In my quest to buy fewer ingredients and do more with them, wheat berries have earned their spot within my limited shelf space. Cooked, they have a nutty flavor and chewy bite that add a satisfying heartiness to whatever dish you enhance with them. Ground up, they render superb flour. I buy various types of these whole grains: hard red wheat berries, soft white wheat berries, emmer berries and spelt berries. Spelt and emmer are types of farro, an ancient wheat grain. I also cook lots of rye berries, a cereal grain related to wheat.
Flavorful wheat berries contain all the parts of the kernel—the germ (the fatty part), the endosperm (the starchy part) and the bran (the fiber-y part). They haven’t undergone processing like all-purpose flour, for example, which contains the pulverized endosperm only. The bran and germ have been sifted out, resulting in a highly refined, shelf-stable product.
According to the USDA, for an adult eating a 2,000 calorie diet, 47 grams (about ¼ cup) of emmer berries contain the daily allowances of the various nutrients below. (This appears to apply to dried, which would measure roughly ¾ cup cooked.)
- 12 percent protein
- 20 percent fiber
- 4 percent iron
- 15 percent magnesium
- 15 percent zinc
- 20 percent niacin
Buying and storing wheat berries
Many bulk stores carry wheat berries. Fill your own cloth produce bags to avoid the store’s plastic ones. If you don’t have access to bulk bins, you may want to buy the largest bag you can find in order to reduce packaging waste—if you can eat a large bag’s worth. One large bag consists of less plastic than many small bags. And the berries keep longer than flour, meaning your giant bag will last a long time. Look for packaged wheat berries in the grains aisle, near the rice and beans or in the baking aisle, near the flour.
I store my wheat berries in the cloth produce bags I fill at the bulk bins. We go through these bags in two to three months. If you eat yours more slowly, you may prefer to store them in air-tight glass jars.
5 ways to eat wheat berries
Toss into grain bowls and salads
If I have cooked wheat berries and cooked beans on hand, I can throw together a grain bowl very quickly. Just add vegetables, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and enjoy a satisfying meal.
Last night, I made a fabulous salad with cooked leftover rye berries, cubed beets (I had recently cooked a gigantic whole beet in my pressure cooker in minutes), some arugula and kale from the yard, and tomatoes from the farmers’ market. I tossed that with vinegar and olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt. The grains added substance to the vegetables and leafy greens.
Add a meaty texture to a meatless dish
Stir cooked wheat berries into a pot of vegetarian chili to add meatless meatiness. Even omnivores will wolf it down. Mix cooked wheat berries into nutloaf for a chewy texture. Or stuff peppers with a mixture of wheat berries, vegetables, beans and cheese.
Serve in place of rice
The last time I made chana masala, because we had no rice on hand, we ate it with rye berries instead. The substantial berries hold up well with dense chickpeas. I apologize for the possibly heretical combination but it tastes great. I’ve eaten dal with spelt berries as well.
Chew wheat berries in place of gum
Did you know gum contains plastic? If you’ve pledged to cut plastic during Plastic Free July and love chewing gum, you may want to buy a small amount of wheat berries.
Plastic is a part of the ingredient called the ‘Gum base’ that gives the gum it’s ‘chew.’ The gum base is a mix of plastic and different chemicals and it typically makes up for 25-30% of the gum. An example of plastic in chewing gum is ‘Polyethylene’ which is also used for the manufacture of plastic bags and plastic bottles.plasticchange.org
While it doesn’t taste like Hubba Bubba, a small spoonful of wheat berries will become just like gum after you’ve chewed it up for a few minutes to activate the gluten. I swallow the edible gum long before it loses its elasticity, usually because I can chew for only so long—it lasts for hours. You can even blow bubbles with it! Rye doesn’t work, due to the lower gluten content (I’ve tested it). Chew yourself up some wheat berries (red, white) or farro (spelt, emmer).
Grind wheat berries up for flour
I initially started buying wheat berries regularly for this very purpose. But I have to warn you before you attempt to grind your own flour from whole dry berries. Not that it’s dangerous—although don’t stick your hand in the mill or let your ponytail fall in with the machine running. The problem is the flavor. With its satisfying, chewy, addictive texture and nutty, fresh flavor, home-ground flour tastes so much better than store-bought flour, that you won’t want to eat bread made without some.
So now you’ll have the additional task of grinding your flour, although the second-hand grain mill a generous neighbor gave me can grind up all the flour I need for two big loaves in minutes. And you likely don’t want to grind all of your flour. A loaf made with 100 percent freshly ground flour may not rise well under its own weight. I’ve never ground more than 60 percent of the flour for my sourdough (but never say never). And even 20 percent makes a noticeable difference.
The dough below contains 40 percent freshly milled whole wheat flour (from hard red wheat berries), 20 percent freshly milled rye flour, 20 percent store-bought whole wheat flour (Five Roses, eh) and 20 percent store-bought, all-purpose flour (King Arthur). They fermented quickly (3.5 hours as opposed to the usual 4.5 but I should have stopped it at 3). During poofing, they rose more than usual.
But wait, there’s more! Whole berries may also cost less than store-bought flour. I recently bought organic rye berries for $1.09 per pound. I cannot buy organic rye flour for that price where I live. And if I could, it wouldn’t taste as good to me or my starter, Eleanor. She loves rye flour, especially freshly milled. (If you want to perk up a languishing sourdough starter, feed it some rye flour.)
How to Cook Wheat Berries
- 1 cup wheat berries, emmer berries, spelt berries or rye berries
- 3 cups water
- ¼ teaspoon salt, optional
- If using salt, salt the water in a pot. Bring the water to a boil. Add the berries, turn the heat down to a simmer and cook until tender. Emmer berries may be tender after 20 minutes. Soft white wheat berries may be tender after 30, rye after 45 and hard red after 60 or 90. Because cooking times vary, check the grains often and add more water if necessary to prevent them from drying out.
- Drain and add the cooked berries to a salad, grain bowl, soup, chili and so on. Or store the cooked berries in the refrigerator for up to a week.