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Bakers at Heart

By Don Comis
April 9, 2003

Tradition is very dear to the Agricultural Research Service’s Soft Wheat Quality Research Unit at Wooster, Ohio, as it is to millers and bakers. Patrick L. Finney and Charles S. Gaines are food technologists at the Wooster unit, but they also consider themselves millers and bakers at heart. They are committed to finding new wheats to satisfy customers who love “soft wheat” in their pastries, cookies, crackers and flat breads.

Today, Finney and Gaines meet with fellow researchers, chemists, millers and bakers-- from as many as 39 private and university labs, from Michigan to Georgia--many of whom belong to the American Association of Cereal Chemists’ Cincinnati Section. The Section and ARS jointly sponsored today’s 50th annual research review conference at Wooster. The conference is the main way the Wooster unit interacts with the milling and baking industry.

Finney, who teaches breadmaking, has a tradition of his own. His father, Karl, was a chemist with the Wooster unit when it first opened its doors in 1937. Recently, Louise Slade and Harry Levine, food polymer scientists at KraftNabisco and conference attendees, adapted a test developed by the elder Finney to screen for a new subclass of soft wheat that can make better crackers and flat breads.

The research unit has added this test for screening about 6,000 samples of new soft wheat lines a year. Today’s conference is a mark of the close cooperation with industry that started the year the lab opened. A series of annual conferences has continued in the current format since 1953.

To maintain the highest standards for soft wheat-screening lab tests, the Cincinnati Section has held a prestigious annual testing program, since 1985. The soft wheat unit will receive the “Best Overall” award tonight, as it did in 1989, 1999, 2000 and 2001. The unit won in other categories in 1993 and 1995.

The scientists bake cookies, along with performing various other laboratory quality tests. The ultimate test of wheat softness is how big a cookie spreads on the baking sheet.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.