ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Thoughts on baking emmer wheat bread

Recently, writing about ancient grains, I serendipitously got an email from Mary-Howell Martens offering to hook me up with some of the grains she and her husband Klaas grow in New York for Lakeview Organic Grain. Rather than shipping the wheat, they brought it to the winter meeting of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture in State College, where my friend Bernie Prince (the now celebrated co-founder of FreshFarm Market) put it in her trunk and brought it to Capitol Hill. Now that's what I call networking.

There were bags of whole oats, spelt, a red winter wheat and a beautiful white wheat, some heritage corn, toasted green spelt, known as frikeh, used in savory dishes from the Middle East (great post on it here by Anissa Helou), and then the ancient grain closely associated with the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, emmer wheat.

Now emmer is genetically distinct from bread wheat and was the ancient forerunner of durum, used to make pasta and semolina flour. It's more commonly called farro and makes a wonderful risotto, as do many whole grains.

 image from

The grains sat around in a big mason jar for awhile, a bit intimidating, since I had to grind it, but then I went to work with a stone mill I recently bought. I made a simple flat bread, using this recipe (I mean, it can hardly be called a recipe since it is simply flour, oil, water and salt) and then a method where you cook it on a cast iron griddle (about 30 seconds a side), then put it directly, and I mean directly, on the flame. Wheat may puff up into a ball when you do so, but emmer is weaker in terms of its gluten structure, so it only puffed up in places. Now charring here and there, because you keep turning and flipping it on the flame, I spread a bit of butter over it -- and that was lunch with somes beans and salad.

Then, inspired by the work of another baker over at the blog Stir the Pots, I tried making the bread. (His emmer came from Cayuga Pure Organics but is probably the same as mine). This was a difficult enterprise for the dough lacked what bakers call "tolerance," which is a very different concept from the even-handed and thoughtful qualities we associate with the word. For bakers, tolerance means the ability of the dough to rise and hold its shape, which in turn reflects the quality of gluten proteins in the flour. When gluten is weak, the acids in sourdough sometimes help the loaf to strengthen and hold its shape, but no such luck this time. The dough, which was also too moist (frankly, I was winging it), kept spreading out. Not wanting to make another flat bread, I instead loosely shaped the dough and plopped it in a loaf pan. The second piece of dough was even less amenable to shaping, so I simply mixed in an equal amount of white flour and water, so that I had a dough that was half emmer, half white. That worked out and resulted in the loaf pictured above.

Though the 100% emmer loaf (not pictured) was a bit tight in the crumb, it was also quite soft. Both loaves also had a remarkable taste, which as I thought about it, reminded me of smoldering oak bark, or roasting acorns, but without the bitter overtones you sometimes find in whole wheat. The flavor stuck on the tongue long after I had eaten the bread and was also much more pronounced than in the flat bread I made, which I'd attribute to the emmer sourdough leaven I used. The lactobacillus culture brought out the flavor of the grain, which was delicious. No wonder if was so popular 10,000 years ago.

- Samuel Fromartz