>> Monday, August 10, 2009
Do you know what a wheat berry is? It's the whole wheat grain - what they grind to make whole wheat flour. It's also delicious cooked in its whole form! I have been eying recipes made with wheat berries for a while now, but only tried using unground wheat berries last week. Wheat berries turn out to be surprisingly simple to cook and they taste quite a lot like brown rice. In fact, I couldn't convince my son that it wasn't brown rice!
Before heading to this week's recipe, I want to take a moment to explore the humble wheat berry. First, what makes the wheat berry desirable? Well, it's a whole grain. All of the nutrients and good stuff (like fiber) remain inside the little berry. Unlike brown rice, wheat berries stay good for a long, long time. I've read reports of wheat berries that were stored in a cool, dry environment that were good as many as 20 years later! That might be a little extreme, but stored in a cool, dry location they will indeed last many years, and stored in a freezer they will last indefinitely. This is in contrast to ground wheat berries - aka whole wheat flour - which has a relatively short shelf life. Keeping the berry whole keeps all of the good stuff inside of the berry stable and secure.
I'm sure that there are many, many different variety of wheat berries, but I'm only going to talk about a couple of them - red and white wheat berries. Hard red wheat berries (I'm going to talk about both Spring and Winter wheat together) is the type of wheat that is used to make traditional whole wheat flour. It's also used to make all-purpose flour, though white all-purpose flour is made from only the endosperm with the nutritious bran and germ removed. (As an aside, non-whole wheat flour is often "enriched, " meaning vitamins and nutrients that were lost when the germ and bran were removed are added back in. Whole wheat flours are not enriched because those vitamins and nutrients haven't been removed in the first place.) Hard red wheat has a relatively high protein content. There is also a soft red wheat that has a softer endosperm and a lower protein content making it good for pastry and cake flour.
White wheat berries are a relatively new variety, having only been added as a market class in the US in 1990. White wheat and red wheat are nutritionally equivalent. The main difference in the two wheat varieties is that white berries have fewer phenolic compounds and tannins in the bran resulting in a milder flavor. White wheat is lighter in color than its red cousin and has a sweeter flavor. White wheat comes in both a hard and soft variety, just like red wheat. The two flours can be used interchangeably. (For a great comparison of the performance of the two flours, check out this article at The Fresh Loaf.)
The great thing about white wheat is the flavor. I have great success substituting white whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour in my baking because it doesn't really change the flavor. As with traditional whole wheat flour made with red wheat, baked goods behave a bit differently when cooked with whole wheat flours, so all-purpose flour is still a good thing to have around. I'm not much of a baker, but I find that I can substitute 1/2 - 3/4 of the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat flour and have good results, depending on the recipe. Using white whole wheat instead of all-purpose doesn't change the flavor of the end product appreciably, but it may change the texture. If you haven't tried white whole wheat flour yet, buy some and give it a try!
Back to whole wheat berries and the recipe... I used soft white wheat berries for this recipe, but you can use whatever variety you have on hand. My grocery store only recently started selling wheat berries in their bulk bin section and carry both hard red wheat and soft white wheat berries. I'm giving you the recipe basically as I prepared it, but like most of my recipes there's a lot of flexibility. Feel free to increase or decrease the amounts of any of the ingredients to suit you taste. We served this salad as a main dish at room temperature, but it's also good cold. Make the recipe your own and enjoy!
Greek Wheat Berry Salad
2 cups wheat berries (I used soft white wheat berries)
6 cups water
1/2 tsp salt (or chicken bouillon)
2 cups chopped grape tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 TBSP white balsamic vinegar (regular balsamic vinegar would work well too)
3 TBSP olive oil
1/4 tsp salt or to taste
1/4 tsp pepper
Boil wheat berries in water with 1/2 tsp salt (or chicken bouillon) for 40-60 min or until they have reached the desired tenderness. (Desired tenderness is subjective, hence the big window.) Drain in a colander.
Combine wheat berries, tomatoes, green onions, olives, basil, and feta and mix well.
In a small bowl, combine the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, remaining salt, and pepper. Use a whisk to emulsify a bit. Pour over the wheat berry mixture and mix to coat the salad well. Serve and enjoy!
Will I cook with wheat berries again? Hmmm...it was incredibly easy to prepare and makes a fine side dish as well as a base for salads. (I served the cooked wheat berries to my kids with just a little butter on top. They gobbled it up and asked for more.) My only problem with wheat berries is the cost. They're rather pricey where I am, so I am more likely to use brown rice or quinoa (equally pricey but with other benefits that I will discuss at a later date) instead of wheat berries. If I could buy them bulk to bring the cost down, it could possibly become a staple in our household, especially as whole wheat berries stay good for such an incredibly long time.