Farro, Freekeh, and Spelt: A Guide to Ancient Grains
Healthy cooks claim less-domesticated (and less-processed) ancient grains might be easier for our bodies to digest, while chefs find that the textures and flavors of ancient grains make their food more vibrant and interesting.
Don’t worry, those ancient grains in your pantry haven’t been sitting around since the fall of the Roman Empire. The term “ancient grain” refers to strains of grain that predate today’s domesticated wheat, barley, and rye. Though we tend to think of wheat particularly in pretty basic terms—whole wheat and white—hundreds of varieties of the grass used to grow around the world. When the production of wheat industrialized in the early 20th century, many varieties disappeared. Modern hybridized wheat strains are bred to withstand differences in landscapes, weather, and soil, which is certainly productive, but was something lost while eliminating strains? Many think so, which is why ancient grains have begun to reappear on the food scene. Healthy cooks claim less-domesticated (and less-processed) ancient grains might be easier for our bodies to digest, while chefs find that the textures and flavors of ancient grains make their food more vibrant and interesting. Whatever your reason, these tasty, nourishing grains are worth a try. Here’s what to know about three of the most common and delicious ancient grains: farro, spelt, and freekeh.
Also known as emmer, farro is a simpler strain of wheat—literally: it has fewer chromosomes in every grain. Farro is also softer and contains less gluten, making it popular among people who are trying to eat less of the protein. Remnants of undomesticated farro date back to 17,000 BC (the Paleolithic era!). After being cultivated for a cool 7,000 years after that, farro appeared in history when rabbis first mentioned it as an ingredient in matzo. Most of today’s farro comes from Italy, where it has protected status. When cooked, each grain has a meaty texture with a nice chew, one reason why vegetarians love it.
How to use it: Boil farro in salted water, like pasta, for about 30 minutes, then use the cooked grains in salads or pilafs. Or simmer farro with onions and broth for a whole-grain risotto.
(Photo: The Sprout Diaries)
Spelt dates back to the Bronze Age, and Europeans grew the crop throughout the Middle Ages. Unlike some of its ancient relatives, spelt isn’t finicky—it can resist the cold and the birds—which means there’s ample supply as it regains popularity.
How to use it: Spelt berries are larger and chewier than farro, requiring a bit more time to cook, around 45 minutes. Spelt can be used just like farro, and makes the base for a high-fiber grain salad. You can also use spelt flour to give baked goods a nutty flavor.
(Photo: Oh She Glows)
Freekeh (also spelled frika or frikah) is wheat that’s been harvested while it’s still young. “It was probably discovered by accident,” writes Maria Speck in her cookbook, Simply Ancient Grains. “When farmers had to harvest wheat early (in its green stage) during a rainy season.” The green, moist grain is then dried beside a flame, which gives freekeh its signature smoky flavor. Like spelt and farro, freekeh has a nicely chewy texture, making the cooked grains worthy for salads and side dishes.
How to use it: The grain comes from the Eastern Mediterranean, so try pairing it with ingredients like eggplant, lentils, chickpeas, red pepper pastes, and dried fruit.
(Photo: Good Food)