November/December 2020 Issue
Ancient Grains: Ancient Wheat
By Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN
Vol. 22, No. 9, P. 10
Vintage grains are back in style.
Ancient grains have become quite popular over the past decade, but with the rise in celiac disease and low-carbohydrate diets such as keto and Paleo, the focus has been on gluten-free grains including quinoa, sorghum, and amaranth. For those who haven’t given up their morning toast and sandwiches for lunch, modern wheat, which is constantly bred and changed, is still at the forefront. It’s cheaper, more accessible, and easier to work with in the kitchen than ancient wheat varieties, which have remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.1
However, ancient wheat has made its way into the spotlight and is showing up more frequently in supermarkets, on restaurant menus, and in baked goods. Ancient wheat, as with other ancient grains, has much to offer, from both nutritional and culinary standpoints. Most varieties of ancient wheat are good to excellent sources of protein, fiber, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorus. They also tend to be higher in antioxidants than modern wheat. While those with gluten and wheat intolerances may better tolerate some types of ancient wheat, generally these varieties aren’t recommended for those with celiac disease.2-8 Let’s explore some of the most popular varieties and how clients can put them to use in the kitchen.
Einkorn (Triticum monococcum), known as “man’s first wheat,” is the oldest grain, grown by the first farmers of the Fertile Crescent—the fertile areas of the Tigris-Euphrates region in ancient Mesopotamia—more than 10,000 years ago, although archaeological evidence points to it being around long before. It now can be found primarily in the mountains of Morocco, Turkey, and France, and in other countries.2,9
Unlike modern wheat, the einkorn plant is especially tall and has small kernels. It’s classified as a “covered wheat” because the kernels don’t easily break away from the seed, making it difficult to separate from the husk. These differences account for the greater expense and lower harvest yield of einkorn wheat compared with modern hard red wheat. On a positive note, einkorn can thrive in poor, dry soil where other varieties of wheat can’t survive.10
Einkorn is a form of wheat and therefore contains gluten; however, it has less gluten than modern-day wheat and as a result it often can be tolerated by people with gluten sensitivities. In addition to the nutritional profile of ancient wheat varieties mentioned earlier, einkorn is rich in carotenoids, specifically lutein, which plays an important role in eye health.2-4,11
Einkorn has a nutty sweetness and can be used to make bread and baked goods, but because of the lower gluten content certain modifications must be made when using it in traditional wheat-based recipes. For example, the amount of liquid may need to be reduced when using einkorn flour and it’s important not to knead the flour mixture for too long, if at all, when making einkorn bread. An extra egg also may be needed to avoid a dense end product.4 And, as with all baking, it’s important to weigh the ingredients to ensure accuracy. In addition to einkorn flour, einkorn wheat berries are available, which can be cooked like rice, used to make grain salads, or even turned into risotto.
Emmer (Triticum dicoccon), sometimes referred to as “Pharaoh’s Wheat,” originated 9,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Middle East and North Africa. It was originally a staple of the Ancient Egyptian diet and later found its home in Italy, where it’s commonly referred to as farro. Emmer also gave rise to durum wheat, which is easier to hull and well known as the main ingredient in pasta.12
Emmer is grown in the hilly, mountainous regions of Morocco, Spain, Albania, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Carpathian Mountains on the border of the Czech and Slovak republics. It’s also a traditional plant in Ethiopia, beneficial for its potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development, and support sustainable land care. Emmer is also a valuable grain, as it thrives in poor soil and is resistant to fungal diseases that are prevalent in wet areas.12,13
Emmer has a sweet, nutty flavor and a chewy texture. It commonly was used to make bread in Ancient Egypt, and emmer bread still can be found in some bakeries in Switzerland and Italy. It also can be used to make pasta and beer, but it’s most commonly used in its whole grain form to make salads, pilafs, and farrotto (ie, farro risotto), and add to soups and stews.2,6 When purchasing emmer/farro, look for whole grain or semipearled farro, as opposed to pearled farro, which cooks fastest but lacks the germ and bran.
Along with einkorn and emmer, spelt (Triticum aestivum spelta) is one of the founding ancient grains; however, it’s about 2,000 years younger than emmer. Until the start of the 20th century, spelt was the principal grain crop in parts of Europe, including Switzerland, Germany, northern France, and the Southern Netherlands. It was introduced to the United States in the 1890s, but in the 20th century modern bread wheat took over in almost all areas spelt was grown. Spelt regained popularity in the 1970s with the rise of the organic movement, and over the past 50 years it’s made its way from specialty supermarkets to mainstream grocery stores, where it now can be found.7,8
Spelt kernels are larger than emmer and einkorn, and spelt has a higher gluten content, which is beneficial for bread making but unfriendly for those with celiac disease and gluten and wheat intolerances.8
Similar to einkorn and emmer, spelt has a firm texture and nutty flavor. It’s best used in flour form to make bread, pancakes, waffles, and baked goods, but it also can be used as a substitute for rice in risotto or as a base for a grain salad, added to soups and stews, and used to make pasta. In various parts of Europe, it’s even used to make vodka and beer.8,14,15
The commercially branded Kamut historically is known as Khorasan wheat (Triticum turanicum), referring to an area in what is today Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. An ancient relative of durum wheat, Kamut made its way to the United States after World War II. In 1977, two Montana farmers began cultivating this ancient grain and in 1990 they registered the trademark Kamut, which means “wheat” in Egyptian.16,17
Some research has shown that Kamut may protect against oxidative stress due to the antioxidant content of the grain, specifically selenium.2 Although some people with wheat sensitivities report being able to tolerate Kamut, it does contain gluten and should be avoided by people with gluten sensitivity and intolerance and wheat allergies and celiac disease.16
Kamut has a smooth texture and a rich, nutty, buttery flavor. Soaking it overnight allows for more even cooking and a less chewy consistency. Kamut has a sweeter flavor than other types of wheat and is used in cereals, baked goods, and pastas. Kamut berries, which are twice the size of modern wheat, can be used whole in place of other grains, and the flour can be used in place of other flours to make waffles, pancakes, cookies, cakes, crackers, flatbread, and pizza dough. It can be used to make bread, but it doesn’t contain as much gluten as harder wheat, which can lead to a denser loaf.18
— Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert with a focus on culinary nutrition and communications. She’s the author of 52-Week Meal Planner: The Complete Guide to Planning Menus, Groceries, Recipes, and More. You can read more of her articles and find her recipes at JessicaLevinson.com. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @jlevinsonrd.
1. Ancient grains. Oldways Whole Grains Council website. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain/ancient-grains
2. Cooper R. Re-discovering ancient wheat varieties as functional foods. J Tradit Complement Med. 2015;5(3):138-143.
3. Types of wheat: nutritional content & health benefits comparison. Einkorn.com website. https://www.einkorn.com/types-of-wheat-nutritional-content-health-benefits-comparison/?v=7516fd43adaa. Accessed August 11, 2020.
4. Gordon H. Guest post: a history of einkorn. Oldways Whole Grains Council website. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/blog/2013/06/guest-post-history-einkorn. Published June 19, 2013. Accessed August 11, 2020.
5. Whole grain emmer farro. U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/363578/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed August 12, 2020.
6. Dennett C. Farro: an ancient wheat for modern meals. Food & Nutrition. December 19, 2016. https://foodandnutrition.org/january-february-2017/farro-ancient-wheat-modern-meals/. Accessed August 12, 2020.
7. Jacewicz N. Nothing says ‘hip’ like ancient wheat. NPR website. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/27/483278049/nothing-says-hip-like-ancient-wheat. Published June 27, 2016. Accessed August 14, 2020.
8. Spelt. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spelt. Updated September 4, 2020.
9. The history of einkorn, nature’s first and oldest wheat. Einkorn.com website. https://www.einkorn.com/einkorn-history/. Accessed August 11, 2020.
10. Einkorn wheat. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einkorn_wheat. Updated September 9, 2020.
11. Antognoni F, Mandrioli R, Bordoni A, et al. Integrated evaluation of the potential health benefits of einkorn-based breads. Nutrients. 2017;9(11):1232.
12. Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species. Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon). https://ucanr.edu/sites/Grown_in_Marin/files/131333.pdf. Accessed August 12, 2020.
13. Emmer. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmer. Updated August 7, 2020. Accessed August 12, 2020.
14. Speck M. The appeal of ancient wheat: why spelt, emmer, einkorn, and Kamut® return to our table. The Cook’s Cook website. https://thecookscook.com/features/appeal-ancient-wheat-spelt-emmer-einkorn-kamut-return-table/. Published June 2015. Accessed August 11, 2020.
15. A brief history of spelt, plus how to cook with it. Countryfile website. https://www.countryfile.com/how-to/food-recipes/guide-spelt-history/. Accessed August 17, 2020.
16. Khorasan wheat. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khorasan_wheat. Updated August 7, 2020. Accessed August 17, 2020.
17. Quinn RM. Kamut®: ancient grain, new cereal. Purdue University Horticulture & Landscape Architecture website. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1999/v4-182.html. Updated September 10, 2012. Accessed August 17, 2020.
18. Bradley C. Kamut – an ancient grain rediscovered. What’s Cooking America website. https://whatscookingamerica.net/CharlotteBradley/Kamut-AncientGrain.htm. Accessed August 17, 2020.