Asia has oodles of noodles, more varied than American breads. Asian shoppers choose among udon, Cantonese or ramen as we might choose among bagels, baguettes or sliced white sandwich loaf.
But, the wheat that makes good bread won't necessarily make good noodles.
Oregon State University cereal chemist Andrew Ross studies wheat in order to understand the best characteristics for products as different as noodles and birthday cake.
In a newly equipped noodle lab at OSU, Ross searches for protein combinations in wheat that would predict a potential for making Asian noodles, while the OSU wheat breeding program develops new varieties for testing.
His search has taken him across Asia to understand the variety of tastes and textures preferred by people in different regions. And it has taken him deep into the wheat kernel itself to understand what combinations of proteins and starch types create that variety.
Ross knows noodles. Before coming to OSU last year, the former Australian had worked for nearly 18 years as an Asian cereal foods specialist. He can describe the subtle differences among firm chukamen noodles, or thin, delicate somen, or bright yellow Hokkien. And he can explain the protein combinations and starch properties of each source of wheat.
Generally, high protein wheat is good for making bread and some kinds of firm textured noodles, Ross said. Lower protein wheat is better for cookies and softer textured noodles. Chemically detecting particular proteins in the wheat kernel can help to predict the quality of the final product. Such chemical detective work can speed up the development of improved wheat varieties and make them available to growers more quickly.
Testing a sample of wheat, Ross mills it, mixes it, shapes the final product and cooks it. Special equipment in the lab measures the wheat's response at each step, assessing how the flour mixes with water, how the dough rolls into sheets, and how the finished noodles hold up to a bite.
"Whether or not westerners perceive any differences, our Asian customers do have preferences in noodle color and texture." said Ross. "These are sophisticated buyers. They know their regional traditions as well as the latest trends."
Asian customers import much of Oregon's wheat crop, which is estimated at about $200 million annually.
On a recent trip Ross made to Asia with others from OSU, Asian customers were particularly interested in obtaining new hard white wheat varieties that would be useful for an assortment of products, noodles as well as breads.
Hard white wheats are increasingly in demand in the export market. They can be milled to yield more flour than hard red wheats, making each bushel more valuable to flour millers. A big challenge to the industry is to have that added value transferred back to the growers who provide it in the first place.
"We may eventually be able to provide improved varieties of hard white wheat that will work for both bread making and noodle making," said Ross, "but reaching this objective will take quite some time."