If you've never heard of wheat berries, you're not alone. When I mentioned to a few people that I wanted to write about them, I received some quizzical looks. So, for anyone not familiar with this whole grain, let me end the suspense: wheat berries are simply individual kernels of wheat. They are what King Arthur and other grain companies mill to produce baking flours, from whole wheat to cake and all-purpose. And, just as there are many different types of wheat, there are just as many types of wheat berries, with their color ranging from light tan to a reddish brown. But the most important thing about wheat berries, at least as far as this post is concerned, is that they are scrumptious.
Other than a short stint in the 70s, when the health-food craze hit the United States, wheat berries have been mostly ignored in this country. This is a shame, as these plump and hearty grains are really worth experiencing. With a slightly nutty flavor and a mild chewy consistency, they are wonderful in soups, stews and salads.
My desire to cook wheat berries was born out of a decadent weekend away eating gooey homemade macaroni and cheese, King Ranch casserole, and plenty of breakfast sausage and bacon. After indulging, I craved something moderate and almost ascetic for my next dinner. But because I was starving when I shopped, I also yearned for something hearty and substantial. All this made me reach for a bag of wheat berries at the grocery store, along with, I'm embarrassed to admit, some andouille sausage. So much for an austere lifestyle.
Now before I detail how ridiculously healthy wheat berries are, let me reiterate that they are delightful to eat. Too often, people associate healthy foods with bland or disagreeable flavors (which I think has more to do with under seasoning and overcooking, but that's another story). Yet regardless of nutrition, wheat berries and other whole grains are worth eating simply because they have more complex and nuanced flavors than your standard jasmine or basmati rice. Yes, they're also healthier, but I'm no martyr (remember, I'm the one who bought andouille sausage for my minimalist meal): my real reason for eating wheat berries is because they have so much flavor.
Okay, here's the health info. According to a smarty pants nutritional study at Harvard, there is a "connection between eating whole grains and better health." Eating wheat berries and other whole grains lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. These grains additionally offer modest protection against colorectal cancer and also just keep everything moving along nicely -- yes, that is exactly what I mean. They are full of fiber, protein and iron. Oh, and did I mention they're really yummy? What more do you need?
Following are a few wheat berry recipes. The first two I've made and loved, and the rest are recipes I hope to try soon. But you don't have to have a specific wheat berry recipe to try this amazing grain. Just use it in place of brown or white rice for your next meal.
If you have a good wheat berry recipe, please share it in the comments section as I'm looking to expand my repertoire.
Cooking Wheat Berries
Wheat berries are great plain, but because you need to cook this grain before you can include it other recipes, you'll need to cook them ahead of time even if you're adding them to soups, salads or stews. Here are some basic instructions for cooking light wheat berries (which are more common than the darker red variety). If you purchase darker red wheat berries, you may need to soak them overnight, but just follow the package directions to be on the safe side.
Makes: 2 cups
1 cup wheat berries
3 cups water
1 tsp salt
1. Place all ingredients in a medium covered pot.
2. Bring water to a boil and then simmer for 45 minutes to one hour or until done.
3. Drain off any excess water.
Note: One day when I needed to leave the house for a bit, I simmered the wheat berries for a half hour and then turned off the heat and left the pot covered. By the time I returned to the house, the wheat berries were fully cooked and ready to use.
Popped Wheat Berries
One fun way to eat wheat berries is to pop them like popcorn. They're small, so the grains mostly just crack rather than pop, but after seasoning with some sea salt, they are nonetheless downright lip-smackingly tasty to nibble on. They are also a great addition to salads.
Unlike pop corn kernals, you need to first partially cook wheat berries to soften them before placing them in a hot pan. I usually just add extra wheat berries to a pot that I'm making and then pull them out after about 15 minutes of simmering (leaving the remainder to thoroughly cook through according to the instructions above).
Makes: 1/2 cup popped wheat berries
1/2 cup partially-cooked wheat berries (simmered for 15 minutes only)
1 tsp vegetable or olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Dry wheat berries on a dish towel or with paper towels to pat off the extra moisture from boiling.
2. Place berries in a dry pan on high heat (cast iron works great, but any steel or iron pan that is not non-stick will work well). The grains will now continue to dry in the pan. Be sure to continually shake or stir the grains so as not to burn them.
3. Once all the moisture seems to have evaporated (about 1-2 minutes), add in the oil and continue to shake the pan while the grains begin to pop. Once the wheat berries are mostly popped, remove them from the pan and season with salt.
4. Eat as a snack or as a topping for salads.
Wheat Berries Sautéed with Andouille Sausage, Asparagus and Almonds
This dish is like an eclectic group of friends. They're all unique apart, but together they work. Spicy andouille wants to be the star and steal all the attention, but her steady and charming friend wheat berries keeps her balanced, while fun-loving asparagus adds a loveable charm to the group. Meanwhile, nutty almond is cracking jokes. I agree that this analogy is a bit lame, but still, this is how this dish tastes.
Makes: 4 servings
2 cups cooked wheat berries
4 andouille sausage links
1/2 cup chopped raw almonds
4 scallions (the white and green parts)
6-8 asparagus stalks with the ends trimmed off and cut into 1/2-inch pieces.
1 tsp olive oil
1. Chop sausage into 1/2-inch pieces and cook in a medium-sized pan until thoroughly browned. Remove and place in a bowl.
2. Saute scallions in the same pan, adding a bit of olive oil if needed (although the sausage grease will most likely be sufficient). Remove from the pan when slightly crisp, placing in the same bowl as the sausage.
3. Brown almonds in the pan and then set in the sausage bowl.
4. Add oil to the pan and then saute asparagus for 2 minutes or until al dente.
5. Add cooked sausage and scallions, along with the browned almonds to the asparagus in the pan and then add in the cooked wheat berries. Mix thoroughly, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Other Wheat Berry Recipes