Chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: einkorn, emmer, spelt and kamut
We’ve spent thousands of years hybridising wheat, creating a high yielding, semi-dwarf plant that doesn’t topple over easily and puts all its energy into the seed. This wheat has a thin, easily-removable husk and high levels of the gluten so prized for light, fluffy breads. During the Green Revolution of the 20th century, extraordinarily high-yielding strains of ‘miracle’ wheat were introduced across the planet in an attempt to avert world hunger with the rapidly expanding population.
Harvests were huge. The downside? Modern wheat relied upon extensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and sometimes replaced more nutritious, traditional crops that had naturally adapted to challenging climates and terrain. Many ancient species were lost in the space of a couple of decades—but small areas of emmer, einkorn, spelt and khorasan wheat (Kamut) continued to be cultivated. These are the survivors, often hailed as heirloom, or heritage, grains.
Production levels of heritage grains may seem almost insignificant compared with their big brother, common wheat, but they are commanding more and more attention and their cultivation is on the rise once more. When it comes to organic farming, the thick husk that surrounds the kernel of heirloom varieties is seen as a bonus—removing the chaff may be laborious, but the grain is more effectively protected from fungal and insect attack than ‘naked’ modern wheat.
Heirloom wheats are celebrated for their flavour and, very importantly, digestibility. While these grains are off limits for coeliacs, as they do contain gluten, the genetic makeup of the gluten differs from that in modern wheat and many sufferers of gluten intolerance are finding that einkorn, emmer, spelt and Kamut give them no problems at all. Once the humble, hardy crops of marginal agricultural lands, heritage grains are now being feted as the healthy super stars. They are all available as flour for baking or as kernels, ideal for salads, soups, stews and risotto type dishes.
Einkorn (Triticum monococcum)
Einkorn is the oldest cultivated wheat of them all, first domesticated around 7, 500 BC in south-east Turkey, and reputedly the grain that Noah took with him on the ark. Einkorn was largely replaced by common wheat in Roman times, but small pockets of cultivation continued in mountainous areas with challenging soils, such as the Haute-Provence in France, where the humble ‘petit epeautre’ now enjoys new gastronomic status. Einkorn is said to be the purest of wheats, and therefore the easiest to digest.
Spelt (Triticum spelta)
A cross between emmer and goat grass, spelt is the most readily available of the heirloom grains. In Austria, Germany and Switzerland it has always been prized and known as dinkel. Spelt’s resurrection elsewhere came with the organic movement, as the robust grain doesn’t require all the pesticides and fertilisers of its ubiquitous cousin. Spelt has a distinct nutty sweetness to it.
Khorasan (Triticum turgidum) aka Kamut
Khorasan wheat, the grain of Ancient Egypt, had all but disappeared with just a few pockets still being grown around the Middle East. It’s a drought-resistant relative of durum wheat, the hard wheat favoured for pasta. Legend has it that an American airman sent some Egyptian seeds back to Montana after World War Two—they were planted and the grain was named King Tut’s grain (as, supposedly, he’d found them in the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh). But it wasn’t until the late seventies that commercial organic cultivation began, and the grain was given its trademark name, Kamut. The grain is big and buttery, perfect when cooked as a kernel but also fast gaining popularity in wholegrain pasta production.
Emmer (Triticum dicoccum)
Derived from a hybridisation of einkorn with a wild grass. Emmer is a hardy grain that can give relatively good yields on very poor soils and so, even once the common wheat became a staple, its cultivation continued in areas of Morocco, Ethiopia and Europe. Emmer is probably better known by its Italian name, farro, grown in the Garfagnana region of Italy where it is cooked as a whole kernel or baked as bread.
Just to confuse us all, einkorn can also be farro (farro piccolo), as can emmer (farro medio).
Notes on cooking
—Heirloom grain flours make delicious nutty, deeply flavoured and rather dense breads.
—When cooking wholegrains, it’s wise (but not essential) to soak them first; it’s not just about the cooking time, but to improve digestibility too. A couple of hours will do, but overnight is best.
—Roasting whole grains (or berries, as they are sometimes called) in a dry pan until they smell toasty adds a delicious dimension of flavour.
—Grains can be boiled in water or stock (30 to 40 minutes) and work wonderfully in stews and risotto type dishes. Pearled grains have had some of the thick bran layer removed so that they cook more quickly (about 20 minutes) and have a creamier texture.