Ancient Grain Primer: Taking a Closer Look at Nutrient Dense Grains

I recently had the privilege to write an article for the Weston A. Price Foundation titled “To Gluten or Not to Gluten,” and I was amazed to see so many responses of the not-so- favorable type. It didn’t take long to realize that I’d touched a very sensitive nerve with my suggestion that we stop feeding our families a wholesale diet of cookies, breads, cakes, and other baked goods made from the seemingly most popular gluten-free flour now in use—almond flour!

In my article I suggested we find our way back to eating healthy ancient grains. Although they contain gluten, they may not affect you negatively once you put the grain puzzle together. And if you do find it hard to digest any protein, including the relatively innocent gluten protein, let’s take a serious look at healing your damaged gut. As a disclaimer, allow me to throw in the caveat that this may not apply to those people who have medically diagnosed Celiac disease. Check out the article for a more comprehensive read.

Yes, passions ran high, and I could feel the obvious anger in some of the responses. Worst of all, many readers intimated that I hadn’t done my homework, but their only proof was the popularity of anti-grain books on the market right now. After reading them, you too will be convinced that wheat is the poison du jour of our present time—even though our ancestors have been eating grain containing gluten for thousands of years with no ill effects! I hope that in this brief post I can present to you, my faithful readers, the counterpoint to this argument and convince you of the awesomeness of ancient grains.

I should first note that there were also many readers who truly loved the article, and some even called me at home to personally thank me—both for making them aware of the goodness of ancient grains and for showing them a way back to a healthy digestive system that can easily handle gluten. In so doing—and especially in view of the fact that we lose the enzymes necessary to digest foods that we stop eating—it may be wise to ask ourselves if that’s what we want for our children, some of whom are given gluten-free products when there is no need for it!

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that despite all the hype that our ancestors ate a mostly grain-free diet, in fact that’s not the case. Whole grains were a very large part of their diet. I explore this more comprehensively in my article, so I encourage those who would dispute the findings to read it first. On the other hand, if you’re one of the many people out there who misses fresh slices of hot, homemade, whole-grain bread, you’ll find a few of my favorite recipes later in this post. They’ll give you a head start baking with ancient grains, (sometimes called heritage grains).

Einkorn, emmer, and some types of spelt are three ancient grains that, unlike other kinds of modern wheat, have fortunately escaped the hybridization that many of us find so problematic. Let me quickly mention that Monica Spiller, who founded the nonprofit Whole Grain Connection in 2000 to promote whole, organic grains—and particularly to supply farmers with locally appropriate organic wheat seed—states that organically grown, modern whole wheat that hasn’t been treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers may be a safe alternative for some. Of course, it would be up to you to determine this for yourself. Since reading this, I’ve wondered many times if it might be the pesticides and chemical fertilizers we react to, rather than the gluten? Some food for thought. Many people born after the 1950s have never consumed anything but the hybridized wheat that’s grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, so they have nothing to compare it too. Hopefully after you read my gluten article, you’ll want to come back here and try the recipes in this blog post.

Landrace, heritage, and ancestral grain and wheat are best defined as those strains that have not been significantly altered since originating from their native countries, which include Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Russia. The three that are now slowly being brought back are einkorn, emmer, and some forms of spelt. Organic whole wheat may or may not originate from landrace grains, but not all grains that evolve from landrace grains to modern wheat need to be avoided. Rather, what is of critical importance to those of us who follow an ancestral diet is that our  whole wheat is grown organically, without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

A Closer Look at Ancient Grains and Organic Whole Wheat

Now that we all know that even heritage grains, including einkorn, emmer, spelt, and triticum landrace, as well as organic whole wheat, rye, barley, and maybe oats, contain gluten, let’s look a little closer at the actual structure of grains. A better understanding of the differences that make these heritage grains so valuable can improve the health of our families.

Somewhere in our own history, we discovered the value of concentrated sources of nutrients in ancestral grain and wheat. When properly prepared—by soaking, sprouting, dehydrating, or leavening with wild yeasts (as in sourdough)—the nutrients stored within the grains can be easily assimilated by our own bodies and therefore supplement the animal- and plant-based food that nourished us for thousands of years. Every kernel of grain has protein, fats, carbohydrates, and fiber, all stored neatly in an awesome package and protected by a fibrous outer layer called the hull. The bran is the outer layer of the grain. Next is the endosperm. The heart of the grain is the germ.

The bran makes up 14.5 percent of the kernel’s mass. It’s composed of protein, fiber, starch, fat, and many B vitamins, which are all lost, of course, when grain is milled to remove the bran. The relatively high fat level in bran means that once it’s hulled, the grain can quickly go rancid. This is a good reason to store whole grains in a cool place and use them quickly once they’re ground.

The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel, making up 83 percent of its total mass. In wheat, this is the part of the grain that, once the bran and germ have been removed, is milled into white flour. The endosperm nourishes the germ it wraps around until the seed has taken root and grows into a new plant. Rich in starch, it also contains about 75 percent of the protein in the kernel, plus iron and B complex vitamins. Finally, the smallest part of the wheat kernel, the germ, (2.5 percent of the whole) has numerous B complex vitamins and vitamin E. About 8 percent of the protein found in wheat is in the germ. Minerals found in grain can include calcium, iron, phosphorus (bound up as phytic acid), magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, iodine, chlorine, sodium, and silicon.

Einkorn: With a long history of cultivation dating back 9,000 years or so, einkorn has a simple chromosomal structure, low gluten, and a high lutein content that supports eye health. Einkorn can be consumed by many people who would otherwise have a bad reaction to readily available commercial wheat.

Emmer (Farro): Historically, emmer (also known as farro), predates einkorn. Emmer holds the distinction of containing more protein than any other member of the wheat family, a whopping 28 percent.

Spelt: The favorite grain of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a mystical 12th-century healer, spelt is only slightly younger than einkorn, dating to around 7,000 years ago. Spelt is the first of the hexaploid grains, but it can still be considered ancient and is often easier to digest than newer forms of wheat. In defense, even bread wheat—soft or hard, red or white—dates back at least 6,000 years. Rye, which doesn’t contain true gluten, can be problematic for celiac sufferers because of the similarity of the protein structures. However, rye often presents no problems for those with sensitivities to gluten.

Important Links

The Real Food Mobile phone app from the Weston A. Price Foundation will help you find all of the organic, ancient grains recommended in this post.

Choosing Wheat to Eat has two wonderful charts that can be your guide for selecting what type of grain to bake with, as well as mouthwatering goodies to discover after your long absence from grains.

I don’t give instructions for making sourdough starter, but you can find instructions and tutorials on other blogs and You Tube. This video from Wardeh (“Wardee”) Harmon gave me a solid understanding of sourdough starter.

Notes on the Recipes

I’ve included two recipes for sourdough loaves below. Both call for “mature” starter, meaning the starter has been brewing for at least 10 days to 2 weeks. Or even better, as an ongoing process of maintaining the starter to make it even more potent.

I’ve made these loaves with as little as 50 grams (a scant ¼ cup) of starter and as much as 120 grams (about 1 cup). More starter equals tarter bread, so you’ll need to experiment to see how much your family likes. Also, the sweetener is optional, but the bread may not be as soft if you omit it.

And finally, here are a few super healthy recipes from my Traditional Cook kitchen to yours! Remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again!

Simple Sourdough Spelt Bread Loaf

Adapted from Whole Grain Connection.

Ingredients

  • 600 grams (about 2⅓ cups) organic spelt flour
  • 1½ teaspoons sea salt
  • 325 grams (about 1⅓ cups) non-chlorinated water
  • 1 tablespoon honey, melted (optional)
  • 50–90 grams (a scant ¼–¾ cups) mature sourdough starter

Instructions

  1. Place flour into a large glass bowl. In a separate bowl add salt, water, melted honey (if using) and sourdough starter. Mix lightly until all the ingredients are incorporated. Add wet ingredients to flour and mix lightly until a soft dough forms. Alternatively, place in your mixer with dough hook and combine for approximately 5 minutes, or until well incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until the dough doubles in size. This may take up to 12 hours. (I often leave it to rise in the evening around 7 PM, and by morning I have a wonderful sponge ready for kneading.)
  2. After the dough has risen, knead by folding lightly with your hands, or use your dough hook and mixer, for about 5–7 minutes. Do not over knead spelt dough.  Generously  grease a loaf pan, preferably stoneware. With slightly oiled hands, shape the dough into jellyroll form and place in the greased pan. Invert another empty loaf pan on top so as not to inhibit the rise. In a warm, draft free area, let the dough rise for 2–4 hours, or until it expands to the size of the pan. (The rise time depends on the environmental variables in your home.) If you shape it into a nice jellyroll form, spelt will form a dome as it rises, so you may want to see at least a slight dome before baking.
  3. Preheat oven to 425°F. Fill a baking pan (I use my 8×8-inch stoneware pan) with 2 cups of water and place on bottom rack. Cook until water steams, about 35 minutes. Slowly open the oven to avoid any steam burns, but don’t worry when the steam pours out—it will get steamy again after you close the oven door. Avoid any jiggling as you gently place the loaf in oven on the same rack with steam water.
  4. Bake for 45 minutes. Pull the loaf onto a chopping board and test for doneness (190°F on a stick thermometer). This is an important step. If the loaf isn’t ready, put it back in the over for a few more minute before testing again. Once the loaf is out of the oven, rub the top with coconut oil for a softer crust and place on a cooling rack. Wait until the pan is completely cool before removing the loaf.

Simple Sourdough Einkorn Bread Loaf

Adapted from Mandy Finan, WAPF chapter leader in North Carolina and einkorn recipe-creator extraordinaire!

This einkorn loaf doesn’t look like a high-rise regular loaf you see in magazines. Einkorn is low gluten, so the dough will rise just too, or slightly above, the rim of the pan. After it’s baked, don’t be dismayed if it’s somewhat flat on the top—again this will be due to the low gluten content. This loaf is nevertheless yummy, moist, and chewy.

Ingredients

  • 450 grams (about 2 cups) organic einkorn flour
  • 120 grams (about ½ cup) mature starter
  • 1½ cups non-chlorinated water
  • 1 tablespoon honey, softened (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Instructions

  1. Place all ingredients in a glass bowl. Knead gently by hand or place in your mixer with a dough hook. Knead for approximately 3–5 minutes. (Einkorn requires very little kneading and does better with a gentle folding action.) Though the dough will be very sticky, don’t be tempted to add more flour. Instead, use a little coconut oil on your hands to facilitate the mixing, or you’ll end up with bricks! Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let it rest 25 minutes in a warm area while the einkorn flour absorbs the liquid.
  2. Generously grease a loaf pan, preferably stoneware. After coating your hands with a thin layer of coconut oil, use a spatula to scrape the very sticky dough into the loaf pan. Do not cut slits into dough. Invert an empty loaf pan on top so as not to inhibit the rise. In a warm, draft-free place, let the dough rise from 2–5 hours, or until it expands to the size of the pan or slightly above it. (The timing will depend on environmental variables in your home, but you’ll know intuitively when the dough has risen enough.)
  3. Preheat oven to 425°F. Fill a baking pan (I use my 8×8-inch stoneware pan) with 2 cups of water and place on bottom rack. Cook until water steams, about 35 minutes.
  4. Slowly open the oven to avoid any burns, but don’t worry when the steam pours out—it will get steamy again after you close the oven door. Avoid any jiggling as you gently place the loaf in oven on the same rack with steam water. Bake for 35 minutes. Pull the loaf onto a chopping board and test for doneness (190°F on a stick thermometer). This is an important step. If the loaf isn’t ready, place it back in the oven for a few more minutes before testing again. Once the loaf  is out of the oven, rub the top with coconut oil for a softer crust. Place on a cooling rack. Wait until the pan is completely cool before removing the loaf.

Emmer Berry Salad with Fruit, Feta, and Pecans

Recipe adapted from Brook Lucy at Bluebird Grain Farms.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups organic emmer grain
  • Olive oil
  • ¾ cup crumbled feta or goat cheese
  • ¾ cup dried fruit such as dates, cherries, apricots, blueberries, or cranberries, in any combination, chopped into ¼-inch pieces
  • ¾ cup pecans, toasted
  • 2 cups parsley or chervil, torn into 1-inch pieces
  • ½ cup green onion with stems, minced
  • Garnish with fresh herbs of your choice

For the dressing, combine the following ingredients:

  • ¼ cup honey
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add emmer grain and bring to a low simmer. Cook, covered, for 50 minutes, or until grain berries are plump and soft but still chewy. Remove from heat and drain.
  2. As berries cool, toss lightly with a little olive oil or rinse with cold water. When completely cooled, add all remaining ingredients and toss well.
  3. Drizzle salad with dressing and serve.
An afterthought from the Traditional Cook...
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight...”
—M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating: 50th Anniversary Edition

Photo from iStock/marekuliasz

Maria Atwood, CNHP

Maria Atwood is a semi-retired Certified Natural Health Professional and Weston A. Price Chapter Leader in Colorado Springs, CO. Her website, Traditional Cook, offers the Wonder Mixer as well as the #1 rated grain mill, Wondermill. Maria’s “Cook Your Way to Wellness” DVD and booklet is available on demand at Vimeo.com and also sold as a full set on Selene River Press. Be sure to join the Selene River Press newsletter to follow Maria’s Tips from The Traditional Cook blog.

Related Topics

alternative health | disease and processed food | healthy recipes | holistic health | holistic nutrition | nutrition | organic food | whole food nutrition | whole food recipes

7 thoughts on “Ancient Grain Primer: Taking a Closer Look at Nutrient Dense Grains

  1. Theresa Ann Kaufman Schlosser says:

    I realize that if I had the time required to make all my own sourdough bread I might be able to go back to enjoying gluten containing products. The reality is I don’t have that kind of time. So until I have that kind of time I’m going to continue to avoid gluten containing products.

  2. Val says:

    I have not been diagnosed with celiac disease nor am I likely to be. No more scopes – they had a chance to do biopsies and they elected not to do so on the basis of flawed blood testing. I tried the spelt sourdough recipe in Nourishing Traditions and what I got for my troubles was a stomach ache and more canker sores. Ancient grains were not the answer for me.

    Having gone grain free, I am now free of chronic heartburn, acid reflux, joint pain, and chronic sinus infections. I only get the cankers when accidentally exposed and the neurological symptoms are almost non-existent. Why ever would I go back to eating foods that do this to me? just to get a doctor to tell me what I already know from elimination and challenge? Write all you want in defense of grains; they are not healthy for me. I and others like me who have found better health after eliminating grains will not be easily swayed.

    BTW it is really important to understand that celiac disease does not magically come into being with diagnosis. A lot of damage is done prior to most diagnoses and this idea that someone who clearly suffers from consuming gluten-containing foods should continue to eat them until a doctor finally figures it out, is ridiculous to me.

  3. Wren says:

    The author states in the article that Mature Starter is a starter that has been brewing for 10 days to 2 weeks.

  4. Carolyn Graff says:

    Knowing Maria as well as I do and sensing that she simply forgot to do what we call NT the recipe as she explained in one of her recent blogs at http://tinyurl.com/op9uujh
    I believe she just may have been in a rush and so, on her behalf, these additional instructions would make the Emmer Berry Salad recipe a completely NT recipe.

    The emmer berries should be soaked for 8 hours or overnight in a warm acidic medium, according to the book Nourishing Traditions. I would soak them in 2 cups of warm filtered water plus 4 tablespoons of whey, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, raw apple cider vinegar or lemon juice.

    According to Nourishing Traditions, nuts and seeds should be soaked in salt water and then dried. I would soak the raw pecans in filtered water plus 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt in a warm place for at least 7 hours or overnight. Drain and dry in a warm oven (no more than 150 degrees) for 12-24 hours. They could also be dried in a dehydrator. Then they could be toasted.

  5. Maria Atwood says:

    Dear Val:

    I thoroughly understand your dread of going back to consuming anything that might make you have the symptoms you describe. Since I am not a doctor and cannot give you medical advice, it would be to your advantage to ask yourself just one question: “Would I want to be able to eat bread and not get sick from it?”

    If you can answer that question truthfully then, and only then, will you be able to search with new eyes to find the way to accomplish that wish.

    There are numerous ways to heal a gut that is damaged and cannot digest gluten and/or other foods that make you sick. For the moment you may be convinced that there is no way out except abstinence, and a person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still! If your answer to the question is a genuine yes, let me just state that, for starters, we know that once you stop eating a food, you also eventually stop producing the enzyme that helps digest that food. You may be at that point.

    Additionally, Standard Process brand Okra Pepsin E-3 which I recommended as a part of the healing gut solution in my gluten article, and their Lactic Acid Yeast Wafers, are two excellent products used for gut health.

    Only a qualified holistic practitioner could explain in detail how these supplements work. You can find practitioners trained in SP products by contacting http://www.standardprocess.com. Add to that the instructions from Sally Fallon Morrell which I reference in my gluten article about how to repair the gut and you will no doubt succeed over time in eating whatever you like. My wish for you and everyone in your condition is that they make the effort.

  6. J D says:

    You might be surprised how little time sourdough takes! -in addition there are amazingly delicious recipes for muffins, pancakes, pizza dough from soured starters. And if you have a bread machine, it will take even Less time!

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