Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Emmer (Farro)

I never met a grain I didn’t like, but as I’ve learned about the difference between whole and processed grains, and about how different types of grains rate higher and lower on the glycemic index, like lots of others, I’ve sought to lower – and diversify – my consumption. Known for its nutty, earthy flavor and chewy texture, farro was a very welcome discovery along this path. 

I first tried it a few years ago at Manhattan’s Northern Spy restaurant, in a tasty dish I shared with fellow Real Food writers Kim O’Donnel and Katie Sweetman. I mention this because it underscores a strange fact that is true about whole grain farro as well as many other traditional foods: you’re likely to find it on the menu of an upscale urban eatery, or on the table of a subsistence farmer in Turkey or Ethiopia, but not too many places between. Think quinoa, five or ten years ago (depending on where you live, and how hip you are to food trends). Of course, as is goes with haute cuisine, the easier the execution, the more home cooks tend to follow suit, and luckily, farro is no sous vide.  

A Brief History

Farro is truly ancient, with roots in the Near East’s Fertile Crescent. Originating in the area that is now Iraq, Iran and Turkey, the grain is known to have been cultivated in various parts of Asia, Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. If you thought the name farro might be related to the word “pharaoh,” you’re right. When the Romans invaded Egypt in 47 BCE, they brought the grain home, where Julius Caesar dubbed it “Pharaoh’s Wheat.” It played a key role in feeding the Roman army until it was largely replaced by higher-yielding, less labor-intensive grains, surviving mainly in the mountains as a “relict crop.” 

These days, farro is still an important crop in those Italian mountains, as well as in Ethiopia, and pops up in foods in other parts of Europe, including bread in Switzerland and beer in Germany. Up until around the 1950s, it was almost entirely grown and eaten by poor farmers in different corners of the globe. In the 1980s, interest from health-conscious consumers in Europe, then the US, led to a comeback in those parts of the world.

Factual nibbles

  • Seriously, farro goes way, way back. Grains of wild emmer (a relative to modern emmer, the most common form of farro – more on this below) found at Ohalo II, an archaeological site in modern day Israel, were radiocarbon dated back to 17,000 BCE. The earliest domestic farro dates back to 7,700 BCE, near Damascus in modern-day Syria.
  • Farro is also sometimes used as animal feed.
  • It’s not just the Germans who enjoy their Emmer beer; they’re brewing suds with ancient grains in Sumeria and Egypt, too.

Cultivation

Strictly speaking, farro is an ethnobotanical concept, rooted in Italian tradition, referring to three types of hulled wheat. Usually, in the US, when we talk about farro, we’re really talking about emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum, known in Italy as farro medio). It is often confused with spelt (Triticum spelta, Italy’s farro grande), another ancient grain that is enjoying a comeback due to its relatively low glycemic load. The lesser known einkorn (Triticum monococcum, or farro piccolo) rounds out the trio. 

That defining characteristic, the hull, also made farro wheats less efficient for mass production, which means they were pushed aside while industrial wheat varieties crowded traditional grains out of markets.

Farro grains, especially emmer, may be defined by their hulls but it’s another botanical characteristic – the awns (little hairs that stick off the grain), which allow the grain to self-cultivate by drilling itself up to an inch or more into the soil.

Environmental impact

Although relatively low-yielding (compared to other types of wheat), emmer is valued as a grain that performs high yields on poor soil. It also does well on steep mountain fields and against weeds, and is looked to as a promising, adaptable, reliable crop by many an international agriculture organization. 

But how green is it? According to Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center: “The environmental impact of farro really depends on how it is grown. Most people don’t know that many conventional wheat crops use large amounts of herbicides to uniformly kill the wheat at the end of their life cycle, so that the wheat berries can all be collected at the same time. Choosing organic is really important when it comes to anything in the farro family!”

Nutrition and effects on the body

Whole grain farro is high in fiber and protein (nearly twice that of traditional wheat) and low in cholesterol and is also high in Vitamin E, a number of important B vitamins, minerals including zinc, magnesium and iron, phytochemicals and antioxidants. It is not a complete protein, like quinoa, but is still more protein-packed than brown rice. 

What to Do with It

Applications for farro range from the simple – think grain salad with seasonal vegetables and fruits and a nice light or creamy dressing, or soup, where its chewy texture holds up even better than barley – to the slightly more involved, including risotto and polenta. It is also ground and used for breads, and you can even homebrew beer with it.

Cooking

Farro’s al dente texture makes it an ideal ingredient in soups; it really holds up where others fall apart. A quick search also reveals lots of bread recipes, including this one for rosemary olive farro focaccia.

Storage

Like any other grain, keep it dry. The plastic bag it likely came in is fine; housing it in a glass jar on a shelf or counter might remind you to cook it more frequently, or at least give your kitchen a wholesome vibe.

Pro tip

My husband is actually the farro/emmer expert in our household, and does most of the cooking in general, and he likes to cook it in our pressure cooker, which is also recommended by the Pressure Cooker Queen herself, Lorna Sass. In this article, Sass also clears up the difference between whole grain and cracked farro (or semi-perlato, if you’re eating Italian) farro and the difference in cooking time, which is substantial.

Stretching your food dollars through preservation

Obviously, if you’re eating farro, it’s probably been dried and will keep for some time. After cooking however, it does maintain its flavor and texture for a bit in the fridge, so you’d do well to cook a big pot of it on Monday and incorporate it into a number of different dishes throughout the week.

Recipe

Springy Farro Salad

This recipe comes courtesy of my husband, John Connolly. It's one of those dishes that can be riffed off of endlessly. This time of year we are happily including any and every spring vegetable we can get our hands on, but you really can use whatever you have on hand. Likewise, you can switch up your herbs and get zingy with lemon verbena, pineapple sage or mint!

2 cups cooked farro (we cook ours in vegetable stock for added flavor)
¼ ; cup (loose, not packed) minced raw spring onion
1 medium raw carrot, shredded
1 cup grilled or steamed asparagus
A handful of nuts (about 2 oz.): chopped almonds or walnuts, whole roasted cashews, or lightly toasted pine nuts are all good options.
½ ; Tbsp. minced tarragon
1 Tbsp. minced flat leaf parsley

Dressing:

¼ ; cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. Dijon mustard

Season to taste with cracked black pepper and sea salt.

 


(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them — agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.) 

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