In a world where agricultural practices have changed quickly, and savvy consumers want to know that their food is both healthful and sustainable, the idea of “ancient grains” has a lot of appeal. You might be surprised to learn that the crops in this category aren’t all older than common wheat. But “ancient” as a descriptor signifies a meaningful cultural desire to prioritize small-scale, sustainable agricultural practices, as well as a desire to consume grains in their healthiest forms. Besides all of that, ancient grains—also called heirloom or heritage grains (I’ll use these terms interchangeably)—offer a huge variety of flavors, textures, and culinary uses. Get ready to explore!
The resurgence in popularity of ancient grains is relatively recent. The first known mention of the phrase “ancient grains” in the media was in a 1996 article in the New York Daily News. Currently, a Google search turns up some 399,000 results for the phrase. According to the non-profit Whole Grains Council, sales of ancient grains grew sharply from 2013-2014. Kamut® brand khorasan wheat sales rose 686%, spelt rose 363%, amaranth 123%. With modern consumers growing skeptical of the trade-offs required when plants are selectively bred, as happened with wheat throughout the 20th century, the appeal of heirloom grains is understandable.
Common wheat itself is thousands of years old, and some grains we think of as ancient have actually been cross-bred with common wheat relatively recently. Modern spelt, for example, is thought to be a hybrid of common wheat and emmer. Many ancient grains are touted as more nutritious than modern wheat, but it’s important to remember that some sources that cite ancient grains as healthful are comparing whole, intact ancient grains (berries, or whole grain flour) to processed white flour made from wheat. Modern whole grain wheat, as berries or unsifted whole wheat flour, is also very healthful. So are heirloom whole grains! When deciding whether to incorporate more heirloom grains into your diet, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, not oranges—take a look at the nutritional profiles of each grain as compared to whole wheat, not processed white flour. The non-profit Whole Grains Council has an online resource providing an overview of the nutritional benefits of various whole grains, available at wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whole-grains-an-important-source-of-essential-nutrients—note that in the chart, “wheat, white” does not mean white flour, but rather a variety of whole wheat where the berries are a light color.
According to Scientific American, new evidence (as of 2009) suggests that humans have been eating grains for 105,000 years, much longer than previously believed. A coating of ancient sorghum was discovered on the surface of tools found in a limestone cave in Mozambique. Later, during the Neolithic period (starting around 10200 B.C.), humans were consuming rye, spelt, millet, and wheat (Advanced Bread and Pastry). Ancient Egyptians were known to grow spelt, wheat, and barley.
Wheat alone has a long and interesting history, with an assortment of varieties being popular in different cultures and in different points in time. The timeline to the bottom left is an overview of when humans are believed to have begun cultivating various types of wheat.
Common/bread wheat is the grain that we call wheat today. Although it is old, it has been selectively bred quite heavily in the last century, prioritizing traits such as fungus resistance and higher yields. There has been some concern that modern wheat breeding has increased gluten content of crops, but a new study indicates that gluten content of wheat has probably changed very little, and remains within a relatively narrow range. Nevertheless, the perception of ancient grains as healthier and more tolerable to those with wheat sensitivities is a major reason that heirloom grains are seeing a renaissance. It is true that they have been relatively untouched by modern agricultural practices.
Here’s some history behind why common wheat has followedthe trajectory it has. According to The Economist (“The Story of Wheat: Ears of Plenty,” Dec 20, 2005), breeding projects from the late 1940s through the 1960s were among several agricultural developments over the past few centuries that rescued part or all of the world from famine due to overpopulation. Norman Borlaug, who headed this wheat breeding revolution, received the Nobel prize in 1970 for his work. By 1974, India, previously on the brink of famine, had averted disaster thanks to hardier wheat. Although it is wise to question in what situations hardiness, yield, and other agricultural efficiency considerations should be prioritized, it is also worth considering the benefits of selective breeding when it comes to global hunger crises. Ideally, going forward, in this situation as in so many others, we can find a balance between food source hardiness, cost-effectiveness, sustainability, and healthiness.
Heritage Wheat Varieties
Gilbert Williams, co-owner of Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, works with an incredibly array of grains—wheat (Willy Street Co-op uses Lonesome Stone milled wheat flour in many of its bakery products, as well as stocking it in the bulk bins), spelt, rye, oats, barley, corn, and blue corn. Williams has also started working with a heritage variety of hard red winter wheat called Turkey Red. According to Slow Food USA, “Not only does this variety have a great root structure and is great for the soil, in a recent drought it outperformed other modern varieties.” Originally from Crimea and Turkey, it was brought to the United States by Mennonite immigrants in the 1870s, where it was the main wheat crop until it was selectively bred for the higher yielding dwarf wheats that now dominate the market. As interest in heritage strains is seeing a revival, some farmers are once again planting Turkey Red. If you want to get in deep with wheat varieties, you’ll find more than you ever dreamed of. Another variety seeing a renaissance is called Red Fife, which was very popular in Canada for a long time. If you want the full run-down, there’s a website listing 34 heritage wheat varieties just in Canada alone (grassrootsolutions.com/heritage-wheat/varieties.html).
The further into ancient grain research I got, the more grains I discovered! I’ve compiled a list, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still more out there. Here’s a starting point. Some of these are true grains (meaning that the part we eat includes both the seed and the fruit of the plant), and some are pseudograins, meaning we just eat the seeds, but they have nutritional profiles similar to actual grains.
Amaranth (a seed)
Barley (a grain)
Buckwheat (a seed; not actually related to wheat)
Chia (a seed)
Coixseed/Job’s Tears (a seed)
Corn/Maize (a grain)
Einkorn (a wheat variety)
Emmer (a wheat variety)
Fonio (a grain)
Indian Rice Grass (a seed—Montina™ brand)
Khorasan (a wheat variety—Kamut® brand)
Millet (a seed—commonly seen as bird seed, but also edible by humans)
Oats (a grain)
Quinoa (a seed)
Rice (a grain)
Rye (a grain)
Sorghum (a grain)
Spelt (a wheat variety)
Wild Rice (a grain, but not actually rice)
If you’re wondering about farro: this is a grain name that crops up (forgive the pun) frequently. It does not refer to one specific grain. Instead, it is a term that can be applied to several different grains—emmer, einkorn, and spelt.
Where to Get
Check out the bulk aisle at Willy Street Co-op for a huge variety of grains, in berry format and as flour. If you’ve got a hankering to explore some new recipes, this is the place to start. The bulk aisle also has several types of grain mixes for hot cereals.
Jeff Ford of Cress Spring Bakery offers several varieties of bread and pastries made with Kamut® and spelt flour. Kamut®, he says, is his favorite grain: the flavor is nutty, the dough is easy to work with, and the final bread stays moist for a long time. Spelt flour products are also a customer favorite from Cress Spring; this flour makes a tender dough, particularly well-suited to pastries.
Cress Spring, based in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, has a home delivery program for their breads, naturally leavened and made from flour they mill themselves. Their breads include several made with Kamut® and spelt flour. You can also buy their breads and pastries at the Dane County Farmers Market in downtown Madison on Saturdays.
Certain grains are touted as more tolerable to people with gluten intolerances. However, it is important to note that no grain that contains any amount of gluten is safe for people with celiac disease. But people without celiac disease who try to avoid gluten may find wheat cousins such as einkorn, emmer, kamut, or spelt more tolerable. Gilbert Williams of Lonesome Stone notes that he has customers with gluten intolerance who are able to tolerate Turkey Red wheat, which he notes also has a great flavor.
Agriculturally, part of the backlash against modern wheat is that it was developed with an eye towards monocropping—planting the same variety of crop in the same field every year, aiming to get the highest yield possible, even when that means weakened resistance to pests, and has a negative impact on soil conditions. Buying ancient grains cultivated by farmers with an eye towards permaculture can be a way to opt out of this system. This isn’t inherently specific to the grains themselves—it represents a correlation between the mindset of polyculture farming and the cultivation of non-mainstream grains. If you want to support present-day polycultures, buying ancient grains is a great option. (Mind you, buying them because they’re delicious and healthy is a great reason, too.)
If you’re interested in baking with Kamut® or spelt, Jeff Ford of Cress Spring has some tips: both these grains make best bread when used in a fairly wet dough, which will rise well in a hot oven, combatting the tendencies of these flours to create a bread that would otherwise flatten out during baking. He also notes that these flours have a lower fermentation tolerance than common wheat, so the total fermentation time before baking should be reduced.
There are a few books out there on cooking and baking with ancient grains! Check out Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck, and Cooking with Ancient Grains by Maria Baez Kijac. The book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond has some interesting sections exploring the role of early grain farming as it contributed to the rise of modern civilizations.
For a taste of one of these books, here’s a recipe from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.
A Kamut® salad
You can buy Kamut® berries in the Willy Street Co-op bulk aisle.
1 cup water½ cup Kamut® berries, soaked overnight and drained
Salad, and to finish:
2½ c. shredded carrots (about 3 medium)
¼ c. plus 2 Tbs. golden raisins
3 Tbs. freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. honey
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ c. toasted, chopped walnuts
¼ c. pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)
Directions: To prepare the Kamut®, bring the water and the Kamut® berries to a boil in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the Kamut® berries are tender but still slightly chewy, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the heat and, if you have time, let it sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid and transfer to a large serving bowl to cool.
Once the Kamut® has cooled, make the salad. Add the carrots and golden raisins to the serving bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange and lemon juices, honey, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Gradually whisk in the olive oil in a thin stream.
To finish, pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine. Taste and adjust for salt. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Toss again before serving; sprinkle with the walnuts and garnish with the pomegranate seeds.
To get a head start: Make the Kamut® berries, ahead. In a hurry on the day of a party? The salad (without the walnuts and pomegranate seeds) can be prepared 4 to 6 hours ahead. Chill, covered. Bring to room temperature before serving.
To vary it: You can use about 1½ cups cooked farro, spelt, or hard or soft wheat berries instead of Kamut® (see cooking instructions).