Washington State University/Carson College of Business
Soft durum wheat, a versatile new version of the workhorse variety most often used to make pasta, is featured in a Washington State University fine dining program, but researchers say its future may stretch beyond the university’s buffet table.
The Carson College of Business offers the Feast of the Arts on Friday nights before home football games. The program is a collaboration between the WSU Alumni Center; Jamie Callison, executive chef of the School of Hospitality Business Management Catering Services; and WSU-affiliated wineries. The food is prepared by students who work and volunteer at the catering service.
Soft durum wheat is used in all the bread, desserts, pasta, ravioli and other dishes, said Jessica Murray, Ph.D. student in the school of hospitality and business management.
Callison, the chef, calls soft durum flour “magic flour, because it seems to work in everything we have tried it in,” Murray said.
Craig Morris, director of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Western Wheat Quality Laboratory on the WSU campus, leads worldwide soft durum development efforts.
Durum represents roughly 5 to 7 percent of total global wheat production. Further development has been hindered by the hardness of the kernels compared to other wheat varieties, Morris said. It is primarily used in spaghetti and couscous.
Durum can only be milled on a dedicated mill, instead of mills that also handle soft or hard wheats, Morris said.
In ancient times, two soft-kerneled weeds were crossed to create hard-kerneled durum wheat, Morris said. Morris and his team of researchers have “fixed” the problem through non-GMO breeding durum with goatgrass to develop durum wheat with a soft kernel.
In Washington, soft durum acreage varies between several hundred acres and 1,000, Morris said.
He said the lab has received requests for soft durum samples from mills in Japan, South Korea and east Asia to test the new durum wheat.
“I haven’t run into anybody who says, ‘Thank you very much, we’re not interested,’” Morris said. “The technical merits of soft durum absolutely sell themselves.”
Price and availability because of limited production are the biggest limiting factors right now, he said.
He’d like to reach a point where someone purchases a large shipment — 40 to 50 metric tons — of soft durum. That’s enough wheat to use in a full-size mill, even if just for 4 to 6 hours, he said.
Farmers would have to make very little adjustment to raise it, he said.
Durum has “inherent” disease resistance and agronomic advantages, including yield, Morris said.
“Durum wheat is an underutilized crop,” he said. “We can take greater advantage of it if we remove the constraints. If durum can be used more broadly, it should have greater value. If it has greater value, it should be a better crop to grow.”
WSU spring wheat breeder Mike Pumphrey suggests the lab develop varieties more useful for farmers, emphasizing such traits as yield potential, planting date, plant height and pest resistance.
Durum wheat yields well under irrigated conditions. He wants to see if he can make soft durum competitive with other wheats under dryland conditions.
“There’s a lot of excitement from international buyers, essentially from every country that comes through,” Pumphrey said. “It sort democratizes pasta production, by being able to mill it anywhere with a normal wheat mill.”