What if there was a wheat variety that could produce a flour similar to regular all-purpose or wheat flours, but without the gluten? That’s the potential of einkorn, one of the world’s earliest cultivated forms of wheat that’s on the rise again among American farmers.
Ancient grains in general are growing in popularity. Technically, any whole grain is “ancient” by nature, as they can all be traced back to farmers from thousands of years ago. The Boston-based Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, defines ancient grains loosely as any grain that is largely unchanged over the last few hundred years. This means varieties such as einkorn—along with farro, kamut and spelt—are considered ancient, while modern wheat, which is continually bred and changed for higher yields, is not.
Einkorn differs in several ways from regular hard red wheat, which is used to produce many flours and breads in the United States. Take a look.
How Einkorn Wheat Grows
If einkorn wheat is so great, then why did large-scale agriculture move away from it in the first place? For starters, it’s not an easy crop to raise. It’s difficult to plant and to harvest, and also has a much smaller head that regular wheat, which creates an additional step in the milling process (read: higher production cost).
“It’s a very tall wheat—say, chest-high [on a man]—and the taller it gets, the more likely it is to blow over and the harder it is to harvest mechanically,” explains Jon Detweiler, who’s raised einkorn the last three years on his Dalton, Ohio-based Venture Heritage Farm. For example, a big windstorm or a heavy rain can flatten the crops and make them nearly impossible to pick it up.
Einkorn also doesn’t yield nearly the weight of a standard, hybridized modern hard red wheat, says Detweiler. “Out of the hull, you can get 30 bushels [to the acre] out of einkorn, but up over 100 bushels on regular wheat,” he adds.
That said, einkorn results in a higher income per acre because it’s a rare specialty crop, says Detweiler. That’s one of the main reasons farmers are beginning to grow it again—but it has potential benefits for those with health concerns, too.
Benefits of Einkorn Wheat
Einkorn has been touted for its digestibility. All wheat contains starch, but the types and arrangement of starch in einkorn allow it to be released more slowly, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar the way modern wheat does. There have also been studies on the gluten aspect of einkorn: It does contain some gluten, but the structure is arranged differently, so it does not affect those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance in the same way. (Researchers acknowledge more studies are needed on this, however.)
Other studies show einkorn is higher in protein that modern wheat—as much as 30 percent more—as well as other nutrients such as vitamin A and beta-carotene.
Types of Einkorn Flour
Baked goods made with gluten-free flours such as almond, buckwheat and sorghum have opened up a new world for individuals with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Even so, a gluten-free croissant or sticky bun is never going to have quite the same taste and texture as one made with regular flour. That’s where einkorn comes in.
Just like regular all-purpose and whole-wheat flour both come from modern wheat, einkorn wheat can also be made into two types of flour. If you’re used to baking with regular AP flour, there are some things you need to know about each before trying to substitute with einkorn.
The first type is whole-grain einkorn flour, which is darker in color (resembling a regular whole-wheat flour) and has a nuttier taste. A true whole-grain flour will require refrigeration, because it contains the germ and oils of the wheat that can cause it to go rancid, says Jade Koyle, a farmer in Teton, Idaho, who raises einkorn wheat, and also mills and sells einkorn flour. (He mills and ships his whole-grain variety the same day for optimum freshness.)
The second type is all-purpose einkorn flour, which is lighter in color and looks more like a regular AP flour. It has the bran and germ extracted to lengthen shelf life, and a lower fiber content than whole-grain varieties. “It’s more equivalent to regular flour, but it’s still going to behave differently [in baking],” says Koyle.
Baking Substitutions for Einkorn Flour
You can’t substitute einkorn cup-for-cup for regular flour in baking without tweaking your recipes. Einkorn hydrates less than regular, meaning it absorbs less water or liquid—so it can take some experimentation to figure out what works best. In general, bake times and processing times (if you’re making a yeast or sourdough bread) are both shorter with einkorn, and recipes will require between 20 and 50 percent less water, says Koyle.
“There’s a tendency to just want to add more flour to make [a dough with] the consistency you’re used to,” says Koyle, which you should avoid. He recommends adding a ½ to 1 Tablespoon of coconut flour to recipes such as quick breads, cakes and waffles to absorb some of the moisture. That makes it a little easier to get a lighter, fluffy end product.
If you’re worried about experimenting on your own (which is totally understandable, as einkorn is an expensive grain and “it’s very sad to have it just flop,” says baker Kirsten Detweiler, Jon’s wife), you can turn to cookbooks such as “Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat.” The book is written by Carla Bartolucci, who’s co-founder of Connecticut-based Jovial Foods, one of the leaders of the einkorn movement that sells einkorn flour, wheat berries, pasta and snacks made from the ancient grain.
The key is to not freak out when batters and doughs don’t look as they normally do when you’re substituting einkorn. “Bread dough made with einkorn can be very sticky and a little tough to get used to, while cake batters can sometimes get gummy with mixing,” explains Bartolucci.
When baking bread, one big difference with einkorn is that it does not require kneading because you don’t need to develop its gluten, says Bartolucci. For this reason, you should avoid using a stand mixer when baking bread with einkorn. She also notes that cakes and muffins made with einkorn will require less mixing and maybe an extra egg or egg white in the batter to avoid a too-dense result.
Overall, know that experimentation with einkorn flour is the best way to find out what works (and what flops). And a note of caution: Even though einkorn has a different type of gluten than regular wheat, it’s hard to make any blanket statement as to whether it’s safe for those with celiac’s disease or a gluten intolerance, says Koyle. If you try it, be sure to introduce it into your diet slowly to see how you react.