People may not know exactly what they are, but ancient grains are still in demand. In fact, they’ve grown 13.5 percent on restaurant menus in the last year alone, according to research firm Technomic.
Sometimes called super grains, these high-fiber, nutrient-dense grains are naturally cultivated from wild seeds without hybridization or manipulation. Ancient grains suggest stories from centuries ago, at a time when consumers hunger for historical relevance and to know more about their food.
“In their purest form, ancient grains are heirloom and GMO-free, and that’s propelling their popularity,” says Michael Holleman, chairman of the advisory board for the Whole Grains Council and director of culinary development for InHarvest, a supplier of whole grains, rice, and legumes.
Only a few ancient grains are indigenous to the U.S., such as wild rice from Minnesota and golden kamut wheat grown in Montana, but many come from Africa and Australia. Many varieties are considered sustainable because of their natural, heirloom quality and chemical-free care.
Students from The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley recently harvested two acres of Sonoran red wheat, believed to be one of the oldest wheat grains grown in North America. Chef/instructor Larry Forgione plans to grind the wheat into flour at the nearby Bale Grist Mill for freshly baked bread, pie crust, and more as part of CIA’s Farm-to-Table Conservatory program.
Then there’s quinoa, the white kind, which has become almost mainstream. But, ancient red, white, and black quinoa varieties coming from Bolivia and Peru are gaining in popularity, says Holleman. Kaniwa (pronounced can-ee-wah), also from South America, is making its debut here as a lesser-known sister to quinoa, with its smaller kernels, dark reddish hue, and earthy, fibrous taste.
Black and red rice varieties from Italy also have a strong story to tell. “The deep color not only signals extra antioxidants, they heighten the presentation of a dish,” says Holleman. “Italian black rice from farms in between Milan and Turin is so aromatic because of the richness of the soil in that region, almost like smelling freshly baked bread.” Holleman and his chef team have made arancini out of the rice as well as a sweet and savory chilled stone fruit and corn risotto served like a salad.
Chefs and consumers are also learning more about freekeh, a Middle Eastern grain with a well-documented history. According to Holleman, 432 years ago the people of a Syrian village under siege during war piled up the non-matured, green wheat stalks in the center of town to protect the food supply. When they returned, they found the wheat pile had been torched so they rubbed off the burned outer shell, ending up with a deliciously smoky, moisture-rich grain. Freekeh producers in the Middle East and Australia still make the grain the same way today, albeit through a more controlled form of charring, says Holleman.
Vegetarian- and Vegan-Friendly
Ancient grains are full of vitamins, fiber, and nutrients—making them an ideal ingredient for a protein-packed, meatless meal. In fact, quinoa is considered a complete protein with all eight essential amino acids, and amaranth, with seven of the eight essential amino acids, is used as a healthy hot breakfast cereal and made into energy bars in Mexico.
“We’re done with ‘80s pasta primavera, which is what you got when you requested vegetarian,” says Holleman. “Grains are absolutely being positioned as a center-of-the-plate item in a big way.”
Freekeh in particular works as a substitution for meat because of its umami flavor and ground beef-like texture when cooked—a tasty alternative for vegetarian meatballs, veggie burgers, and taco filling. Cooked with mushrooms, it adds a more savory, earthy taste.
Sprouted grains will be the next big trend, according to Holleman, who notes they are easier to digest and add extra fiber and nutrients to a dish. “We’re seeing a lot of chefs working with sprouted heirloom red rice and other varieties with a lot of color,” he says. “I can see sprouted ancient grains hitting the market in a year or two.”
For now, chefs are getting creative with farro, a complex whole wheat dating from thousands of years ago. The highest usage of farro is seen in the Northeast, on menus in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island, according to Food Genius, a research firm monitoring menu activity around the country. Upscale restaurants often position the grain as a center-of-the-plate entrée; Food Genius found farro is twice as likely to be on a menu as an $18 entrée than as an $11 entrée.
Farro is also popular in the Midwest. At Chicago’s new supper club, Celeste, Chef T.J. Harville sources farro from a South Carolina producer that he says, “fire threshes” the grain by lighting the stalks on fire and beating them with a burlap sack until the berries are toasted and loosened from their protective shell for a rich, nutty, and toasted flavor. Chef Harville pairs the cooked grain, similar to a toasted barley or thick rice, with homemade burrata, smoked grapes, braised endive, marcona almond, and an apple cider vinaigrette.
Also in Chicago at Big Jones, Chef/owner Paul Fehribach combines farro with the earthy flavors of pan-roasted, puréed sunchokes, ginger-braised carrots, caramelized cipolini onions, trumpet mushrooms, and candied salsify for a complex pilaf.
“I love the texture of farro and its nutty, rich, and earthy flavor reminiscent of freshly baled hay in the fall,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite fall and winter grains because of its versatility, and it pairs great with fish, game, nuts, and root vegetables.” To retain that caviar-like pop, characteristic of a crunchy outer shell and creamy center, Chef Fehribach slowly simmers the grain for 40–60 minutes in salted water over low heat, about 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many non-wheat ancient grains are also gluten-free, which appeals to the growing group of consumers avoiding gluten because of allergies, intolerances, and perceived health concerns. Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and millet are considered some of the more popular gluten-free ancient grains, according to the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute.
The Original Pancake House makes a gluten-free waffle from scratch using flour made from sorghum, amaranth, and teff, along with some tapioca flour, baking powder, dry-cultured buttermilk, and guar and xantham gums.
At Café Dupont in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef David Fritsche uses sorghum, a grain thought to have Central African and Ethiopian origins, combined with tomato and bacon purée for a polenta-like base, with grilled prawns and popped sorghum, resembling tiny popcorn kernels, for extra crunch.
“Sorghum is a versatile ancient grain with a texture like fluffy popcorn and flavor profiles of barley, oat, and corn,” Fritsche says. “I use it to add a unique texture to dishes and keep guests wondering what it is.”
After boiling the grain for three to five minutes, Fritsche strains the grain, then cooks it over high heat, like popcorn with a touch of salt but without any oil. Cooked sorghum must be stored dry and away from heat, and should be used within one to two days, he notes.