Friday, 11 April 2014

Unearthing the Mystery of “Ancient Grains”: Spotlight on Spelt

Ye old spelt was once a popular staple crop in ancient Europe and the Middle East. Photo source: Wikipedia, used under creative commons.

Note: In our recent exploration of ancient grains, the kitchen pixies have come to realize that quite a few (but not all) of them are actually different varieties or preparations of wheat grains. These grains contain gluten. Please be mindful of which ancient grains come from wheat when cooking for someone with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Spelt, also known as “hulled wheat” or the far more comical “dinkle wheat,” is a type of wheat that was grown in ancient Europe and the Middle East and remained popular until the 19th century when “common wheat” or”bread wheat” became all the rage. Since spelt doesn't have the same thirst for fertilizers that common wheat does, it has recently regained a bit of popularity on the organic farming circuit. Its sweet, nutty flavour also adds to its appeal. As a species of wheat, it definitely contains gluten. While there are rumours on the internet that the gluten in spelt is more tolerable than in other wheat products, it should still certainly be avoided by people with celiac's disease.

Spelt grains, aka "spelt berries." Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, used under creative commons.

Notes on Nutrition

Just what are the nutritional benefits of spelt? Spelt is rich in protein, carbohydrates and B vitamins. It also“has a more soluble protein matrix” than your run-of-the-mill all purpose wheat flour. In other, less scientific words, your body finds it very easy to absorb the proteins, vitamins, and other nutrients from spelt compared with regular wheat flour. But remember, carbohydrate rich foods are only part of a healthy diet. It is important to find a balance!

Spelt crackers can make a stylish snack. Photo source: Wikipedia, used under creative commons.

Where can I get this intriguing ingredient? 

As we mentioned in our introduction to ancient grains last week, a safe bet is generally visiting your local bulk or health food store. However, as ancient grains continue to gain popularity and become more “main stream,” they are also finding their way into breads, boxed cereals, crackers and other snack foods at your neighbourhood grocery store. As always, it's good to check labels to see just what you're getting. 

Unfortunately, spelt is a bit more expensive than plain old all-purpose flour due to the expense of processing it. At the time of writing, spelt flour was selling for
$0.81/100g or $3.55/lb at the local bulk food store, while regular all-purpose flour cost $0.22 /100g or $0.99/lb. That being said, if you would like to experiment with spelt (or any new ingredient, for that matter), buying from the bulk store allows you to get the quantity you want so you aren't left wondering if it's worth the risk to buy a 2kg bag of something you may or may not use.

Spelt bread. Photo source Flickr, used under creative commons.

Interesting! Now how do I use it?

In baking, spelt flour can be directly substituted entirely for regular wheat flour or used in part for a more subtle flavour. It gives baked goods a soft texture and tends to shed fewer crumbs.
Whole spelt grains or “spelt berries” can be boiled and substituted for rice or pasta in a salad, curry, or risotto dishes. If you want it very soft, like steamed rice, add 3 cups of water or stock to 1 cup of spelt, cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. If you like it chewier and nuttier,  as for use in salads, use 2 cups of water or stock for every cup of spelt berries. Cook the spelt like risotto, adding half a cup at a time and stirring after each addition until the liquid evaporates. They should be tender after about 30-40 minutes.
Mmmmmm, pancakes! Photo source Wikipedia, used under creative commons.

Spelt Pancakes

2 cups whole spelt flour or spelt/all-purpose flour blend
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups  milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (or vegetable oil), plus more for greasing
2 teaspoons vanilla (optional)
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

2. Combine the milk and melted butter, and vanilla (if using).

3. Form a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, and pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Stir the batter just until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened: it will seem very wet, but will thicken as it sits. Let the batter sit for 15 minutes before you use it.
4. Heat a non-stick griddle or a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron. If your surface is not non-stick, brush it lightly with vegetable oil.

5. When the surface of your pan is hot enough that a drop of water sputters across the surface, (carefully!) give the pan a quick swipe with a paper towel to eliminate excess oil, and spoon the batter onto the hot surface, 1/4-cupful at a time.
6. Let the pancakes cook on the first side until bubbles begin to form around the edges of the cakes, about 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to adjust your heat up or down to get the pancakes to cook through without scorching the surface, or being too pale.

7. When the cakes are just beginning to set, flip them and let them finish cooking on the second side, about 1 minute more, until they’re golden brown on both sides.

Adapted from

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