Ancient Grains Information
Amaranth was first known to be cultivated about 8000 years ago. The plant is quite beautiful and easy to grow. It is a hardy plant that does well in most soils, tolerates drought and is fairly disease resistant. Most people that are familiar with amaranth, know it for it’s edible seeds but the plant itself is also edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves can be interchanged in recipes calling for lettuce, spinach, kale, swiss chard and other leafy greens for a unique twist on flavor and variety. Although the seeds of the plant are often referred to as grains, they are not technically grains but are sourced and used as a grain and even referred to as a “super grain” because of their nutritional profile. The seeds can be cooked like porridge and polenta, ground into flour, sprouted, toasted and even popped to change the the flavor profile and texture.
Amaranth is higher in protein than most grains. It contains about 15% protein compared to about 10% for most other grains. It also contains the essential amino acid lysine which is not present in other grains and is necessary for protein synthesis in humans.
Amaranth is wheat free and gluten free, making it a great choice for people with celiac or anyone else who has undesirable reactions to gluten.
Along with wheat, barley was one of the first crops domesticated by humans. It can be found as hulled, hull-less or pearled. Hulled and hull-less barley has the outer bran layer and endosperm still intact while pearled barley has been polished to remove these outer layers. It has a low glycemic index and high fiber content. Even with pearl barley, in which the bran is removed, the fiber content remains quite high because the fiber is located throughout the entire grain and not just the outer bran layer. Barley contains a special type of fiber called beta gluten which helps control cholesterol, blood glucose and insulin resistance.
It has a delightful chewy texture and a mildly sweet, nutty flavor. The less common but more intensely flavored heirloom varieties of black barley and purple barley have more profound nutty flavors and rich earthy, coffee undertones.
Black Nile barley cooks up with a rich black to purple sheen and has an earthy, almost coffee-like flavor. Purple Prairie barley is slightly sweeter and has a more pronounced nutty flavor than Black Nile barley. It is also more glutinous (sticky and viscous) when cooked which makes it great for thickening soups and other liquids. Both of these deeply colored varieties provide a high antioxidant levels of anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is also found in red, blue and purple fruits and vegetables like blueberries, purple cabbage, red beets and cherries.
Farro is a term that describes three different species of wheat: einkorn, emmer and spelt. They are the most primitive types of wheat that have a tough hull or husk covering them. Their outer layer requires extra milling and pounding to remove the grain, making them more tedious and time consuming to process. Their chromosomal structure helps determine which came first and their degree of hybridization.
Einkorn is the most primitive of the farro wheat grains. It is classified as a diploid, meaning its chromosomes come in sets of two. It has 7 sets for a total of 14 chromosomes. It has never been hybridized and is the only wheat whose genetic structure remains untouched.
Not only is it more flavorful than modern wheat, it is more nutritious. Einkorn has a sweet, toasty nuttiness and richness and is the most flavorful of the three farro varieties. It is higher in protein lutein, riboflavin,vitamin A and carotene. Although it has gluten, the proteins that make up gluten in einkorn have a different composition than the proteins in modern wheat and certain proteins are completely absent. This variation in the balance of proteins makes einkorn much easier to digest and some people who can not tolerate modern wheat find they can tolerate einkorn, however it is not recommended for people with celiac disease or wheat allergies.
Since the protein structure is different than modern wheat, einkorn behaves quite differently in baking and will have a different texture with most of your baked goods, especially yeast breads. The gluten is weaker and it takes longer for it to absorb water and fats. With a few changes to traditional baking approaches, einkorn can be very manageable to work with and will captivate you with it’s flavor.
Emmer is classified as a tetraploid and has 4 times the number of chromosomes in the cell for a total of 28 chromosomes. Emmer is a natural hybrid of einkorn and a wild grass. It has a sweet, nuttiness that is more mild than einkorn but has what I would describe as a faint buttery flavor. Like all three of the farro grains, the gluten proteins have a different composition and are more water soluble, making it easier to digest. It is rich in fiber, protein, magnesium and vitamins.The gluten structure in emmer is weaker than modern wheat and it takes longer to absorb liquids. Baked goods will have a denser texture than modern wheat but a superior flavor.
Spelt is a hybrid between emmer and a wild grass. It is classified as a hexaploid and has 6 times the number of chromosomes for a total of 42 chromosomes. Of these three farro grains, spelt is the largest in size and when ground into flour it is the lightest in color. It has a flavor very similar to emmer as well as a rich nutrient profile. Like einkorn and emmer, it’s gluten has a different composition than modern wheat and is more easily tolerated. The gluten structure in spelt is weaker than modern wheat but stronger than emmer and einkorn however it still tends to have a denser texture than baked goods that are made with modern wheat. A few simple adjustments to traditional baking approaches can make it very easy to work with.
Kamut is classified as a tetraploid like emmer but unlike emmer, it is a free threshing wheat and does not have a tough husk covering it. When threshed, the chaffs break away and easily release the grain making it less laborious to process and more affordable for the consumer.
The common name of this ancient wheat is khorasan and it is being marketed under the KAMUT® brand. The brand name was registered as a trademark in 1990 in order to protect and preserve the qualities of the ancient grain, keeping it certified organic and preventing it from ever be hybridized or genetically modified.
It is an ancient relative of the modern durum wheat originating in the Mediterranean area and dating back to biblical times. This ancient grain is the same as what the pharaohs ate eons ago. It has a sweet, nutty taste and it is rich in vitamins, minerals and protein.
Kaniwa is a seed that has been used in the Andean region for centuries but has only recently made it’s way to the United States. It is considered a cousin to quinoa but it has some different qualities. It is a hardy plant grown in cool mountainous regions where quinoa and millet can not grow. Like quinoa, it is gluten free but it’s seeds are much smaller, slightly sweeter and do not contain saponins, a protective coating that has a bitter flavor. It is high in protein, fiber calcium and iron. It also contains natural antioxidants called flavonoids which have anti-inflammatory properties.
Millet was first known to be domesticated and cultivated about 8,000 years ago. It is a very small, gluten free grain that cooks quickly. Although it is often referred to as a grain, it is technically a seed but is sourced and used as a grain. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor and dense nutrient profile. It is high in magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, zinc and fiber. Depending on how it is cooked, it can have a creamy texture or a light fluffy texture. The seeds can be cooked like porridge and polenta, ground into flour, sprouted, toasted and even popped to change the the flavor profile and texture. This versatile grain which was once eaten in biblical days is starting to make a comeback into the modern diet.
Quinoa comes from the same species of plant as kaniwa and was first domesticated about 4000 years ago. It’s small seeds are gluten free, high in protein, fiber, iron, copper and B vitamins. It grows in the Andean region and is a food staple in that area. There are approximately 3,000 varieties but the most common are white, black and red. It is perhaps the most popular of the ancient grains and is so well known and readily available that people don’t always realize that it is an ancient grain/seed.
Quinoa is coated with saponins which are natural chemicals that protect the plant from pesticides and give it a bitter, soapy taste. The saponins need to be rinsed off not only to improve its flavor but to prevent stomach irritation and possible allergic reactions. When prepared correctly, quinoa is a delicious and nutritious seed. It cooks quickly, making a fast and easy side dish with a unique nutty flavor. It can be ground into flour, cooked like porridge, toasted or popped like popcorn.
Sorghumis a gluten free grain that was first domesticated over 6,000 years ago in east Africa. It is a drought tolerant and disease resistant plant that has been an important food staple in impoverished countries. Its popularity is rising in the United States due to its nutritional profile and its lack of gluten. It is a good protein source and is high in iron, zinc, and B vitamins. It also contains antioxidants that protect against cell damage. Certain varieties of sorghum bran have been shown to be richer in antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates. Sorghum can be found as a whole grain, a flour and as a syrup that is similar in appearance and flavor to molasses. The grain has a mild and slightly sweet flavor that can be cooked like porridge or rice, malted for beer, toasted, ground into flour or even popped like popcorn. Sorghum syrup is made by cooking the juice from the stalk of the plant. It is a rich, dark, sweet syrup that looks like molasses and is a little sweeter. Like the grain, sorghum syrup is high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Teff is the smallest of all the grains. Since most of the grain consists of the germ and the bran where the nutrients are concentrated, it is a nutritional powerhouse and high in fiber. It is high in protein, calcium, thiamin and iron and is gluten free. It is native to Ethiopia where it is a staple food, particularly for making a traditional flat bread called injera.
Teff is high in resistant starch which is a type of dietary fiber that feeds friendly bacteria in the colon and helps manage blood sugar, weight and appetite.
There are several different varieties of teff and the lighter grains have a mild sweet, nutty flavor while the darker varieties have a more pronounced earthy and molasses flavor.