It’s a special experience in the kitchen when old foods are new again. This is particularly true with the emergence of ancient and heritage grains that cooks throughout the world are rediscovering as part of a delicious, and healthful, addition to their fine culinary repertoire.
Throughout the years, especially after World War II, the focus has been on hybridizing these grains to make them better by combining desired characteristics. And while plant breeders were successful in developing specimens that produced high yields and uniform growing habits, something was lost in the process.
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Partially spurred by the increased rate of gluten sensitivity, as well as a concern about losing these historic varieties, pioneering individuals are bringing these old staples back to our kitchens. These grains offer wonderful new flavors, higher nutritional content and oftentimes a more digestible product. As a result, cooks who are used to baking or cooking with modern grains need to take a step back and relearn techniques our ancestors knew.
Incorporating these nutritious ancient and heritage grains into our cooking and baking allows us to enjoy flavors that were almost forgotten. We also need to remember that it’s only by using these grains that they will survive. While there are an ever-growing number of these new, old grains available for home kitchens, focusing on a few is a good way to acquaint yourself with the differences in cooking and baking with these hearty, and often less fussy, ingredients.
The history of ancient and heritage grains could fill books, which makes it that much more interesting to cook with a staple that has been around for eons. Einkorn is one of those touchstones to the past since it was used at least as early as 7500 B.C. in the Tigris-Euphrates region. Although we can’t delve into the genetics here, einkorn remains the only original diploid wheat (meaning it has only two sets of chromosomes). There’s been no hybridization to change the structure of the plant itself, nor its nutritional makeup. As a result, the body digests it differently than it does other grains, and it is a powerhouse of vitamins and protein, having 30 percent more than most varieties.
Carla Bartolucci, the author of Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat and founder of Jovial Foods with her husband, Rodolfo, became a champion of einkorn after it opened up their daughter’s culinary world, which was limited due to her wheat sensitivities.
“I think einkorn is a very special ancient grain for many reasons,” Carla said. “It’s the most ancient grain. And it survived extinction, but just barely.”
Because of its unique makeup and how you bake with it, einkorn is very digestible, even to those with wheat sensitivities (although not for those with Celiac disease). But it’s also because of its different nature that veteran bakers need to rethink how they work with it.
“You really need to find some recipes that are specific (for einkorn), if you can,” said Carla, which is why she spent so much time reworking recipes to make them possible using einkorn. “The biggest difference is that einkorn has very, very small cells because it has never hybridized.” As a result, baking with it is a new experience. The rising time is slow, you need to reduce the amount of liquid used, and it’s better to start with a sourdough starter or levain (which is similar to making a sponge). You don’t want or need the standard amount of yeast. Nor should you overwork it, or the fragile gluten proteins will break down. “The less you do, the better it comes out. It’s very down to earth,” she said.
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Allowing it to rise for hours, or overnight, is convenient for many schedules. You’re free to do more since you’re not tied to the kitchen making sure you don’t allow the dough to rise too much.
“My life is crazy, but I bake bread for my daughters all of the time,” Carla said. Recently, she made pizza dough one Saturday morning for dinner that evening. What dough was left over went into the refrigerator, and she used it up on Monday. It’s easy.
Einkorn Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes twelve 2½-inch biscuits.
• 3 cups all-purpose einkorn flour, or 1-3/4 cups einkorn wheat
berries ground to flour
• 2 T. sugar
• 1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1 tsp. fine sea salt
• 8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
• 3/4 cup cold buttermilk
DIRECTIONS: In a large bowl, mix together the all-purpose or whole-grain flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Work in the butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk and squeeze the dough through your hands until the dough just holds together. Knead the dough just until the flour has absorbed the liquids. Place the dough back in the bowl and seal tightly with plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to two hours. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Dust a rolling pin with flour. Roll the dough into a 10-by-10-inch square that is 1 inch thick. Cut out 12 rounds using a 2-1/2-inch round cookie cutter. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 18 to 20 minutes until golden. Serve warm.
—Adapted from recipe at jovialfoods.com
Sonora wheat was the staple in the Southwest until after the Civil War, when changes in agriculture shifted away from this standard variety. It’s fairly drought tolerant, which is one reason for its comeback, and it is renowned for making tortillas, cakes and other baked goods with a light, sweet texture.
I’ve made homemade tortillas before with less-than-impressive results. And when I mixed up the dough for the Sonora Wheat tortillas, I wasn’t sure if using this particularly type would be any better. I was certainly mistaken in that assumption. The Sonora wheat made the best tortillas I’ve ever tasted.
Sonora Whole Wheat Tortillas
Makes 8 tortillas.
• 3 cups Sonora Wheat flour
• 1-1/2 T. olive oil
• 1 tsp. sea salt
• 1-1/8 cups warm water
DIRECTIONS: Dissolve the salt in the warm water, then add in the olive oil. Pour into a small bowl with the three cups of flour. Mix thoroughly. Scrape everything together until it forms a smooth ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and allow it to sit on the counter for three hours. If you’re not going to make the tortillas at this point, you can keep the dough in the fridge for up to 24 hours. To make the tortillas, tear off a hunk slightly larger than a golf ball. Press and flatten it as much as possible, then place on a floured work surface. With a rolling pin and additional flour, if necessary, roll out dough into a thin circular shape. Place on an ungreased, heated griddle for 15 to 20 seconds on each side. Eat warm, if possible.
Kamut Khorasan Wheat
This ancient Egyptian wheat found its way to Montana after WWII when an airman sent the giant kernels he discovered at a Cairo market to a friend from Fort Benton. The Quinn family started growing this wheat and selling it as Kamut, which has a sweet, almost nutty flavor. Their business is now a thriving international concern.
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I consider Kamut wheat a good gateway heritage grain for cooks and bakers not accustomed to using these older grains. Every week, I make our family’s bread using a Kamut wheat combined with an all-purpose wheat. It’s light and perfect for sandwiches as well as toast, making it an excellent beginner bread.
Kamut Wheat Everyday Bread
Makes 3 loaves.
• 3 cups warm water
• 1 cup honey
• 2 T. active dry yeast
• 1 T. kosher or sea salt
• 3 T. melted butter
• 3 cups Kamut Khorasan wheat flour
• 6-7 cups of all-purpose white flour (I use our local Wheat Montana flour, but any good-quality will do.)
DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I use a stand mixer, so to begin I add warm water, honey and yeast into the mixing bowl. Allow this to stand for a couple of minutes. Add five cups of white flour. Mix with a spoon until it’s incorporated into the water and yeast mixture. Allow to stand for approximately 45 minutes. Add the Kamut wheat flour, melted butter and salt. Attach the bread hook to the mixer and mix the dough.
Gradually add the additional white flour until you have a smooth elastic dough, or you can knead it by hand for a few minutes on a clean, floured surface. Place in a buttered bowl and cover with a towel. Allow to rise until double (roughly two hours). Once the first rise is completed, divide and form into three loaves. Place in buttered loaf pans. Cover with a towel and allow it to rise once more for approximately an hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the pans and cool on a rack. This is the hardest part since everyone wants a slice right out of the oven.
Emmer (often called farro, especially in Italy) is another kind of wheat dating back thousands of years. And while you can certainly grind and bake with this grain (it makes an exceptional pizza crust), it’s equally delicious cooked in a variety of dishes. One of my favorite meals is a farro salad with a Mediterranean slant. I love to have it on hand for any time of the day.
Editor’s Note: When buying farro berries, you may see spelt, einkorn and emmer berries listed as ingredients. Depending on whom you talk to and where you are, “farro” is used interchangeably with “emmer,” or to describe the three grains as a unit. All are varieties of hulled wheat, which cannot be threshed.
• 1 cup of farro berries
• 2 cups water
• 2 avocados, chopped
• 1/2 sweet pepper, chopped
• 1/2 cup tomato, chopped
• 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
• Juice of one lemon
• Drizzle of olive oil
• Salt to taste
DIRECTIONS: Combine the farro and water and cook approximately 20 minutes, until the texture is to your liking. You can use it warm or chill it for a cold dish. Add the vegetables, cheese, lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and salt. Eat immediately, or keep in the fridge for a snack throughout the day.
Gluten-Free Macaroni and Cheese
Serves about 6.
• 3-1/2 T. unsalted butter
• 1/4 cup brown rice flour
• 2 cups whole milk
• 1 tsp. dry mustard dissolved in 1 tsp. water
• 4 cups Vermont or Wisconsin cheddar cheese, shredded
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. black pepper, freshly ground
• 1/2 tsp. of your favorite hot sauce
• (1) 12-ounce box of Jovial or other brown rice penne pasta
• 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (for topping)
• Butter or non-stick cooking spray (for preparing 8-by-10-inch casserole dish)
DIRECTIONS: To make the cheese sauce, melt butter in a medium saucepan. Whisk in flour and stir until the butter fully absorbs the flour. Slowly stir in warmed milk a half-cup at a time, whisking to keep the sauce smooth. After each addition, let the sauce begin to bubble and thicken briefly, then add more. (If you pour in cold milk, your sauce may become lumpy so be sure to heat the milk before adding to the sauce).
When all of the milk has been added, continue to whisk over low heat for about three to five minutes until thickened. Be careful, the bottom will burn if the heat is too high. Whisk in one cup of cheddar cheese at a time, making sure it is fully melted before adding the next cup. Stir in mustard, hot sauce and season with salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the pasta.
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To prepare baked macaroni and cheese, preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter casserole dish and set aside. Bring 3 quarts of water to boil in an 8-quart stock pot. Salt the water to taste. Cook brown rice pasta al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water. In a large bowl, mix pasta and cheese sauce. Place mixture in prepared casserole dish. Top with Pecorino Romano cheese. Bake uncovered until the top is bubbling and golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes. Serve immediately.
More Ways To Get Your Grains
While many of the ancient and heritage grains aren’t readily available in the grocery stores, there are a growing number of companies that offer it to customers throughout North America. Expand your horizons by taking advantage of this growing market.
Grainstorm Heritage Baking: Grainstorm offers the convenience of mixes with the high quality of freshly ground heritage grains due to the way they are packaged in high-tech vacuum-sealed bags immediately after milling. They have mixes for muffins, cookies, pancakes, scones and quick bread, as well as German-made grain-milling machines. (grainstorm.com)
Prairie Heritage Farm: Growing both farro and Sonora wheat at their central Montana farm, Courtney and Jacob Cowgill offer small quantities of grain as well as “Grain of the Month” boxes for customers throughout the country. (prairieheritagefarm.com)
Montana Flour & Grains: For those looking for Kamut Khorasan wheat, Montana Flour & Grains has the organic grain in wheat berries, bulgur and flours. (montanaflour.com)
Jovial Foods: Not only can you find the einkorn wheat berries and flour on Jovial’s website, but they also have einkorn cookies, crackers, pasta, cooking tools and Carla’s einkorn cookbook. (jovialfoods.com)
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.