Look to the past for new whole wheats
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD
What is an ancient grain? Ancient grains, such as freekeh, farro, and spelt fell out of favour with farmers when durum wheat came along. Now cooks and nutritionists are rediscovering their tastes and textures in a variety of distinctly modern dishes.
Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s good to be young. After all, youth is all about vigour and hope. But when it comes to the whole grains on your shopping list, it’s a good idea to look to the past. Ancient grains such as spelt and farro largely fell out of favour once industrialized farming brought hybridized durum wheat along. Now, in the pursuit of eating more functional foods, modern consumers are rediscovering so-called ancient wheats, whose cultivation began centuries before food scientists started altering common wheat to bring about desirable traits. Undeniably, ancient wheats have aged well. They can infuse your diet with wonderful new textures, flavour nuances, and plenty of nutritional benefits. With resurgent interest in these uncompromised grains, there are also bound to be improvements in crop diversity to help battle monoculture. Anecdotal evidence suggests these old-school wheat varieties are easier to digest for some people—however, data indicates they are not safe to eat for those with celiac disease. Cutting to the chaff, here’s how to embrace great grains with ancient roots.
These varieties are worth adding to your culinary repertoire.
This chewy, slightly nutty tasting sibling of modern-day durum wheat has been part of the European agricultural landscape for thousands of years. It remains a popular foodstuff in Germany, where bakers still favour it in breads.
The large-sized grains bring to the dinner table many inherent nutritional perks, including healthy amounts of fibre, protein, and important minerals such as magnesium and phosphorus. Because spelt resists going mushy during cooking, it is an excellent addition to soups, stews, and composed salads.
Often sold under the trademarked name Kamut, Khorasan wheat is thought to have originated in Egypt and only in recent times has been grown in Canada. The plump golden kernels have a wonderful slightly sweet, almost buttery flavour and a chewy bite. Roughly twice the size of typical wheat kernels, non-hybridized Kamut packs in plenty of fibre, protein, and a range of vital minerals.
What’s more, a 2013 study found that products made with this ancient grain may show your heart some love by improving cholesterol numbers and limiting inflammation in the body. Like spelt, the large grains are firm and sturdy, so they won’t turn to mush when used in dishes such as salads.
What we see on store shelves being sold as farro is actually the Italian name for emmer wheat, a Stone Age guise of hard wheat. It is sometimes confused with spelt due to its similar shape and nutty flavour. Farro is a fibre heavyweight, supplying 7 g in a mere 1/4 cup (60 mL) serving. British research recently revealed that people with higher intakes of fibre are more likely to have healthy blood pressure numbers.
As a perk for harried cooks, farro is quicker to prepare than spelt and Kamut. Farro is also starchier than most other versions of wheat, so it becomes slightly creamy when cooked (especially if stirred during cooking) and is often used in riffs on risotto or breakfast porridge.
This Middle Eastern “green” version of wheat is produced using old-world techniques: it is harvested early while still underripe, then sun-dried and roasted for a fresh smoky flavour and chewy bite. Because it is gathered in adolescence, freekeh (FREAK-eh) is believed to retain maximum nutritional value, boasting notable amounts of protein, fibre, manganese for proper metabolism, and even the antioxidant duo lutein and zeaxanthin for vision protection.
Use it to boost the nutrition and flavour of salads, pilafs, tabbouleh, and even veggie burgers. Freekeh comes in two forms: whole, or the more common and quicker-cooking cracked version.