Real Food Encyclopedia | Emmer (Farro)
Emmer (Farro) is truly ancient, with roots in the Near East’s Fertile Crescent. Originating in the area that is now Iraq, Iran and Turkey, the grain is known to have been cultivated in various parts of Asia, Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. If you thought the name farro might be related to the word “pharaoh,” you’re right. When the Romans invaded Egypt in 47 BCE, they brought the grain home, where Julius Caesar dubbed it “Pharaoh’s Wheat.” It played a key role in feeding the Roman army until it was largely replaced by higher-yielding, less labor-intensive grains, surviving mainly in the mountains as a “relict crop.”
These days, farro is still an important crop in those Italian mountains, as well as in Ethiopia, and pops up in foods in other parts of Europe, including bread in Switzerland and beer in Germany. Up until around the 1950s, it was almost entirely grown and eaten by poor farmers in different corners of the globe. In the 1980s, interest from health-conscious consumers in Europe, then the United States, led to a comeback in those parts of the world.
Fun Facts about Farro:
- Seriously, farro goes way, way back. Grains of wild emmer (a relative to modern emmer, the most common form of farro — more on this below) found at Ohalo II, an archaeological site in modern day Israel, were radiocarbon dated back to 17,000 BCE. The earliest domestic farro dates back to 7700 BCE, near Damascus in modern-day Syria.
- Farro is also sometimes used as animal feed.
- It’s not just the Germans who enjoy their Emmer beer. They’re brewing suds with ancient grains in Sumeria and Egypt, too.
What to Look for When Buying Farro
Strictly speaking, farro is an ethnobotanical concept, rooted in Italian tradition, referring to three types of hulled wheat. Usually, in the US, when we talk about farro, we’re really talking about emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum, known in Italy as farro medio). It is often confused with spelt (Triticum spelta, Italy’s farro grande), another ancient grain that is enjoying a comeback due to its relatively low glycemic load. The lesser known einkorn (Triticum monococcum, or farro piccolo) rounds out the trio.
Sustainability of Farro
Although relatively low-yielding (compared to other types of wheat), emmer is valued as a grain that nets high yields on poor soil. It also does well on steep mountain fields and against weeds, and is looked to as a promising, adaptable, reliable crop by many an international agriculture organization.
Pesticides and Farro
But how green is it? According to Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center: “The environmental impact of farro really depends on how it is grown. Most people don’t know that many conventional wheat crops use large amounts of herbicides to uniformly kill the wheat at the end of their life cycle, so that the wheat berries can all be collected at the same time. Choosing organic is really important when it comes to anything in the farro family!”
How to Cook Farro
Like any other grain, keep it dry. The plastic bag it likely came in is fine; housing it in a glass jar on a shelf or counter might remind you to cook it more frequently, or at least give your kitchen a wholesome vibe.
Cooking With Farro
Applications for farro range from the simple — think grain salad with seasonal vegetables and fruits and a nice light or creamy dressing, or soup, where its chewy texture holds up even better than barley — to the slightly more involved, including risotto and polenta. It is also ground and used for breads, and you can even homebrew beer with it.
Farro’s al dente texture makes it an ideal ingredient in soups — it really holds up where others fall apart. A quick search also reveals lots of bread recipes, including this one for rosemary olive farro focaccia.
You can cook farro in your pressure cooker, which is also recommended by the Pressure Cooker Queen herself, Lorna Sass. Sass also clears up the difference between whole grain and cracked farro (or semi-perlato, if you’re eating Italian) and the difference in cooking time, which is substantial.
Obviously, if you’re eating farro, it’s probably been dried and will keep for some time. After cooking however, it does maintain its flavor and texture for a bit in the fridge, so you’d do well to cook a big pot of it on Monday and incorporate it into a number of different dishes throughout the week.
Whole grain farro is high in fiber and protein (nearly twice that of traditional wheat) and low in cholesterol and is also high in Vitamin E, a number of important B vitamins, minerals including zinc, magnesium and iron, phytochemicals and antioxidants. It is not a complete protein, like quinoa, but is still more protein-packed than brown rice.