It's pretty exciting how many new old foods have been cropping up in supermarkets lately. With a trend of returning to our roots, different ingredients from root vegetables like rutabaga to organ meats like cow tongue have been re-entering our kitchens. And it doesn't stop there; heirloom grains are becoming more and more common, giving you even more opportunities to give them a try. In fact, the heirloom grain category is on fire right now, even with so many people opting out of wheat and gluten.
You've likely already become familiar with pseudo-grains like quinoa (it's technically a seed), but the fun doesn't stop there!
One thing to know about heirloom grains is that many of them are actually just different varieties of wheat. That doesn't mean you should veer away from them -- unless, of course, you're avoiding gluten. Many of these heirloom wheats are rich in vitamins and minerals and delicious to cook with.
Before choosing the type of wheat you want to buy, it's important to become familiar with a bit of terminology. Alongside the actual wheat variety, there may be another word on the package indicating not the type of wheat but rather how it is cut, kind of like how whole, steel-ground, or quick-cooking are all different ways of describing oats.
As far as wheat goes, you'll often find whole-grain wheat or wheatberries, which are whole kernels of wheat with the bran intact. Wheatberries take longer to cook than cracked wheat, for example bulgur, which is a quick-cooking form of wheat that has been pre-cut and cooked. While bulgur is most often made with white durum wheat, particularly in the United States, you can actually find heirloom versions of bulgur nowadays, such as Kamut bulgur and freekah bulgur, both made by Sunnyland Mills.
Once you know how you want your wheat cut, you can start exploring the many different heirloom varieties.
Farro stems from the Latin word for wheat and is best-known in Italy, where you'll actually find three kinds of farro -- farro piccolo, farro medio, and farro grande -- each of which refers to a different ancient wheat species -- einkorn, emmer, and spelt, respectively. Emmer wheat is the mid-sized farro and is the one most likely to be marketed as farro in the United States. It combines the best of both worlds, with a nutty flavor and chewy texture. Try it in your favorite risotto recipe in place of the rice to make what the Italians call farrotto.
Spelt image via Shutterstock
Spelt was grown quite regularly in the United States up until the end of the 19th century, when it took a backseat to modern wheat. It has a sweet, nutty flavor and a chewy texture. It also tends to hold together better than many other heirloom varieties of wheat once cooked, making it perfect for salads, like our spelt salad with arugula and quick-pickled onions.
Unlike spelt and farro, freekeh isn't actually another wheat species, but rather a method of preparing the wheat. Often made with modern wheat, freekeh is young, green wheat that has been toasted and often cracked to make it easier to cook. It's low in fat and higher in fiber and protein than many other whole grains, including superfood quinoa. And it has a great texture a bit similar to steel-cut oats, making it delicious prepared as a hot breakfast cereal.
Kamut is actually the brand name for Khorasan wheat, an ancient relative of durum wheat that's particularly tasty in whole wheat pastas and breads. Khorasan is notably high in protein, making it a great choice for a plant-based diet. It's one of the most ancient of these ancient heirloom grains: different legends say that Khorasan wheat made it onto Noah's ark or was even found in King Tut's tomb.
Triticale image via Shutterstock
Triticale is not wheat, per se, or at least not entirely wheat. Triticale is a 19th century hybrid of wheat and rye. It has elements of the health benefits and the flavors of both wheat and rye, making it higher in protein and a bit spicier in flavor than straight wheat. It is also a good source of the amino acid lysine, which is often lost in the processing of food.
Einkorn wheat is still rarer in the U.S., but it's fairly popular in France, where it's known as petit épautre or small spelt, or in Italy where it's called farro piccolo or small farro. Considered one of the oldest heirloom wheats, einkorn does contain gluten but may be edible by people with some forms of gluten sensitivity.
Gluten-Free Heirloom Grains
If you're a member of the gluten-free crowd, don't be bummed out -- there are all sorts of heirloom grains that you can try as well.
If you grew up in the South, you might be familiar with sorghum syrup, but sorghum is also quite tasty in grain form. It's heartier than many other grains you might be familiar with, taking over an hour to cook through, but conversely, it's quite a bit lighter in flavor, making it a nice option for grain salads that already have a lot of flavorful ingredients in them.
Amaranth image via Shutterstock
Remember when the first thing anyone said about quinoa was that it wasn't really a grain? Well that's also true for our new fave, amaranth, which is also technically a seed. It's related to quinoa and as such also contains omega-3 fatty acids. That said, it won't cook up fluffy like quinoa, but rather sticky and a bit porridgey. Use this texture to your advantage by adding it to soups as a thickener or combining it with other grains in a risotto-like dish.
Kasha is basically just a fancy name for buckwheat, with one major difference: kasha is pre-toasted, bringing out many of the nutty aromas of the pseudo-grain. While kasha isn't (yet) the most common of grains stateside, it has been consumed for centuries in Eastern Europe, so turn east when it comes to sourcing recipes: kasha porridges and sides from Russia and Poland are delicious and hearty dishes perfect for winter.
Millet image via Shutterstock
Millet is an ancient seed from Africa and northern China that has recently become popular in American kitchens. It has long been a staple ingredient in different countries given its rich mineral content, including iron, calcium, and even vitamin B. Nutrition aside, millet has a pleasant, mild corn flavor and a very fluffy texture, making it great as a side to a dish with a sauce you just want to keep sopping up.
Black quinoa via Shutterstock
11. Black Quinoa
You're an old hat at quinoa, right? You've cooked the white version in every way you can think of and have even started incorporating red quinoa into your repertoire, but what about black quinoa? Earthier and sweeter than the other two varieties, black quinoa is not only striking on the plate but also on the palate. Yotam Ottolenghi has some great black quinoa recipes to help you learn more about this super grain.
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