You’ve cooked your way through quinoa of every colour, dabbled in amaranth and moved beyond millet. That farro and kale salad? It has been in your dinner party rotation for at least two years.
But when was the last time you cooked up a pot of whole berry spelt? Have you tried einkorn, emmer or any of the other ancient, heirloom and obscure grains that are becoming available at the greenmarket and specialty shops?
Even if you haven’t, chefs at New York’s high-end restaurants have — seduced by the same nutty, rich and earthy flavours and high nutritional content that lured our ancestors away from their millenniums-old diet of foraged berries and the occasional antelope.
Home cooks would be wise to follow suit, because cooking with these grains, each with its own characteristics and nuance, can be a delectable endeavour.
Chefs’ newfound love for ancient and heirloom grains is a natural progression from their obsession with all things local, sustainable and authentic. Why serve the heritage pork loin and heirloom radicchio next to pappardelle made from plain commodity flour, especially when local emmer flour grown and ground on a small farm creates a better narrative on the plate?
Then there’s the fact that emmer — a hardy, nutritious and nutty-tasting berry that is the ancestor of durum wheat — happens to make incredibly flavourful, springy pasta.
When chefs first started looking several years ago, finding locally grown heirloom and ancient grains was a challenge. But since then, groups as disparate as small-scale farmers, artisanal bread bakers and people looking to reduce gluten in their diets began seeking them out, and interest spread.
Prehistoric wheat varieties, including spelt, emmer and einkorn, are reaching the fringes of the mainstream, along with other formerly marginalized grains such as buckwheat groats, kamut, rye berries, sorghum, unpearled barley and triticale, a rye and wheat hybrid. (Although some people with gluten sensitivities report that they find ancient wheat varieties such as spelt, emmer and einkorn more digestible than modern wheat, these grains do contain gluten and are therefore not appropriate for people with celiac disease.)
Cooking these grains does require a bit of a learning curve. For cooks used to their imported Italian farro softening in a mere 20 minutes, the simmering time of 45 minutes or more for emmer, einkorn, spelt, rye berries and whole oat groats can seem off-putting.
This is because most imported farro has been entirely or partly pearled, a process in which the bran has been stripped off the grain. Pearling makes grains less nutrient-dense but quicker to cook. (And, for the record, farro is not actually a specific grain variety. This loose Italian term is usually applied to the ancient wheat precursors of emmer, einkorn and spelt.)
Most of the chefs I spoke with prefer cooking any whole grain the way you would cook pasta: in a good amount of salted simmering water until tender. For the most part, the cooked grains could be used interchangeably in recipes calling for them, including salads, soups and some pseudo-risottos.
A trick that I found to heighten nuttiness: toast the grains in a dry pan for a few minutes before cooking.
The first step, though, is to bring them into your kitchen and get to know them.
“There’s a narrative about grains now, a conversation about what it means to be an heirloom grain,” chef Marco Canora said. “You need to know where it’s grown, and who is growing it. It’s happened to apples, now it’s happening with grains.”