The Appeal of Ancient Wheat: Why Spelt, Emmer, Einkorn, and Kamut® Return to Our Table

by Maria Speck
wheat field
Courtesy photo

Have you ever tried Kamut® or einkorn wheat? Just a few years ago this question would have elicited blank stares or perhaps a perplexed “huh?” Today, bloggers are raving about aromatic golden Kamut® flour, spelt is being used again in local bakeries, and questions about once obscure einkorn make it onto the call-in-line to America’s Test Kitchen. Last but not least, emmer wheat – better known as farro, and long a darling of restaurant chefs – has become a pantry staple in many homes thanks to our love for everything and anything Italian.

What happened? What propelled these ancient wheat varieties, some at the edge of extinction, to the forefront of our new food obsession? Where does this interest come from—not just for once-forgotten wheat varieties but also for all ancient grains, whether quinoa, sorghum, teff or amaranth?

For one, home cooks have become more health-aware. They are seeking delicious and nutritious alternatives to the “empty starches” in their diet that are white rice, pasta, and all-purpose flour. In addition, there has been a huge increase in coeliac disease in the past few decades – consumers who cannot eat any gluten, the proteins in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. More and more people also report gluten sensitivities revealed by symptoms such as discomfort or bloating when they eat modern wheat. And, while scientists the world over are working hard to understand these health issues, there is some anecdotal evidence that ancient wheat varieties are easier on the digestive system.   

For me, these ancient wheats are an invitation to discovery. Eating them and baking with them for many years has been nothing short of amazing: each of these wheats from the days of yore add sublime texture and astonishing new flavors to my table. I simply don’t want to miss them anymore. Not to mention their nutritional profile which is superior to modern wheat. Ancient wheat varieties typically have a higher protein content and more micronutrients. For example, einkorn is rich in the antioxidant lutein, emmer offers niacin and magnesium, and Kamut® is high in selenium.

Allow me to introduce these staples to you one by one. For spelt, emmer, and einkorn I also list their Italian names, which might be more familiar to you.

SPELT (farro grande)
istockphoto SPELT (farro grande)

SPELT (farro grande)

Of all the ancient wheats, spelt is probably best known. In my native Germany and in other German-speaking countries, but also in France and Spain, spelt was a staple until the early 19th century. The grain has seen a huge revival in the past decade, in Europe as well as in the United States. It is a wonderful introduction to using whole grain berries in salads and side dishes because of its mild pleasing aroma and appealing chewiness. In baking, it makes for tasty treats with a glorious mild nuttiness that’s easy to embrace. In my new cookbook Simply Ancient Grains, I introduce many recipes with spelt, from a Greek sesame tahini cake and a honeyed spelt cornbread, to an artichoke and spelt salad with citrus dressing, and a giant spelt pancake with squash blossoms (for a recipe, see below).

EMMER (farro medio)
istockphoto EMMER (farro medio)

EMMER (farro medio)

If you have had mouth-watering farro in a restaurant or at home you have tasted emmer wheat. The farro you find in Italian specialty stores and in well-stocked markets is likely imported from Italy. Italian farro is typically also semi-pearled, which means some of the outer bran has been removed; this helps the grain to cook up faster while still retaining some of the nutrients, great for busy weeknights. This semi-pearled farro cooks fast, in 20 minutes; whole grain farro takes 45 to 60 minutes and should be soaked overnight. Be sure to seek out gorgeous American-grown emmer wheat which has become available in recent years (see sources, below). I love the aroma of this ancient grain – I swear I can detect a hint of cinnamon. Its lush plumpness is beautiful in soups and salads but also in pudding and other desserts.

EINKORN (farro piccolo)

This smallest of the ancient wheats is a fascinating grain. Some call it the purest wheat because it has only two sets of chromosomes. I have fallen for these small grain berries because of their mesmerizing mouth-feel, and they might quickly become your favorite staple too. In my cookbook, I allow them to shine in an austere tomato dish as well as in a delicious simple maple pudding. Two types of einkorn are currently available on the US market. Einkorn from Italy cooks up in less time and is lighter in color than the einkorn grown in the US and Canada. Both are fascinating meal additions and worth exploring.

KAMUT ®

The kernels of this gorgeous elongated ancient wheat are two to three times the size of modern wheat and have a stunning bronze color. The wheat variety is called Khorasan, named after a historical area in today’s Iran. The grain has been grown in Montana for over sixty years, and the term Kamut® is trademarked. This means that the grain has never been hybridized and has been certified organic. I recommend an overnight soak  – it allows the grain to cook up more evenly and, more important, makes it less chewy and more pleasing to eat. Use Kamut® with its rich buttery aroma in salads, sides, and soups in place of wheat berries.

A story about ancient wheat also has to talk about local grains. Across the USA, from New York to Maine and Massachusetts, and from Arizona to California and Washington, farmers have started to grow grains again in states where they had long been abandoned. Outside of the Midwestern farm belt you can now find American-grown barley, emmer, einkorn, spelt, triticale, rye, and more.

Why should you seek them out? Because just like cheese, chocolate, and wine, grains have terroir. This term refers to the flavor agricultural products get from the soil they grow in. This is the reason why you should not only sample some of these amazing ancient wheats but also try so-called ‘heirloom’ varieties. These are wheat varieties that are best suited to a certain growing region because farmers have cultivated them specifically for this area over time. Some better-known examples are Red Fife, Turkey Red or White Sonora wheat. I have lately been smitten by a baguette made with Red Fife flour from Maine, available sometimes at our local Whole Foods market. The baguette has a deep natural sweetness, with hints of pecans and honey, which is unsurpassed.

I very much hope that you will explore ancient as well as heirloom wheats and try them in your meals and baked goods. This is the best way to secure their survival. And by buying grains locally, from farmers in your area or at farmers markets, you support the people who cultivate them and help the grains economy in this country to grow again.

Below, I’m listing some of my favorite US growers of ancient wheat varieties:

Bluebird Grain Farms in Washington State has been a darling of chefs and food professionals for years, offering exquisite organic grains, including emmer and einkorn, sold as their own “einka.” Their flour is milled fresh to order. The farm has sent me samples for recipe testing, and I found the grains and flours splendid.

Cayuga Pure Organics is well-known for its many organic grains and beans grown in New York state, including spelt and emmer.

Eli Rogosa, a pioneer in the efforts to preserve ancient wheat varieties from extinction, sells einkorn and freshly milled flour grown in Massachusetts and New York state.

Lentz Spelt Farms in Washington state has pioneered the growing of ancient wheats on the US market as well. The farm sells organic emmer, spelt and einkorn as well as Grünkern better known as freekeh. Its Grünkern is grown and smoked in Germany’s Bauland region where it is a traditional food going back centuries.

Jovial is a family-owned company that sells Italian-grown organic einkorn berries (farro piccolo).

Kamut wheat, always organic, has become more widely available in health and natural food stores. Alternately, you can get the berries and Kamut flour at Bob’s Red Mill, a well-regarded company which prides itself in the use of traditional stone-milling for grains.
Kamut Salad

Ingredients

In this colorful salad, Kamut®, an ancient wheat variety, provides superb chew—each bite interspersed with juicy oranges, crunchy walnuts, and pungent blue cheese. Use spelt, wheat berries, or gluten-free sorghum for variations. This salad makes for a satisfying yet light lunch, or serve it next to grilled chicken or steak.

Serves 4 to 6

195 grams (3/4 cup) Kamut ® berries, soaked overnight, or about 2 cups cooked
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 small dried red chile (optional)
59 ml (¼ cup) golden raisins
1 large orange
2 leeks, halved lengthwise, rinsed well, cut into 2 cm (¾ inch) slices
118 ml (½ cup) low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
118 ml (½ cup) dry white wine
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
78 ml (1/3 cup) coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
78 ml – 118 ml (1/3 to ½ cup) crumbled Stilton or other blue cheese
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, for garnish

Preparation

  1. In a small saucepan combine the Kamut®, bay leaf, chile, and 355 ml (1 ½ cups) water. Bring to a boil. Redue heat to low, cover, and simmer until tender but slightly chewy, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, if needed, and transfer to a large serving bowl. Discard bay leaf and chile and allow mixture to cool.
  2. Place raisins in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Cut off a 5 cm-by-2.5 cm (2-inch–by-1-inch) strip of zest from the orange, removing any white pith, and set aside. Finely grate the remaining skin until you have 1 teaspoon zest and set aside. Peel the fruit, removing any pith, and cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces to make about 3⁄4 cup (reserve the rest for another use).
  3. In a large skillet combine the leeks, broth, wine, and zest strip, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the leeks are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain, remove the zest strip, and add the leeks to the bowl with the Kamut®. Drain the raisins and add them to the bowl along with the orange pieces.
  4. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, grated orange zest, honey, salt, and pepper; beat with a fork until smooth. Slowly beat in the olive oil until emulsified.
  5. To finish, pour the dressing over the salad, gently toss, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes, gently toss again, and sprinkle with the walnuts and blue cheese. Garnish with parsley and serve.
Giant Spelt Pancake

Ingredients

MAKES 2 LARGE PANCAKES, TO SERVE 4 TO 6

BATTER

240 ml + 120 g (1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) whole grain spelt or Kamut® flour
3 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
120 ml (1⁄2 cup) whole milk
120 ml (1⁄2 cup) water
1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

TO FINISH

16 squash blossoms
240 ml (1 cup) loosely packed chopped mixed herbs such as mint, parsley, and dill
240 ml (1 cup) finely grated Manchego cheese or Parmesan, plus extra for serving
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Flaked sea salt, for sprinkling
Good-quality balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

My German dad was a competitive pancake gobbler — to call him a pancake eater would do the term injustice. But he certainly loved pancakes, and the ones he made for us children were always huge, the size of a skillet. As is traditional, he used no chemical leaveners, just the power of eggs to give them a lift. This recipe, almost a cross between pancakes and omelets, is inspired by German-style pancakes to which I add lots of fresh herbs and tender squash blossoms.

I often serve them for brunch, but add a simple salad of spinach leaves or bitter greens, and it is just as good for dinner.

Preparation

Step one: Prepare the batter the night before, or at least 30 minutes ahead: Add the flour to a medium bowl. Lightly whisk the egg yolks in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. Add the milk, water, salt and pepper and whisk until blended. Gradually whisk the egg mixture into the flour, starting from the center, until smooth. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes, covered. Place the egg whites in a bowl in which you can whisk them later. (If making the night before, cover the egg whites as well and chill both bowls, up to 24 hours.)

Step two: When you are ready to make the pancakes, remove both bowls from the fridge about 30 minutes ahead (up to 1 hour for the egg whites for best volume). Briefly swish the squash blossoms in a bowl of cold water, then place on a clean dish cloth to drain and gently pat dry. Trim the stems to a length of about 1 inch. Very gently pry each blossom open and remove the stamen in the center, using tweezers. Don’t worry if the petals tear a bit; just twist them gently to close at the top.

Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat them with a hand blender or with a balloon whisk until soft peaks form. Stir the batter briefly to blend with a fork. If it has become thick, add a little water by the tablespoon — it should have the consistency of buttermilk (or heavy cream if you’re using Kamut® flour). Set aside 2 tablespoons of the herbs for garnish. Stir the remaining herbs and half of the cheese into the batter. Gently fold in the egg whites, in three additions.

Place a rack 4 inches away from the broiler and preheat on high. Set a large platter or plate next to the stove and have a piece of aluminum foil handy to cover it.

Heat a 10-inch cast-iron or other heatproof skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat. Swirl in 2 teaspoons of the olive oil and wait until it shimmers. Scoop with a 1-cup measure deeply into the batter and put a scant 1 1⁄2 cups into the center of the pan.

Quickly but gently spread the batter outward, using the back of the measuring cup, until it almost reaches the sides. Cook for 1 minute, until slightly puffy. Gently press 8 squash blossoms in a star pattern into the center of the pancake, with the stem facing inward. Continue cooking until a few small bubbles appear on top, the edges just start to brown, and the bottom turns golden brown (lift with a spatula), about 2 minutes more.

Sprinkle with 1⁄4 cup of the remaining cheese and place the skillet under the broiler. Cook, watching closely, until puffy and golden brown, about 3 minutes or 1 to 2 minutes more for a crisper pancake. Remove the pancake and slide it onto the platter. Cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Wipe the pan clean with paper towels and repeat with the second pancake.

To serve, sprinkle each pancake with a bit more cheese and some of the remaining herbs. Crush some sea salt flakes on top, cut into quarters or halves, and serve at once, passing balsamic vinegar around for drizzling.

Fine points: Look for squash blossoms at farmers’ markets during the summer months. Whole grain Kamut® flour makes a sturdier pancake with a golden hue and a subtle sweetness. White whole wheat flour can be substituted. VARIATIONS: You can top the pancakes with halved grape or cherry tomatoes — a scant 1 cup per pancake. Toss a few olives on too if you like.

In the winter, make use of the dark green parts of leeks, so often discarded. Slice thinly to amount to 3 cups and sauté in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat, with a bit of salt, stirring often, 4 to 5 minutes.