Healthy old wheat may have benefits
Farro: An Ancient Wheat for Modern Meals
The word “farro” refers to three types of ancient wheat: einkorn (farro piccolo), emmer (farro medio) and spelt (farro grande). Technically speaking, emmer is the true farro. Enjoyed by Italians for centuries — it provided sustenance for the Roman legions around the turn of the first millennium — wild emmer dates back about 20,000 years and was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Emmer and other forms of ancient wheat began to fall out of favor in the 1960s as modern bread wheat became predominant, but the 1990s heralded a resurgence of ancient grains in Europe and the United States.
In the Kitchen
Hearty and robust with a natural sweetness and pleasant al dente chewiness, farro lends itself well to dishes such as pilafs, soups, salads and desserts. Farro soup with beans, chickpeas, greens and sometimes seafood is a well-known Tuscan dish. The risotto-like dish farrotto benefits from a starch found in emmer farro that is similar to the starch in Arborio rice. When ground into flour, whole farro makes a dense, flavorful bread, and semolina flour made from emmer is prized for pasta.
Although most farro sold in the U.S. is emmer, sometimes spelt and einkorn are labeled as farro, which can make estimating cooking time a challenge. Emmer farro may be sold whole, semipearled (some bran has been removed) or pearled (all bran has been removed). Pearled and semi-pearled farro cooks in about 20 to 30 minutes, while whole farro can take 45 to 60 minutes. Presoaking whole farro shortens cooking time and produces a slightly softer, less toothsome texture. For each cup of farro, add 2 cups of water. Whole farro also can be cooked using the pasta method, using at least 4 cups of water per cup of farro.
In the Clinic
One serving (¼ cup dry) of emmer farro has 170 calories, 6 grams of protein, 34 grams of carbohydrate and 5 grams of dietary fiber. Farro and other types of ancient wheat are higher in soluble fiber and protein than standard wheat. Compared with modern wheat, farro often has higher levels of certain antioxidants, specifically phenolics and flavonoids. Farro also has more of some trace minerals, including magnesium, selenium and zinc.
Due to its chromosomal structure, farro tends to contain less gluten than common bread wheat, so it may be more tolerated by people with gluten sensitivity, although individuals with celiac disease will need to avoid it.
Ancient wheats have attracted interest from a broad U.S. demographic, especially millennials. While grain bowls are trendy in more upscale eateries, farro also is starting to appear on mainstream fast-food menus — and trend data predict farro’s market penetration in foodservice, particularly in fine dining, is expected to increase significantly in the next four years. Pearled farro is readily available in up to three-pound bags or may be ordered as a pre-cooked grain in two-pound bags.
In addition, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research project is exploring the milling, baking and sensory qualities of ancient wheats, as well as how to make their organic production economically viable.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is a Seattle-based dietitian and health writer. She is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times and blogs at nutritionbycarrie.com.
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