Bread

What Is Durum Wheat? (& How the Heck To Bake With It)

Resident Bread Baker, Maurizio Leo, shares how to turn this high-protein flour into a golden loaf of bread.

February 24, 2021
Photo by Maurizio Leo

The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, how to turn high-protein durum flour into a golden loaf of bread.


If you’re a fresh pasta-maker, chances are high you’re familiar with durum wheat. Though the species is most commonly used to make pasta, it’s also an excellent choice to incorporate into bread. It’s a hard wheat—hence the name durum, which is Latin for “hard,”—and is so-called because of the strength of the durum berry itself, requiring significant force to mill. The grain has a high protein percentage, but the gluten quality in durum flour doesn’t have the same gas-trapping characteristics as traditional wheat. This means when using even finely-milled durum flour. The resulting bread will have a tighter, more cake-like crumb, or internal structure, somewhat akin to a loaf of whole wheat bread (as opposed to a super-light loaf with large inner holes, like a country loaf). Though there are visual and textural differences to a loaf of bread made durum wheat, there’s no compromise made: The color, aroma, and flavors from durum are all quite striking when used in bread, yielding a more rustic loaf but nonetheless delicious.

I’m eager to share a few tips I’ve found helpful when using finely-milled durum wheat in bread-making. But first, let’s clarify common source of confusion: If durum is typically used in pasta, what’s the difference between durum flour for bread and semolina, the coarse durum wheat?

Durum flour versus semolina flour

You undoubtedly see packages of semolina at the market, with its grand yellow hue and sandy texture. Semolina is made from durum wheat, the same as durum flour. The difference between the two is mainly in texture: durum flour is very finely milled, whereas semolina is coarser-milled. If you rub semolina through your fingers, it feels more like beach sand or fine breadcrumbs; durum flour feels powdery-fine, like most other flours in your pantry.

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Top Comment:
“Durum wheat is used for making Indian flatbreads called rotis/chapattis - we always have a large container of durum whole wheat flour at home(any Indian grocery store will sell it as chapatti flour). When I first tried my hand at bread baking, I used durum flour with disastrous results! I'll have to try again and report!”
— gaurav
Comment

Coarse semolina is primarily used in pasta-making, as it makes for a pliable, elastic, and easily workable dough that can be rolled, re-rolled, and cut. Were you to use this same coarse semolina in bread, you’d end up with a very gritty dough that doesn’t entirely come together, and an extra-dense loaf.

Finding durum flour suitable for bread-making can be challenging, especially here in the U.S. However, more and more millers are now offering it in their lineup, and the flour can be ordered online from purveyors like King Arthur Baking Company, even in large quantities. Still, when sourcing durum flour for bread, be sure it’s labeled explicitly "finely milled durum flour," "extra fancy durum wheat," or "semolina rimacinata" (which means twice-milled semolina).

Left: Semolina; Right: Durum flour, or semolina rimacinata Photo by Maurizio Leo

How to bake bread with finely-milled durum flour

Go all in, or blend with a traditional wheat

While it’s possible to bake fantastic bread with 100 percent durum flour, my preference is to blend durum with traditional wheat in varying ratios. The benefit in blending, as is the case with loaves made with other combinations of flours, is you get the best of both worlds: a bread with more volume and an open interior than all-durum, but with the golden tint, sweet and nutty flavor, and aroma—somehow reminiscent of freshly-made pizza—that comes with using durum wheat.

After a bit of testing, my preferred sweet spot is 25 to 35 percent durum wheat to total flour in the recipe (for example, if there were 1000 grams of flour in the recipe, I’d suggest 250 to 350 grams durum). With this ratio, your loaf will have an amber-colored crust and yellow-hued crumb, but the loaf will be light, airy, and texturally satisfying to eat. In testing, I’ve pushed the durum up to 75 percent to total flour, which worked out just fine, but the resulting loaf was tighter inside, with a moist, but cake-like texture (but still very tasty!).

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Increase the hydration

Bread dough with finely-milled durum wheat can typically take on more water than the equivalent quantity of traditional whole wheat flour. When developing my Rustic Italian Sourdough Bread recipe, I slowly increased the hydration percentage bake after bake until the dough felt sufficiently hydrated at the end of mixing.

When using durum wheat, expect that your dough may need more water than in a typical mix. But as always with dough hydration, be conservative and work up the added water amount slowly. A dough with a moderate to high percentage of durum can quickly go from feeling just right to over-hydrated, resulting in a loaf with a lackluster rise and a potentially gummy interior texture.

A longer autolyse

When using durum, you’ll find your dough will typically be very strong and stiff. As a result of high protein content of the grain, and the characteristics of the proteins that make up durum itself, the dough will be firm and elastic. To help offset this, I usually perform a longer autolyse—which is simply allowing the flour and water in a dough recipe to rest before adding the salt and preferment, or levain—brings much-needed extensibility to the dough.

Think of extensibility as sort of the opposite of elasticity: Where an elastic dough is one that resists stretching, an extensible one stretches farther before snapping back or tearing. The dough’s added extensibility helps it expand further during fermentation, giving space and openness to the loaf as it rises during fermentation.

While it’s likely the increased extensibility is primarily due to the softening of the traditional wheat in the recipe rather than the durum itself, for such a simple step, it’s an easy way to improve the volume of the final loaf of bread.

Embrace the rustic crust

A hallmark of using durum flour in bread is the crust’s rustic charm, brought about by seemingly random fissures here and there on the loaf’s exterior. When baked at a high temperature for longer, as I do in my Rustic Italian Sourdough recipe, the result will be a vivid, amber colored-crust contrasted by light golden splits at the areas where the dough is scored.

While I might typically see these splits as an issue with insufficient scoring depth or quantity, they fit in wonderfully with the overall aesthetic of this rustic bread. A loaf that begs to be torn by hand at the dinner table, with less pretension and more to the business of nourishment and flavor.

Mix gently

I like to think using durum is a way to channel bread-makers from an age before the advent of mechanical mixing. In my experience, while you could place the dough in a mechanical mixer for a few minutes, when the dough is mixed by hand, bread with a moderate percentage of durum wheat bakes off with a taller rise and lighter internal structure. Hand-mixing also ties in beautifully with the history of the grain itself, used for thousands of years to make all types of pasta and bread, all without mechanized assistance. Ultimately, durum flour helps create inherently rustic loaves that are as beautiful to look at as they are delicious.

Have you tried made anything with durum wheat? What else do you want to know about the wide world of bread-baking? Let us know in the comments!

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Maurizio is the software engineer-turned-baker behind the award-winning sourdough website, The Perfect Loaf. He grew up in an Italian household and spent many summers in the back kitchen of his family's Italian restaurant, learning the beauty of San Marzano tomatoes and the importance of well-proofed pizza dough. He went on to get a master's degree in computer science and co-create the stargazing app, SkyView, before eventually circling back to food and discovering the deep craft of baking sourdough bread. Since that first loaf of bread, he's been obsessed with adjusting the balance between yeast and bacteria, tinkering with dough strength and hydration, and exploring everything sourdough.

14 Comments

Paul February 26, 2021
Hi... I was wondering if you have experimented with methods to increase salt content. I would prefer a bit saltier bread than with the usual approx 20g / 1000g. I guess all,the usual suspects: increase levain, increase ferment etc. Any comments would be appreciated. Thank you!
 
Paul February 26, 2021
PS: Cairnspring Mill has a great Durham ...!
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. February 26, 2021
Hey, Paul! I actually am always trying to go in reverse, to drop salt content as low as possible but still have delicious bread. My salt levels are almost always at 1.8% to total flour (i.e. 18g / 1000g flour). I've experimented up as high as 2.3% in the past, but haven't gone past that. Usually, I just give the dough more time, but you could offset with a slightly higher levain percentage as well.

I can't believe I missed the durum at Cairnspring Mills—will definitely get some next order!
 
Susan March 13, 2021
Have you tried the Cairnspring Mills Durum and if so do you recommend it for your bread recipes?
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. March 13, 2021
I love Cairnsprings flour, but I haven't tried their durum yet!
 
gaurav February 25, 2021
Durum wheat is used for making Indian flatbreads called rotis/chapattis - we always have a large container of durum whole wheat flour at home(any Indian grocery store will sell it as chapatti flour). When I first tried my hand at bread baking, I used durum flour with disastrous results! I'll have to try again and report!
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. February 26, 2021
Yes, that's right! In fact, making roti is on my list to experiment with again soon (I've done it in the past). They're typically not leavened, but so good!
 
gaurav February 26, 2021
Will share my results of making rotis on your instagram! Of course they are no match for my mother who cranks them out like a machine while everyone else is eating!
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. February 26, 2021
Please do, I'd love to see!
 
gaurav February 26, 2021
Sent them, feel free to share them!
 
Smaug February 24, 2021
In my experience (and reading) at any rate semolina is rarely used for fresh pasta. It's said that the rather rugged dough that it produces stands up well to the rough handling of industrial pasta machines, so it's commonly- almost universally- used in dried pasta.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. February 25, 2021
Interesting! I've used it here for a long while to make some nice pasta, and a few recipes I've read call for it. Although I tend to use whatever I have on hand and I usually do a blend of semolina + wheat.
 
Smaug February 25, 2021
I first got that from Giuliano Bugialli's "Fine Art of Italian Cooking", which was my main introduction to Italian food, and Marcella Hazan pretty much backed it up. It would be fun to wander into a couple million Italian homes to wee what really goes on, but probably not happening. I've never been really fussy about flour for pasta either- I usually use KA's all purpose, but I've used everything from bleached white to bread flour to imported 00- they all worked fine.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. February 25, 2021
I own both of those great books. Well, I can say when visiting my family in Italy, they most certainly use whatever they have on hand and make it work. Always delicious in the end! I took use ap, 00 when I have it, even whole wheat—why not!