Photo by Jovial Foods
Carla Bartolucci dove into the organic food industry in 1996, when the movement was starting to catch on in mainstream America. In those days, her company, Jovial Foods, focused on offering gluten-free and healthy food options. But then, her daughter Giulia showed signs of gluten sensitivity. The Bartolucci family has strong Italian roots and had always enjoyed cultural staples, such as pasta, leaving Bartolucci to wonder if there was a way her daughter could still consume these foods.
“Gluten-free products are not as nutritious as whole-wheat, and they’re harder to bake bread with,” says Bartolucci. “I felt like maybe there was some other type of wheat for her out there.”
In 2007, Bartolucci’s search led her to food scientists in northern Italy who told her about einkorn, an ancient wheat that was first domesticated more than 10,000 years ago. Initially, the prospect seemed promising. Bartolucci found that einkorn had lower gluten levels than modern wheat cultivars, and it hadn’t been hybridized with other species. Plus, it’s packed with more protein than modern wheat and contains plenty of B vitamins and minerals, such as iron. Unfortunately, einkorn was close to extinction.
Rolling fields of einkorn stretch across portions of Italy again, where the grain was grown primarily for animal feed after advances in wheat breeding following WWII.
Photo by Jovial Foods
“It started to disappear when spelt came around, which is the ancestor that got transformed into modern bread wheat,” Bartolucci says.
As the Green Revolution consumed America in the decades following World War II, researchers found ways to develop new cultivars of wheat that grew faster and closer together. Bartolucci says einkorn continued to lapse into history, because the plant is comparatively low yielding and more challenging to harvest. More recently, einkorn has been used by small farmers in France, Italy, and Morocco for animal feed, and it still grows wild in regions near Turkey.
By 2008, Bartolucci was collaborating with a farmer in Tuscany to grow 100 acres of einkorn. After a few years, she had teamed up with additional farmers in Italy to grow more, and began experimenting with various ways to use the grain. Today, Jovial Foods is the largest producer of einkorn in the world, working with farmers across Italy who now plant about 3,500 acres.
“Einkorn isn’t the kind of grain anybody can grow and make a huge profit,” Bartolucci says. “You have to be passionate about it and believe in it. It’s a magical thing to think we’re growing the oldest grain there is in the world.”
A Healthier Wheat
Einkorn means “one grain” in German, as the plants bear a single grain on each spikelet (unlike other wild wheats, which carry four). The plant is diploid, which means it has two sets of seven chromosomes from each parent. Today’s wheat has additional chromosomes, ranging from 28 to more than 40. While einkorn grows tall with a robust root system, most wheat consumed by Americans is short in stature, with shallow roots and high grain yields.
Bartolucci notes this difference between einkorn and modern wheat: The latter sacrificed flavor for maximum output. Einkorn has a distinct flavor, something that hasn’t changed for thousands of years.
Tiny einkorn grains carry quite the complement of nutrients and minerals when compared with modern wheat.
Photo by Jovial Foods
According to a 2016 study, “Nutritional Properties of Einkorn Wheat,” einkorn has a “high content of protein, phosphorus, and potassium, compared to other types of wheat.” The study indicates that einkorn is also rich with carotenoids, which are commonly found in vegetables and fruits, but not as often in cereal grains. “Carotenoids have medicinal properties that help in prevention of serious diseases such as cancer,” the study states.
Einkorn is high in thiamine and other B vitamins, as well as dietary fiber. Bartolucci also says einkorn’s reduced gluten levels could make it suitable for people with gluten sensitivities, especially when made as a sourdough bread. Her daughter still can’t tolerate modern wheat cultivars, but has been consuming einkorn for more than 10 years. While it has lower levels of gluten, einkorn is not recommended for people with celiac disease.
Baking with Einkorn
When Bartolucci began cooking with einkorn, her search for recipes yielded little information. She knew she was going to have to start from scratch. So, she began experimenting in her kitchen, cataloging what worked and what fell flat. In 2014, she compiled her findings into a cookbook, Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat, listing 100 einkorn recipes that she designed or helped create. “It was all a learning experience, because everything is totally different about einkorn,” she says.
That’s partly because einkorn has less fat than modern wheat. Bartolucci says einkorn recipes typically need about 20 percent less water when compared with the equivalent recipes that use modern wheat.
Because of einkorn’s lower gluten levels, Bartolucci says kneading vigorously is unnecessary, too. Kneading too much could actually prevent the weak gluten from bonding. Mixing lightly by hand does the trick, producing a very sticky dough. Over-proofing is also something to watch out for.
Photo by Adobe Stock/sriba3
“When making cookies and muffins, you need to cut back on the fat, such as butter, because it doesn’t absorb as much,” she says. “It’s also helpful to increase the number of eggs, because there’s not as much starch in einkorn.”
Einkorn offers intriguing flavor in a high-nutrition package that’s well worth adjusting your favorite recipes to use. Now that it’s been rediscovered, it seems likely to remain on the shelves of low-gluten alternatives to modern wheat. If you want to try making your own low-gluten bread, try our Einkorn Sourdough Starter and Bread, or whip up a batch of Einkorn Waffles.
Jonathan Olivier is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Outside, Backpacker, Mother Earth News, and other national publications. He primarily writes about the environment and how humans interact with the natural world.