Ancient Grains: Spotlight on Wheat Berries
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND
Vol. 25 No. 7 P. 14
Using an Ancient Favorite in the Modern Era
Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and one of the most-produced grains worldwide.1 Wheat is estimated to provide 20% of the total daily food calories for people in many regions and 13% of daily protein, which is higher than most other grains. Although wheat doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids to make it a complete protein, its dominance worldwide makes it an essential source of plant protein, especially in developing countries.
In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in ancient grains and new forms of grains such as einkorn, spelt, kamut, farro, and wheat berries. Wheat berries are kernels of whole wheat used in a variety of methods and recipes. To understand more about wheat berries, this article will cover the history, botany, nutrient content, and culinary uses (including two recipes), as well as how to make the most of this ancient grain.
Agriculture originated in the Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago with the domestication of cereal grains, including emmer and einkorn.1 The Fertile Crescent encompasses a large area of what’s now the Middle East from Iran to Israel and into Southeast Turkey. This area has been shown to be the habitat of domesticated cereal grains’ ancestors, including wild wheats, barley, and rye. Furthermore, archeological records show early human interaction with these grains.1 For example, in early Neolithic archeological sites, seeds from these wild species were found that indicated cultivation compared with later habitation of the sites where domesticated forms of the cereal grains were also discovered.1
Today, breeders have identified wheat’s genome to help distinguish valuable traits of ancient and modern wheat varieties, which results in more robust and diverse crops within our population. This means they can identify crops that can face the challenges of the warming weather and expanding population.
Currently, the top global producer of wheat is mainland China, followed by India and Russia. In the US market, wheat is the third most produced food after corn and soybeans. The United States exports 50% of the wheat produced annually and makes up 16% of total wheat exports. Approximately 95% of wheat grown globally is Triticum aestivum, known as common wheat or bread wheat. The remaining 5% of global wheat production is Triticum durum,1 also known as durum wheat or pasta wheat, which is grown in hotter and drier climates.
What Are Wheat Berries?
The kernel of whole wheat is called a wheat berry, and it contains the bran, germ, and edosperm of the entire wheat kernel.2 The kernel typically is processed to produce foods such as bread and pasta. Wheat berries have a nutty, sweet taste, and because the wheat kernel is still intact, the wheat berry provides a plethora of fiber, protein, and thiamin and niacin. The wheat berries seen at the market usually refer to kernels of hard red winter wheat, hard red spring wheat, or soft wheat. There also are several other ancient wheats used interchangeably with wheat berry recipes, including einkorn, farro, kamut, and spelt.3 Whole wheat variants, such as wheat berries, can take close to an hour to cook, but you can reduce the cooking time by using a rice cooker or pressure cooker.
In addition, to help decrease the cooking time of wheat berries, some processors crack the wheat kernels into smaller pieces without removing the bran or germ. Some of these quick-cooking wheat pieces include bulgur and freekeh. Bulgur are wheat kernels that have been preboiled and then ground into small pieces. Because they’re precooked and dried, they need to be boiled for only 10 minutes until they’re ready. Freekeh is a hard wheat that’s harvested when the plant is young and green and then roasted and rubbed. This process gives freekeh its smoky flavor, and it also can be sold cracked for smaller, quicker cooking pieces.
Powerhouse of Nutrition
One-quarter cup of hard red winter wheat berries provides 148 kcal, 1 g total fat, <1 g saturated fat, 31 g total carbohydrate, 5 g total fiber, 7 g protein, and 1 mg sodium. It’s free of sugar and trans fats. A single 1/4-cup serving also provides 9% of the daily recommended amount of iron, 3% of the daily recommended amount of potassium, and 1% of the daily recommended amount of calcium.4
Like other nutritious grains, wheat berries can be used in a variety of recipes, such as in stews, salads, bread, energy bars, and more. To prepare wheat berries, follow the steps listed below5:
Step 1: (Optional) This step can reduce cooking time. Place the wheat berries in a bowl, cover entirely with water, and soak overnight. Soak berries for at least 12 hours and drain.
Step 2: (Optional) Toast the berries before cooking on a stovetop. Preheat the oven to 375˚ F, spread the berries on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and toast for 10 minutes.
Step 3: Place 21/2 to 3 cups of water or liquid (like broth) in a saucepan and add 1 cup wheat berries. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer. Check the pan occasionally to ensure there’s enough water. Typically, wheat berries take about one hour to cook, but soaking can decrease cooking time to about 35 minutes. They’re done when the berries are chewy.
Step 4: Drain any excess liquid from the wheat berries.
Wheat berries also can be prepared in a slow cooker using a 3:1 ratio of liquid to grain. Rinse the wheat berries, set the cooker on low, and cook, covered, for eight to 12 hours. Drain the berries and set them aside to cool before using or serving.
Uncooked wheat berries can be stored in an airtight container in the pantry for up to six months and in the freezer for up to one year.
What follows are two recipes for wheat berries—one for a wheat berry salad that serves eight and one for wheat berry burgers that can serve six.
— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, is founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal bestselling author. She’s written nine cookbooks, including Diabetes Create Your Plate Meal Prep Cookbook: 100 Delicious Plate Method Recipes and The Family Immunity Cookbook: 101 Easy Recipes to Boost Health. She’s also a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to U.S. News Eat + Run and other national outlets.
Wheat Berry Salad
2 cups dry wheat berries
3 T honey
3 small garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 T lime juice
2 T rice vinegar
2 T peanut oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup dried currants
1/4 cup unsalted peanuts, chopped
2 cups fresh or frozen peaches or mangos, defrosted, and chopped
1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
1. Cook wheat berries according to package directions, place in a strainer, rinse, drain, and cool.
2. Whisk the honey, garlic, lime juice, rice vinegar, peanut oil, and salt in a large bowl until combined.
3. Add the wheat berries, currants, peanuts, peaches or mangos, bell peppers, and spinach in the bowl with the dressing and stir to coat. Chill.
Nutrient Analysis per 1/2-cup serving
Calories: 207; Total fat: 7 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Sodium: 290 mg; Total carbohydrate: 33 g; Dietary fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 18 g; Protein: 5 g
— Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Jacqueline Larson, MS, RDN, https://consultantdietitian.com
Wheat Berry Burgers
7 tsp olive oil, divided
1/2 small onion, chopped
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 cups cooked wheat berries, cooled
4 peppadew peppers
2 T prepared hummus
1 large egg
1. Heat 1 tsp of oil in a small skillet. Add onion, season with a pinch of salt, and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes; set aside to cool.
2. Combine cooked onion, wheat berries, peppadew peppers, hummus, and egg in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Season with 1/4 tsp each of kosher salt and black pepper. Pulse until mixture is well combined, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Form mixture into six equal-sized patties (about 1/2 cup each).
3. Heat 2 tsp of oil in a large skillet, place two burgers in the skillet and cook for 5 minutes per side; transfer to a plate. Repeat for remaining burgers.
Nutrient Analysis per serving (1 burger)
Calories: 186; Total fat: 8 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Total carbohydrate: 24 g; Dietary fiber: 5 g; Sugars:
1 g; Sodium: 113 mg; Protein: 5 g
— Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, owner of Dana White Nutrition, https://danawhitenutrition.com
1. Wheat July grain of the month. Oldways Whole Grains Council website. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/wheat-july-grain-month
2. Wheat berry nutrition facts. Bob’s Red Mill website. https://www.bobsredmill.com/blog/healthy-living/wheat-berry-nutrition-facts/. Published April 19, 2019.
3. The wonderful world of whole wheat. Oldways Whole Grains Council website. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/blog/2020/07/wonderful-world-whole-wheat. Published July 15, 2020.
4. Wheat berries, hard red winter wheat. Country Life Foods website. https://countrylifefoods.com/collections/grains/products/wheat-berries-hard-red-winter-wheat5. Cooking wheat berries: step by step guide. Bob’s Red Mill website. https://www.bobsredmill.com/blog/healthy-living/cooking-wheat-berries/. Published April 3, 2019.