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10 Sep 2014

Experimenting with ancient grains – The new semester has begun and the Chuseok holiday draws to a close (the holiday technically extended through today, but I went out to my office to get some class prep and other work done), but today I’m going to set that aside in favor of a culinary post. I can’t promise you too many delicious photos (or, more precisely, photos of delicious things), but I can promise you some good old-fashioned empirical research applied to the art of baking.

“I bought these flours with a view to incorporating them into my breads, but before I dove into the baking, I wanted to know what I was dealing with.”

In recent years, for a variety of reasons (all of which can probably be boiled down to me getting older), I’ve become more concerned about maintaining my health. Part of that is diet, and one thing I have been trying to do in terms of diet change is to eat more whole grain and less processed grain (like white flour or white rice). I’ve long incorporated whole wheat flour into my breads, not just because it’s healthy but because I think it tastes better, but recently I have been experimenting with 100% wholegrain bread. These experiments have been reasonably successful, and now the bread I bake and eat is a lot healthier.

In the interest of mixing things up a bit, though, I’ve decided to check out some of the so-called “ancient grains.” I’ve been using spelt for a while now, but not too long ago we were introduced to a site called iHerb, where I discovered a whole slew of flours and other baking products that are either expensive or difficult to get in Korea. iHerb is a US-based site, but not only do they ship to Korea, they will do it for a flat rate of $4 and (usually) get it to you within a week. And that’s only if you buy under $40 worth of products, otherwise shipping is free (if you buy over $60 worth of products, you get a further discount off the total). I don’t know how they do it—I imagine they must have a distribution center in Korea or something. I do know that Korean importers appear to be getting antsy about the site, as iHerb has announced that ordering is going to be a little more complicated for Korean customers in the future. I have no hard facts on this, but I have heard through the grapevine that certain Korean importers pressured the government to put the squeeze on iHerb. I guess when you’re charging over 30,000 won (upwards of $30) for a bag of quinoa that you can get on iHerb for five or six dollars, you need all the help you can get (I’m looking at you, Shinsegae Fresh Food Market!).

OK, so that was a bit of a tangent. But boy does it make me angry, because iHerb has significantly improved the quality of my life (I’m not even being hyperbolic here), and if they get muscled out of Korea because Korean importers convince the government to protect their right to rip off Korean consumers, well, I’m going to be rather put out.

Anyway, this post is not about that. This post is about the four bags of “ancient grain” flour I recently ordered from iHerb. “Ancient grains” is a buzzword used these days to describe a variety of cereals that have been around for a really long time; I think the idea is to set them apart from modern, processed wheat as healthy alternatives, playing on the fear that our own technological advancement is what will kill us in the end. That being said, most of these grains are indeed objectively very healthy; they are high in protein and other nutrients that your typical processed white flour lacks. The four that I decided to go with were quinoa (“keen-wa,” not “Queen Noah”), Kamut (capitalized here because it is actually a trademark; it’s non-trademarked name is Khorasan wheat, but that’s more letters to type so I’m sticking with Kamut), amaranth, and spelt. All four of these are pretty popular with the health-conscious crowd. (Ironically, quinoa is so popular these days that the Andes farmers who have traditionally grown it and have thus benefited from the boom are using their new-found wealth to switch to a diet of higher-status but less healthy foods such as rice and noodles. Go figure.)

The eagle-eyed among you may notice that these are all organic, which is a big deal these days. The organic flours are a little more expensive than non-organic versions, but I figured I’d go all out. The prices are still far cheaper than what you would pay for the stuff in Korea. If you’re wondering why I went with Ancient Harvest for the quinoa instead of Bob’s Red Mill, it’s because they both offered organic quinoa flours with no discernible differences (that I could tell from the packaging, at any rate), but Ancient Harvest was significantly cheaper (roughly three-quarters the price of the BRM version).

I bought these flours with a view to incorporating them into my breads, but before I dove into the baking, I wanted to know what I was dealing with. From prior research or just general knowledge, I already knew something about each of the flours. In the case of quinoa, our latest iHerb order also included whole quinoa grains, which we had for dinner the night before, so I was familiar with its taste. I’ve also used spelt in baking before, as an additive to regular whole wheat. Kamut and amaranth were grains that I had not encountered before outside of breakfast cereals, crackers, and the like, but I knew that Kamut was a type of wheat (as is spelt), while amaranth is a different type of grain entirely (as is quinoa). But if I was going to be baking, I needed to have a better idea of what these flours were going to bring to my bread in terms of taste, texture, and aroma. So I devised an experiment in which I would bake small amounts of each of the flours into crackers. I started off with small portions (2 tablespoons—I don’t generally measure flour by volume, but with small amounts it’s easier this way) of each flour.

These are the four flours in the same order as the packages in the previous photograph: quinoa, Kamut, amaranth, and spelt. There are noticeable differences in appearance, but I labeled each bowl just to make sure I wouldn’t get them mixed up. Let’s take a closer look.

Here is the quinoa. After noting the appearance of the flour, I took a few deep whiffs. Unsurprisingly, it smells very much like what quinoa smells like as cooked grains. It has an ever so slightly nutty aroma, along with an odd, almost soapy fragrance. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to describe it, or if I am being influenced into thinking this way by the fact that quinoa, prior to processing, has a coating of saponins, which apparently makes it unpalatable to birds and other seed-eating animals. These saponins are supposedly removed during processing, so I’m not sure if what I am tasting is due to remaining saponins or if it’s just the unique taste of quinoa. It’s a little odd, but it’s not bad (and we did enjoy the quinoa grains we had cooked up and eaten along with a salad).

This is the Kamut. Since it is a type of wheat (the packaging explains that it is an “ancient relative of modern durum wheat”), it’s not surprising that it resembles whole wheat flour. It is significantly lighter, though, and unlike whole wheat flour the germ and bran are similar in color to the endosperm. It has a strong, earthy aroma with a pronounced nutty fragrance. Of all the flours, I liked the scent of this one the best—it is a good, hearty smell.

Amaranth, pictured here, is similar in appearance to Kamut, but less yellow and more brown. I’m not sure if it comes through in the photos, but to the naked eye it looks slightly darker than Kamut as well. The aroma is very strong, and not in a good way, at least to my senses. I had read a paper online that tested the palatability of amaranth flour in baked goods, and they found that anything above 15% amaranth flour (which is not all that much, to be honest) started to drop significantly in overall acceptability with their test group. I remember reading that and wondering how bad it could possibly be, but after smelling the flour I understood. If Kamut has an earthy smell, amaranth goes beyond that to a musty, almost moldy smell. I don’t find it very pleasant at all.

Finally we have the spelt. This is the darkest of the four flours, and the germ and bran are most pronounced in color. It did not appear to be as fine as the Kamut flour. The fragrance is very light, and is more reminiscent of whole wheat flour (although, for comparison purposes, I also smelled some whole wheat flour and found that spelt has an even more pronounced fragrance than whole what). It does have an earthy smell that is similar to Kamut, but far less pronounced. In terms of appearance, spelt and whole wheat flour look very similar, with whole wheat flour being perhaps slightly darker. Were I to be given a blind test, though, I’m not sure I would be able to tell spelt and whole wheat apart from appearance alone. (Incidentally, a “blind” test doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be able to see, just that I wouldn’t know which flour was which in advance; a “double-blind” test is where neither the testers nor the test subjects know.)

With the appearance and aroma out of the way, it was time to actually make some dough with these flours. To each little bowl I added a pinch of salt, a half tablespoon of margarine, a half tablespoon of milk, and an eighth of a teaspoon of baking powder. The recipes were identical in all four cases—the only variable was the flour itself.

Following the same order, I started with the quinoa. I was surprised to see how yellow the dough came out; the color reminded me very much of traditional Korean tea cakes made from pine pollen. The flour seemed fairly absorbent, and it produced a smooth ball of dough, but as I rolled it in my hands I found that if I applied even a little pressure it would crumble apart. This is not too surprising, as quinoa has no gluten and a dough made from it doesn’t have the same elasticity as a wheat dough.

The Kamut came together well, and as it has gluten in it I found it easier to work with and less prone to falling apart. It does seem to differ from quinoa in terms of absorbency, though—even when fully worked, the dough still felt a bit grainy, and you can see that in the photo. I suspect that Kamut might need a little more water and perhaps a little more working, or at least a long autolyze (resting) period in between kneads. Since I was making crackers and not bread, though, I didn’t worry about that too much.

The amaranth was similar to the quinoa in terms of texture, although I felt the dough held together better. It is also lacking in gluten, though, so it was naturally not as stable as the Kamut dough. In terms of appearance, it was very difficult to distinguish this from the Kamut dough.

The spelt got very dark when kneaded into a dough, and it produced the best dough out of the four flours; it absorbed the moisture and oil more quickly than the Kamut and produced the smoothest dough.

I then flattened each of the dough balls in preparation for cutting the crackers. The quinoa and amaranth were difficult to work with, and I had to patch quite a few cracks at the edges. I eventually wrangled all four dough balls into flattened versions of themselves, cut them up into six pieces each, and stabbed them repeatedly with a fork.

The arrangement is a little different from the order I’ve been following so far, but if you start with the yellow quinoa in the upper left and go counter clockwise around the tray, you have quinoa, Kamut, amaranth, and spelt. I baked these in my mini-oven for 12 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, and when they were done I put them on a rack to cool.

So, the question now, of course, is how do they taste? The quinoa crackers were quite tasty (HJ pronounced them a success). There is a slight bitterness to them, but the flavor I described above as “soapy” is not that pronounced. Quinoa definitely has a unique taste, and I suppose you either like it or you don’t; we happen to like it. The Kamut crackers were fine, but the strong aroma that I had smelled in the flour didn’t come through at first; it did come through in the aftertaste, though. The amaranth crackers were fine in terms of texture, crunchy with a slight grainy feel, but the taste was rather off-putting; that strong musty taste was there in force. (The packaging described the flour as having a “mild but distinct sweet, nutty and malt-like flavor.” I would beg to differ with all but one of those adjectives—the flavor is definitely distinct, but it is not mild, sweet, nutty, or malt-like.) The spelt crackers had a very hearty, nutty grain flavor to them—reminiscent of a graham cracker, but not sweet. The texture was also crunchier and coarser than the Kamut. All in all, I would say that these were probably my favorite.

I guessed going in that the quinoa and amaranth, both being pseudo-cereals that lack gluten, were not going to be base flours but supplementary flours, whereas the Kamut and spelt could probably substitute for modern wheat. These assumptions turned out to be correct, but working with the flours separately gave me the familiarity with them that I need to start incorporating them into my baking.

This was not the end of my experimentation for the day, though. I had had an idea that I wanted to try out, and I decided to incorporate some of my new ancient grain flours. I used 60% whole wheat flour, 20% Kamut flour, and 20% spelt flour, and to this I added low-fat milk, agave syrup, salt, a little bit of gluten, and yeast. Normally I use butter for the fat, but I decided to mash up some avocado instead. The reason for that is that I was intending to make little avocado-filled buns—kind of like danishes—and I was mashing up avocado anyway. I had read that avocado worked well as a butter substitute in baking, so I thought I would give it a try. To the remainder of the avocado mash I added some cream cheese (whoops, there goes healthy) and an egg yolk. I divided the dough into four balls, rolled these out, crimped the edges, let them proof for a very short period of time (only ten minutes), and then filled the centers with the avocado/cream cheese mixture and baked them.

So, were they good? Yes, they were, but... I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. Objectively speaking—or at least as close to objectively as I can get—they were quite tasty. The only problem is that they weren’t as tasty as just eating an avocado straight. I did not eat a lot of straight avocado when I was growing up, but I have since come to love them. They’re great for guacamole, of course, but plain and fresh they are quite an amazing fruit—so creamy and rich, and full of stuff that is good for you! If you don’t like eating avocado plain, this preparation might be an option, but as I was eating it I couldn’t help thinking, “This is not as tasty as just plain avocado.”

That minor disappointment aside, I was very pleased with how the bread came out. As I mentioned up at the top, I’ve been making 100% wholegrain breads these days, and one thing I’ve noticed is that they tend to be rather crumbly. I think the problem is that I have been using water in the bread instead of milk—even low-fat milk seems to make a significant difference. I don’t know if the avocado mash that went into the dough made a difference; I wasn’t controlling for specific variables this time, so it’s hard to say. It apparently didn’t hurt, though. The bread itself came out springy and chewy, and wasn’t crumbly or in any way what I had come to accept as the inevitable texture of wholegrain bread. Taste-wise as well, the addition of Kamut and spelt kicked up the flavor over plain whole wheat flour. So, even if my wholegrain avocado danishes are not necessarily an improvement on nature’s classic hit, the bread itself left me feeling very optimistic about future loaves of sandwich bread.

When I do bake again, I will probably incorporate all four of these ancient grain flours. My experiments with the crackers have already given me an idea about what proportions I should use, but I imagine some fine-tuning will be necessary. I will keep you informed of any further developments.

(Since this experiment was conducted, I have made a loaf of bread with Kamut and amaranth added to a base of whole wheat, and I can say definitively that I am not a fan of amaranth. Even at a tad over 12%, the strong musty taste is there, although I will admit that it is not as pronounced when the bread is used for sandwiches or slathered with cream cheese. HJ says the bread is fine, but I’m not as positive. I will stick with amounts of amaranth under 10% in the future, and when this bag runs out I will not be ordering another. I’ll likely try out other ancient grains, like teff or farro.)

Send me your thoughts.

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