Real Food Encyclopedia | Buckwheat
Buckwheat is an ancient food. Buckwheat was one of the first crops cultivated in Asia, its lineage dating back for at least four to six thousand years. Buckwheat pollen dating from 4000 BCE has been found in the Balkans. A thousand years ago, when the Greeks brought Christianity to Russia, they brought buckwheat with them and it became a cornerstone of the cuisine. In Russia, where buckwheat is a staple crop, it is called grechka, which translates as “of Greek.”
Buckwheat arrived in North America with the colonists of the 1600s. It was planted by both Presidents Washington and Jefferson in their own fields. Buckwheat remained popular in the United States until the end of the 19th century. A change in farming practices led to its decline, as agriculture began to adopt the increasing use of petroleum-based fertilizers, inputs that boosts the production of cereal crops but stifles the productivity of buckwheat. In the last decade or so, buckwheat has received increased attention as eaters seek out ancient grains for their unique flavor, health benefits and contribution to biodiversity.
Fun Facts about Buckwheat:
- Buckwheat is not a wheat at all, but a fruit seed.
- Buckwheat’s seeds resemble that of the beech tree and it is from that similarity that its name — originally “beech wheat” — was converted into buckwheat.
- The best Soba houses in Japan mill their own buckwheat to ensure that every nuance of the flavorful seed is available.
What to Look for When Buying Buckwheat
Mostly commonly, buckwheat is sold as flour or as buckwheat groats, which can be purchased whole or cracked (the latter cooks much more quickly). You can also find buckwheat pastas, including buckwheat soba, a traditional Japanese noodle.
Buckwheat is a short, stocky shrub with heart shaped leaves and small white flowers. It is related to rhubarb and sorrel. Its seeds have a dark outer hull and inner groat that is triangular in shape. The hull is removed for processing and the remaining groat is roasted and often ground into flour.
Sustainability of Buckwheat
Buckwheat is not only a useful crop, it is a healthy crop that is exceptionally well suited to organic production. It is disease-tolerant. Buckwheat cannot tolerate herbicides and typical synthetic fertilizers can inhibit production, so it doesn’t thirst for chemical inputs like more popular cereal crops.
Buckwheat is rarely affected by pests, except for deer, which will snack their way through an unprotected buckwheat field. In fact, buckwheat is a powerful attractor of beneficial insects such as ladybugs, which can suppress infestation of damaging pests such as aphids in nearby fields. Bees are crazy for buckwheat and hum happily amongst the flowering plants, turning their gatherings into one of the richest, darkest and most prized honeys — the molasses-like buckwheat honey.
Farmers have traditionally employed buckwheat as a valued tool on the farm. As a “green manure” crop, a process that turns the mature buckwheat plants back into the soil, it can be used to bring fertility to previously unplanted land. Buckwheat is a popular “smother crop” that grows quickly and broadly, denying weeds a chance to take hold of an area of cropland. Planted on fallow fields, it makes a powerful cover crop that prevents erosion by wind or rain. Buckwheat is quick maturing and is ready to harvest 10 to 12 weeks after sowing. Its quick-growth habit makes it an easy crop to grow in rotation after the primary harvest.
Buckwheat and Geography
Buckwheat is not a fussy plant and is valued for its adaptability to a variety of soil conditions. It prefers cool temperatures, which allow it to be grown at the end of the season in warm climates, after other crops have been harvested, and at higher elevations than grain crops typically tolerate.
Buckwheat is grown all over the world. Russia and China make up the largest percentage of world production, coming in at 54 and 38 percent, respectively. Historically, buckwheat has been a crop grown in the Northeastern United States, but new varieties are being sown in areas of the Midwest and are also pushing the crop’s hardiness zone further south.
Buckwheat is very perishable, particularly once it is ground. When buying buckwheat products, it is best to source them from outlets that have frequent turn over. At home, use them soon or store in the freezer. You can expect buckwheat flour to taste fresh for one month at room temperature; groats for two. Freezing will double the shelf life.
Cooking with Buckwheat
Buckwheat’s international popularity is apparent in the wide range of dishes in which it is featured, like:
- Russian blini: The tiny pancakes that accompany classic caviar service, called blini, are traditionally made from buckwheat flour.
- Eastern European kasha: Toasted buckwheat groats are called kasha. They are served in both sweet and savory recipes.
- Japanese buckwheat soba: There is a deep respect for soba in Japan, where chefs make the fine noodles to order — starting with whole groats, grinding them into flour and then turning the dough into thin perfect noodles within minutes.
- Buckwheat lettuce: The buckwheat leaves (a.k.a., “buckwheat lettuce”) are sometimes eaten or even grown indoors in the winter for out of season salads. But eater beware: The leaves contain fagopyrin, a toxin that causes photosensitivity and skin problems in humans and animals that eat a lot of buckwheat greenery.
Because it is not a grain, buckwheat is suitable for eaters with gluten issues. It is rich in zinc, copper and manganese. Buckwheat is a complete protein, meaning that, like meat, it contains all of the essential amino acids that your body cannot produce — an important feature for vegans. Buckwheat is also high in soluble fiber and eating it has been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.