(This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Ancient grains have officially been embraced by consumers. Take a stroll down the cracker aisle of any supermarket in this country, and you’ll see the evidence – big food manufacturers are launching more and more products that feature spelt, millet, teff, einkorn or any other grain that’s deemed ancient and exotic. But it’s not just the giant food companies that are tapping this trend. Bakers and pastry chefs are also hopping on the ancient grain bandwagon, and einkorn, with its sweet, nutty flavor, golden color and versatile baking profile, is gaining traction as a favored grain for bread as well as other pastries and desserts.
Einkorn was the first wild seed that was planted and gathered by Neolithic farmers, according to Carla Bartolucci, the author of Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat (Clarkson Potter, 2015). “All wheat is a descendant of wild einkorn,” she writes. “During the Bronze Age, einkorn was slowly abandoned by farmers for higher-yielding varieties.”
Targeted hybridization, the process of crossing different species of plants to form a new variety, has long been used to create grains with higher yields or ease of growing. Einkorn, however, is the only wheat grain that has not been hybridized.
In fact, the word einkorn means ‘single grain’ in German. “Einkorn’s fall in popularity is actually its saving grace,” notes Bartolucci. “Because it survived as a relic grain, its seeds were not selectively harvested or bred for improvements, and it has remained as it was, just as nature intended.” Which means it contains more nutrients and, consequently, more flavor. This flavor has been described by aficionados as ‘nutty’ and ‘buttery,’ with one baker saying it was reminiscent of roasted corn.
As for gluten, einkorn actually has a higher percentage of protein in it than modern wheat, but the quality of the gluten in doughs made from einkorn is different. Dry flour contains groups of proteins called glutenins and gliadins, and glutenins are further classified as ‘high molecular weight’ and ‘low molecular weight’ proteins. “While einkorn has enough gluten for bread baking, it is lacking in certain high molecular weight proteins,” writes Bartolucci, “and you can feel how much it differs in its extreme stickiness and reduced elasticity.”
Baking with einkorn
Because of its unique properties, baking with einkorn can be a challenge. “Finding the right balance between proper hydration and manageability is the key to success,” says Bartolucci. “I recommend starting with drier dough until you feel comfortable handling the sticky nature of einkorn, then moving on to the wetter dough.”
Maurizio Leo, a software engineer-turned baker and creator of The Perfect Loaf blog, feels the benefits of einkorn outweigh the challenges of working with it. “Einkorn has an incredible depth of flavor not found in many other grain varieties. It imparts a nutty, almost buttery, flavor to baked goods. Additionally, it lends a soft, supple texture and a beautiful creamy hue to the interior and exterior crust. Nutritionally, einkorn has higher protein, vitamins and minerals than other wheat varieties.”
Leo routinely uses einkorn wheat when baking sourdough bread. “It can be a challenge,” he says, “especially in a recipe that’s 100 percent einkorn, but the results are incredibly delicious. I start with a lower hydration dough and work the hydration up through mixing, as einkorn isn’t typically able to handle the same amount of water as other wheat varieties. From there, gentle mixing is all that’s needed. I have several recipes on my website (www.theperfectloaf.com) for einkorn bread, including an einkorn miche with a mix of flour types and a recipe with 100 percent einkorn flour. I’ve also made 100 percent einkorn canelé many times, and they turn out fantastic. The golden color in the canelé adds to its appeal, as does the unique flavor and tender interior.” Leo doesn’t recommend using 100 percent einkorn flour in most recipes. “If the pastry requires strong gluten for structure, then it would be best to first start with a small percentage of einkorn and work it up through testing.”
Francisco Migoya, Head Chef of Modernist Cuisine and co-author of Modernist Bread (The Cooking Lab, 2017), uses relatively low percentages of einkorn flour in bread. “If I do use it, it is always in combination with a strong bread flour (anything with 12 to 14 percent protein), and no more than 20 to 30 percent of the total weight of the flour. I find it even better to either cook, soak or sprout them [einkorn wheat berries], and then fold them into a dough. That way they don’t produce what I consider to be dense and low volume breads, and you can get all of their flavor and texture.”
According to Bartoluccii, experimentation, patience, and keeping an open mind are keys to success when working with einkorn. “When I bake with einkorn, I challenge myself to work with a fresh mind and not treat the einkorn as an impediment, but as an opportunity. You will have tremendous, delicious success with it once you let go of certain standard baking practices. You will actually see and feel the difference in this flour: Silky smooth and golden in color, einkorn flour will reward you with flavorful, wholesome breads and baked goods.”
Einkorn flour, wheat berries and other einkorn products are available from www.jovialfoods.com.