Meet the Triticum Family, aka Wheat

As part of my recent pledge to become more intimate with whole grains, today is all about wheat, the second oldest grain in the world (*Psst – do you know what the oldest grain is? Answer at the bottom of this page.)

Before we get started, I’d like to acknowledge that wheat contains gluten, and as such, is off limits for the 1 in 100-or-so Americans with celiac disease. You’ve got my word that the next installment in this series will feature a nonglutinous grain.

Wheat goes waaaay back --- about 9,000 years. Triticum is its botanical genus name, encompassing 14 species of grass (both wild and domesticated) and more than 30,000 varieties worldwide. Next time you spread some peanut butter between two pieces of whole wheat bread, chew on the following:

The story gets started with einkorn (triticum monococcum), the oldest cultivated form of wheat, domesticated around 7,000 BC. A native of the Fertile Crescent, (which corresponds to present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, Gaza Strip, Kuwait, Jordan, southeastern Turkey and west and southwestern Iran), einkorn is known as the grain of the Pharoahs.

Closely nipping at its heels (or coinciding, depending on your source) is emmer (triticum turgidum dicoccum), which was the “grain of choice in ancient Egypt,” according to Beth Hensperger in “The Pleasure of Whole-Grain Breads.” Also known as farro, emmer is making a big comeback on the chef circuit as a trendy grain. (Has anyone had farro risotto yet?)

Furthermore, emmer is the forefather to durum wheat, which we all associate with pasta. Milled durum becomes semolina; in its granular state, it’s used to make couscous.

Durum has a few close relatives, one well known, the other not so much. Chances are you’ve heard of spelt (triticum spelta), a hearty, fiber-rich grain with many nutritious virtues. Although there is archeological evidence dating spelt to 5000 BC, it really didn’t come on the scene until the Middle Ages, when it was cultivated in Europe.

Lesser known though it may be, kamut (triticum turgidium, ssp turanicum) has a fascinating story. The Egyptian word for “wheat,” kamut probably came on the scene sometime during the Byzantine empire’s long reign. After an American airman was gifted a handful of kamut kernels in Portugal (and sent them to his father in Montana in 1949), kamut became known as “King Tut’s Wheat,” based on a legend that the grain came from a pharoah’s tomb.

Grown in Montana and Canada for the better part of the past 25 years, kamut has primarily been used as an ingredient in whole grain manufacturing, but is showing promise as a unique, stand-alone product (could this become the next quinoa craze?). I recently got my hands on a sample of kamut bulgur, which, unlike its wheat bulgur counterpart, does need to be cooked. My first batch -- a makeshift pilaf, made on top of the stove, with some vegetable broth -- was nutty, buttery and slightly sweet. (Recipe adventures and product details coming soon.)

Speaking of bulgur, here’s how it differs from cracked wheat -- and yes, there really is a difference between the two. First, we need to define the wheat berry, which isn’t a berry at all, but rather a whole, hulled wheat kernel. When the berry is crushed, it becomes cracked wheat. When it’s parboiled or steamed, then dried and ground, it becomes bulgur – a ready-to-eat grain after a short soak. Why kamut bulgur and wheat bulgur act differently in the kitchen is a mystery I hope to solve in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

What about you -- when it comes to wheat and its sundry varieties, what’s your pleasure? Anyone out there who’s sampled farro, kamut or done something interesting with spelt? The comments area awaits.

*The oldest known grain in the world? That would be barley.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 12, 2009; 8:15 AM ET Grains
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Darn. Guessed rice.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | May 12, 2009 11:14 AM

Ooo, I guessed it! Credit for me knowing that goes to the Frugal Gourmet and his book on ancient cultures.

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | May 12, 2009 12:56 PM

Kim, love today's entry. I too have been on a mission to incorporate more whole grains of late, including combining whole grains, like wild rice and barley, yum!!!

By the way--when will we get an update on the date shakes and other date experiences?

Posted by: fltolson | May 12, 2009 4:15 PM

I'd like to know more about the grains than just name and age, and more about they were/are used.

(Got barley right, and it wasn't a guess. Thank you Larry Gonick and your "Cartoon History of the Universe, Part 1.")

Posted by: fitday19550 | May 16, 2009 7:56 PM

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