The Gradual Rise And Use Of Ancient Grains
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Humans all around the globe have been growing grain for thousands of years now. Wheat is believed to have been the first grain to be cultivated. Two species, emmer (khapli) and einkorn, have both been cultivated since 9500 BCE. Emmer is one of the oldest varieties of wheat grown in India, with historians believing it was brought to the subcontinent during the Bronze Age. Einkorn is said to predate emmer, with the latter being a hybrid of former and wild grass. Einkorn was primarily grown in Europe, where it was used to make primitive breads, much like those prepared by ancient Egyptians using emmer. Einkorn, along with red meat and bracken, is believed to have been the Ötzi’s (the Iceman, the world's oldest wet mummy) last meal. 

Emmer and einkorn aren't the only ancient grains. Several ancient civilizations are known to have cultivated grains and pseudocereals to supplement their diets. Varieties of amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, millet, barley, etc. have long been grown all over the globe, with several subspecies thriving and being used as food today. Among all these grains, wheat was the most prevalent and important crop that was cultivated, a distinction it continues to hold today.

So, just what makes these grains so different? Ancient grains have considerably higher amounts of fiber, vitamins, and micronutrients. Furthermore, there is credible research that states that the consumption of ancient grains (wheat varieties such as verna and kamut) can improve cardiovascular health and tolerance to allergies. A large part of these characteristics can be attributed to the biome the grains were grown in and the fact that they were largely unprocessed. Ancient wheat varieties also have considerably less gluten when compared to their modern counterparts, which makes them easier to digest for people with celiac disease. Ancient grains such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, teff, and millet are all great substitutes for wheat and are completely gluten-free.

The bulk of today's usage of ancient grains is in the production of artisanal breads and flatbreads. Sourdough enthusiasts have long used ancient wheat varieties and even amaranth to enhance the texture and flavor of their loaves. The practice of making sourdough breads is about as old as some of the grains themselves, with the first loaves made by Egyptians at around 3000 BCE.

The sourdough loaves you see in bakeries today are made with the exact same principles and ingredients. Sourdough is used to refer to breads that have been made using a natural levain, or starter. The starter is made by mixing flour with water and leaving the mixture at room temperature for about a week in order to encourage the action of organisms such as wild yeast and lactobacillus. The starter needs to be "fed" with a mixture of flour and water at set frequencies in order to maintain peak microbial activity. The levain is ready for use when the mixture begins to rise consistently a few hours after each feeding. The mixture may be used in a similar manner to commercial yeast and adds a pleasant, sour tang to the final product.

While processed all-purpose flour is commonly used to feed the starter, several bakers have experimented with using different grains for this purpose. Grains high in gluten have been shown to increase microbial activity. Ancient grains fall short in this aspect and are hence used in the final dough itself. A sourdough bread featuring a particular grain almost always includes all-purpose flour in the recipe because high proportions of whole wheat flour come with high germ and bran content, which interfere with gluten formation. A 100% whole wheat loaf is possible to make, albeit inferior in shape and texture compared to loaves that feature both types of flour. Ancient wheat varieties such as spelt and einkorn have long been added to sourdough breads, especially in Europe.


During the pandemic, several home bakers and professional chefs stuck at home began to experiment with sourdough. Bakers all over the world began to use native ancient grains in their loaves, documenting the process in various forums and websites devoted to the craft. This trove of information could be used by just about anyone with access to the internet, which made it easy for bakers to network and improve on recipes, particularly those that are relatively new. Before long, recipes featuring ancient grains such as emmer, spelt, and buckwheat were developed, all with perfect open crumbs (across the cross section of the bread, large air pockets are considered desirable in sourdough baking). This would truly change the industry, as most bakers who experimented with the grains did so in a limited capacity, given how long the recipes took to perfect. Bakers have proven that even gluten-free or low-gluten flours can make for great artisanal loaves when combined in an optimal ratio with all-purpose flour.

Sourdough is often prepared entirely with gluten-free flours such as buckwheat and amaranth using the same method. The loaves made in such a manner are much denser and have a higher concentration of nutrients. Additions such as nuts, olives, seeds, et al. may be folded into the dough to make the end product more palatable.