Adventures in ancient grains
The unique flavors and textures of wholesome, underutilized crops like farro, buckwheat and barley have modern appeal.

CHICAGO — Ancient grains add culinary adventure and whole grain nutrition to all types of foods. They also provide a back-to-basics approach to food preparation and a wholesomeness embraced by today’s consumers.

All grains are ancient.

Robin Asbell
Robin Asbell, chef and author of “The Whole Grain Promise"

“The term is all about eating the oldest varieties that haven’t been bred and changed by humans over the thousands of years that we have been growing them,” said Robin Asbell, chef and author of “The Whole Grain Promise.” “Consumer distrust of the food industry is part of the hunger for ancient grains,” she said.

Suzy Badaracco, president of San Francisco-based Culinary Tides Inc., said, “The term ancient grains is grounding; it lends an element of trust.”

This is important as consumers continue to move towards experimentation and exploration. They crave adventure while demanding authenticity.

“Consumers are beginning to understand the significance of enjoying more whole grains that offer considerable enhanced nutritional value,” said Miguel Reyna, president and chief executive officer of Western Foods in Woodland, Calif. “They are perceived as the opposite of modern wheat and many are considered ‘superfoods’ due to their high level of vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein.”

Many ancient grains are also gluten-free, making them possible substitutes for wheat flours. When they fully replace wheat, they remove one of the top eight allergens from a recipe.

Versatile flavors

While most culinary professionals know the names of ancient grains, many are unsure how to work them into everyday foods. There are many opportunities to be creative.

Adventures in ancient grains
Grainful's Steel Cut Sides are savory blends of steel cut oats, spices and vegetables that may be turned into an entree with the addition of meat.

Jeannine Sacco, co-founder of Ithaca, N.Y.-based Grainful, agreed.

Jeannine Sacco, Grainful
Jeannine Sacco, co-founder of Grainful

“Ancient grains are similar, yet different, to the typical grains that do a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ for culinary professionals,” she said. “They offer up a whole new set of textures and flavor profiles. For a chef that has only worked with more common grain varieties, it’s like an artist discovering new paint colors.”

Grains may be eaten whole or ground into flour. In addition, many come in flakes or are sprouted. Organic versions are becoming increasingly more available.

“Sprouting of ancient grains adds further depth of flavor to these already flavorful grains,” said Nicholas Ahrens, product applications and chef for Bay State Milling Co. in Quincy, Mass. “During the sprouting and drying process, there are many biological changes that enhance both flavor and nutrition. Sprouted ancient grains have a reduction in perceived bitterness while enhancing the sweetness flavor profile. Sprouted ancient grains hydrate more quickly thus reducing the cooking time when compared to conventional ancient grains.”

And consumers are eager to try all of the many varieties and forms of ancient grains, according to Mark Emery, product development chef for Gordon Food Service, based in Wyoming, Mich.

“The challenge is to not disappoint them when they first sample a recipe,” Mr. Emery said. “Consumers are often unsure with what to expect. If the initial dish was not prepared properly, the consumer might never try that specific grain again.”