montana, Minnesota, and South Dakota are also notable producers. Southern Canada also grows a lot. Countries outside the United States commonly use wheat made in these two countries because it is typically very strong and hardy. Just the same, the majority of wheat planted in the U.S. is fall-seeded winter wheat, and only about 6% is durum.