Emmer and einkorn are higher in fiber and protein than standard modern wheat and richer in many antioxidant nutrients.
In celebration of Whole Grains Month, I want to share two of my favorite grains, einkorn and emmer. If you’re drawing a blank, maybe the term farro rings a bell. If you were in Italy, farro would, somewhat confusingly, refer to three types of ancient wheat: einkorn (farro piccolo), emmer (farro medio) and spelt (farro grande). In the U.S., farro generally means emmer, whereas einkorn is einkorn and spelt is spelt. Einkorn and emmer, along with spelt and kamut, are forms of ancient wheat, the ancestors of our modern wheat.
What are ancient grains, exactly? According to the Oldways Whole Grains Council, there’s no strict list of ancient grains, but “ancient” generally means grains that have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries.
One thing that distinguishes modern wheat from its ancestors is the number of chromosomes it has. Einkorn, the original or “mother” wheat, is a diploid wheat with two sets of chromosomes, and it has never been hybridized.
Emmer, a hybrid of einkorn and a type of wild grass, is a tetraploid wheat with four sets of chromosomes. Spelt, a hybrid of emmer and another wild grass, is a hexaploid wheat with six sets of chromosomes. Modern wheat is also hexaploid.
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Here’s why the number of chromosomes in your wheat might matter: All types of wheat contain gluten, but einkorn’s simpler genetic makeup means that its gluten is weaker — gluten is made up of several proteins, and the protein mix in einkorn is different. As a result, some people with nonceliac gluten sensitivity find that they can tolerate einkorn — but people with diagnosed celiac disease shouldn’t try it.
Emmer and einkorn were first domesticated almost 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Emmer has been enjoyed by Italians for centuries — it provided sustenance for the Roman legions around the turn of the first millennium — and is still cultivated in Italy. It’s also a traditional food in Ethiopia.
Emmer wheat fell out of favor in the 1960s as modern bread wheat became desirable, but started to enjoy a resurgence in Europe and the U.S. in the 1990s. Einkorn has been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs, but was largely abandoned 5,000 years ago because it is difficult to harvest and mill and has one-fifth the yields of modern wheat. Just a few years ago, einkorn was close to extinction.
Emmer and einkorn are both hearty and robust, with a delicate, nutty sweetness. They’re higher in fiber and protein than standard modern wheat and richer in many antioxidant nutrients, including the flavonoid family of phytonutrients. Their flavor and pleasant chewiness lend themselves to many dishes, including pilafs, soups, salads, breakfast porridge and desserts.
The risotto-like dish farrotto is popular in Italy; the dish works because emmer farro has a starch that is similar to the starch in Arborio rice. Tuscan farro soup with chickpeas, beans, greens — and sometimes with seafood — can use emmer or einkorn, and flours from both grains are excellent for baking.
Where to buy
Most of the emmer grown in Italy comes from the region around Tuscany and Umbria, although farmers in Washington state and elsewhere in the U.S. are growing both emmer and einkorn.
My two go-to sources are Bluebird Grain Farms and Jovial Foods. Brooke and Sam Lacy started Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop in 2005, growing einkorn (trademarked as Einka) and emmer wheat, along with rye and a few other types of wheat. You can find their products at PCC, Metropolitan Market, Whole Foods and some other retailers, or shop online at bluebirdgrainfarms.com.
Jovial Foods, based in Connecticut, grows einkorn wheat and produces other artisan products — including many made with einkorn — in Italy. All are available for mail order at jovialfoods.com.
Jovial was founded by Carla Bartolucci (who authored the wonderful book, “Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat”) and her husband, Rodolfo, after their daughter developed gluten sensitivity. They worked with a group of researchers and farmers in Italy to replenish original einkorn seeds and help save the grain from extinction. Jovial planted 50 acres in 2009 and today grows more than 2,500 acres.
How to cook
If your emmer or einkorn comes in a package, follow the cooking instructions. If you buy in bulk, estimating cooking time can be a bit of a challenge. Depending on a number of variables, the time can vary from 25 to 60 minutes, so check for tenderness periodically.
For each cup of grain, add two cups of water, bring to a boil and allow to simmer until tender, let sit off the heat for five minutes, then drain off any extra water. You can also cook grains using the “pasta method,” using at least four cups of water per cup of grain, adding the grain to the simmering water, cooking until tender, then draining.
Here’s a timesaving tip: You can cook a batch of whole grains and refrigerate and/or freeze some for later. I portion one to two cups of cooked, cooled grains into sealable freezer bags and freeze them in a thin, flat layer. You can reheat grains in the microwave (in a microwave-safe bowl) or in a saucepan on low heat. Either way, add a tablespoon or two of water before reheating.
One driver of the renewed popularity of ancient wheats are the ever-so-popular grain bowls. What I love about grain bowls, trendiness aside, is that they are completely versatile and customizable and are a great way to transform leftovers into something new and delicious. I frequently cook grains, roast vegetables and grill chicken ahead of time to fuel a week of grain bowls. Here’s the basic template:
• Cooked einkorn or farro
• Vegetables (roasted, steamed, sautéed or raw)
• Protein of choice (chicken, fish, meat, tofu, tempeh, beans or lentils or a soft-cooked egg)
• Sauce or dressing (vinaigrette, pesto, tahini-lemon)
• Extras (chopped seeds or nuts, pickled onions, marinated artichoke hearts, avocado, crumbled blue, goat or feta cheese)