Ingredient: Farro - Expand Your Grain Horizons

I bet by now you have at least heard of the ancient grain known as farro. Have you tried it? Have you made it? If not, you should. In addition to being an all-around winner nutrition-wise and taste-wise, it can do so many other things besides. So, let's back up a sec and talk a little more about farro.

What is farro anyway?

Farro is the Italian name for emmer wheat, an ancient strain of hard wheat originally from the Fertile Crescent (think western Asia, Nile Valley, Nile Delta, through the eastern coast of the Mediterranean). Farro has been around practically forever. It is said to have even been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings, to have fed the Roman Legions of antiquity, and was a mainstay of the ancient Roman diet. Some call farro the original ancestor of all other wheat species—“the mother of all wheat.”

Farro has become more popular in recent years as people have become more familiar with its roasted, nutty flavor, its distinctive chewy texture, and it’s nutrient-richness. Some people have even tasted notes of cinnamon and/or caramel in their farro.

There are three basic types of farro. This is a really good definition from the book “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” by Maria Speck. She writes that the term farro is “commonly used when referring to three ancient wheat varieties first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent and still grown in Italy: farro piccolo (also known by the German einkorn), farro medio (also known as emmer, the Hebrew word for mother), and farro grande (also known as spelt).” Got all that?

Farro has a tough husk which makes it much harder to process than most other commercially produced grains. But it’s also that  husk that helps protect the grain's vital nutrients. Hmmmm. So, like most things in life there’s a tradeoff to be considered. :) There are three types of farro generally available: Whole farro (with the husk intact), semi-pearled (where some of the husk has been removed, but still contains some fiber), or pearled (which takes the least time to cook but has no bran at all).

         Whole Farro             Pearled Farro

         Whole Farro             Pearled Farro

The imported Italian farro most often available in the United States is usually the emmer variety. And it’s often semi-perlato, or semi-pearled, Whole farro’s husk is so hard that is pretty much requires overnight soaking before cooking. But if you are willing to do that you are rewarded with the higher nutrient content and a more intense flavor. Personally, I’d choose either the whole farro or semi-pearled varieties. And if you can find a source that lightly scratches the bran (which helps it cook quicker while retaining virtually ALL it’s nutritional benefits), go for it! 

And just to complicate things a little further, lots of times when you see farro in the store it doesn’t designate the form of farro. Ask…or just only buy from a reliable source that will define the husk level so you know what you are getting.

And just to complicate things a little further, lots of times when you see farro in the store it doesn’t designate the form of farro. Ask…or just only buy from a reliable source that will define the husk level so you know what you are getting.

How about that nutritional thing?

Farro is high in fiber and a good source of iron and protein. It is easy to digest, allowing your body to readily absorb the nutrients. Farro is not a “complete” protein like, say, quinoa (so it doesn’t have the entire chain of amino acids), but it has more than brown rice. It also contains lignans which give it antioxidant properties.

One thing to be aware of is that farro is a type of wheat, so it is unsuitable for those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or a wheat sensitivity or allergy.  While it is not gluten-free, it is considerably lower in gluten than commercial wheat varieties. People with mild wheat sensitivities (which are distinct from celiac disease) often find it easier to digest.

Here’s its nutritional breakdown (per 1/4 cup):
Calories: 200
Fat: 1.5 g
Saturated fat: 0.0 mg
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 0 g
Total Carbohydrates: 37g
Dietary fiber: 7g
Sugars: 0g
Protein: 7g

Not bad, right?

What do I do with it?

Farro is one of those versatile grains that can be used for dishes from breakfast cereals to salads to side dishes to even desserts. Farro can be ground and simmered like corn to make polenta di farro, it can take the place of rice in rice pilaf, or it can replace Arborio rice and cooked into farrotto (an almost risotto). Farro is also delicious as a hot breakfast cereal or even as a desserts (a little crumbled fresh ricotta, a drizzle of honey—you get the picture).Farro can be ground and simmered like corn to make polenta di farro, it can take the place of rice in rice pilaf, or it can replace Arborio rice and cooked into farrotto.

Here are a few recipes that show off farro's versatility and will help you spread your farro wings:

 

And, trust me, there are tons more recipes out there!

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So, there's a little about farro; that (okay, slightly mysterious) ancient grain that you may have never tried (but wanted to). It’s easy enough to make - but cool and unique enough to impress your friends. Give it a try and then come back here and let me know what you think. Enjoy!