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A Comparison of Heirloom Wheat Varieties for Sourdough Baking
The wheat most people are familiar with is just one or two varieties of grasses in a family called Triticum. While bread wheat (T. aestivum) will yield consistently good results in sourdough bread baking, home bakers may wish to try out some other varieties for fun, nutrition, and flavor. Here are some grains that can be found in health food stores and large supermarkets.
Einkorn (Triticum monococcum)
Einkorn wheat is one of the oldest known cultivated varieties of wheat. It has a more simple genetic structure, and has not been hybridized. Einkorn has experienced a resurgence in popularity, as it is believed to be easier for people with a gluten intolerance to digest.* Einkorn is available as a whole grain or white flour for baking.
Emmer (Triticum dicoccum)
Emmer (also known as farro) is another very early variety of wheat. Farmers grew both einkorn and emmer in the Fertile Crescent. Farro in stores is usually sold whole or pearled. Soak the grains before cooking to enjoy their nutty, chewy texture in salads. Emmer flour is not as widely available as some other heritage wheats. Because of the lower gluten level and slightly harder grains, dough will be quite sticky and will not rise as much. Home bakers should experiment with hydration levels.
Spelt (Triticum spelta)
Spelt is confusingly also referred to as farro by some mills. It is perhaps one of the most popular of the alternative wheats and is the most similar in genetic structure to T. aestivum. The exact history is unclear, but spelt is a hybridized variety of grain, with Emmer as one of its ancestors. Spelt’s popularity stems in part from its similarity to wheat. It has a higher gluten content, a nutty flavor, and is easier to mill than some heritage grains. However, some people who do not tolerate regular wheat well, can enjoy spelt.
Most whole wheat bread recipes will work with a direct substitution of spelt flour.
Triticale (× Triticosecale)
Triticale is hybrid of wheat and rye, and carries characteristics of each. It is grown for its high rate of germination and tolerance of poor growing conditions. Triticale is high in protein, but lower in gluten than wheat. Use triticale in baking as a whole wheat substitute. Because of the nature of this hybrid, there can be variations between crops.
Kamut (Triticum turanicum)
The history of kamut is a little less clear than some other wheat varieties. It was a popular grain in Egypt and the surrounding area. Kamut makes a delicious porridge and can be used in pasta, bread, and other baked goods. Like other old wheat varieties, kamut is lower in gluten and does not make a light, lofty loaf of bread. It is excellent in sweeter foods because of its buttery flavor.
Choosing a sourdough starter for heirloom wheat varieties
Our Desem Sourdough Starter can be used with any whole-grain heirloom wheat flour. If your sourdough starter is already active, follow the instructions for switching your sourdough starter to a new type of flour.
If spelt flour is your choice, our Spelt Sourdough Starter is ready to activate and feed with spelt flour.
Baking with heirloom wheat flours
Heirloom wheat absorbs water more slowly, so the dough tends to be quite sticky at first. Reduce the water in the recipe by one fourth, but be prepared to add more if needed. A slightly sticky dough will rise better and have a more pleasant crumb.
Combine the ingredients and knead the dough until it is springy. Then set it aside to proof for several hours, depending on the temperature. The structure tends to develop better over time, rather than with a lot of vigorous kneading. A second proofing before baking will give the proteins time to develop more fully and the sourdough cultures time to improve the flavor and crumb. Allowing the dough to rest in the refrigerator overnight before baking is a wonderful way to fit these flours into a busy schedule.
Combining heirloom wheat with modern wheat is another way to enjoy the flavor and benefits of heirloom wheat, while still making bread with a more familiar texture. Begin by replacing ¼ - ½ of the total amount of white flour in the recipe with a whole grain flour. Reduce the water slightly to compensate for the change. Mix, knead, and proof as directed. Increase the proportion of heirloom wheat flour over time, or continue making loaves of light, chewy bread.
*Einkorn is wheat and those with allergies or celiac disease should consult a licensed healthcare professional with specific dietary questions.
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