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  • Writer's pictureMcKenna

Ancient, Heritage, & Modern Grains

I used to fear Grains.

For years, I fell into the trap of "carbs are not necessary and if anything, should be avoided at all costs" (mind you, this was solely out of fear of gaining weight and looking a certain way - deep insecurities). I never purchased them, rarely consumed them eating out, and the idea of biting into a slice of bread was a thought I just couldn't fathom... funny how things change.

That said, the idea of baking bread did intrigue me. It felt challenging, artistic, like a form of self-expression that I had yet to tap into. I wanted to know more. So I started with the typical active, dry yeast, then soon progressed to the real deal - sourdough.

I dove head-first into the wide world of grains. I had a one-track mind that pushed out anything unrelated to these precious little plants. I started researching them, slowly appreciating grains for the incredible gift that they are, and then, I felt guilty for ever shaming the innocent seeds. You see, grains are the backbone of our food systems and were a pillar of many ancient civilizations. Communities relied heavily on grain for food and income, while it served as a form of connection, within families, villages, and towns, eventually extending much further.

Grains give us insight into traditional culinary practices, international agriculture, and offer a means of connection to the past, especially today, in a world of mass-produced, quick foods.

So, I want to unpack these seeds as they're a critical piece in our history, and for those interested in baking sourdough, they're a big piece of the puzzle. Arguably the most important... The type of grain you choose to bake with, as well as the quality of those grains, can drastically influence the result of your bread, both physically and nutritionally speaking.

But if you take just one thing away after reading this, I hope it's that grains shouldn't be feared. Food in general shouldn't be feared. They serve a purpose, whether that's on a nutritional or social level and I hope that we can further appreciate these plants, instead of singling them out of shame (no one likes that).

Classifying Grains:

The community of grains can be categorized in many different ways. By botanical definition, processing technique, nutrition content, cultural significance, and more. For today's sake, we're taking the historical route.

Traditionally, grains have been categorized as Ancient, Heritage / Heirloom, or Modern based on how they've been cultivated and consumed over time. Each variety has slightly different characteristics, making them more or less preferable for certain uses in baking.

Baking ingredients on kitchen counter

Photo by Hailey Aitkins

Ancient Grains:

I think most of us could infer that Ancient grains are, well, ancient. Not modern by any means. What’s considered “ancient” though, may be different depending on who you ask. For ease, they’re grains that have been around for thousands of years and have remained largely unchanged by modern breeding techniques.

I like to think of them as the grandparents of grains, the ones who have been around the longest, are tough as nails, and certainly provide the most wisdom, or in this sense, nutrients. Einkorn, spelt, and emmer are some of the most notable ancient varieties and are at the heart of agriculture.

Despite their name, these grains are still out and about in the modern world thanks to the efforts of many farmers. They offer unique nutritional benefits and incredible flavor, piquing the interest of chefs and health-conscious consumers. I personally love to play around with these varieties while baking sourdough. They bring out an earthy, rich flavor that is nearly impossible to match with other grains.

Examples of ancient grain:

  • Amaranth

  • Barley

  • Einkorn

  • Emmer (Farro)

  • Kamut

  • Quinoa

  • Sorghum

  • Spelt

  • Teff

Heritage Grains:

Heritage grains, also known as heirloom grains, are a subtype of ancient grains given that they too are very old. However, not all ancient grains are considered heritage grains.

More specifically, heritage varieties belong to unique regions in their agricultural history, often tied to specific cultures. Since these grains have been growing in a specific area for a long period of time, they’ve genetically adapted to the local growing conditions.

sourdough boule ready to be proofed

Unfortunately, heirloom varieties have largely fallen out of favor against modern varieties. They're a bit more challenging to work with and sometimes require specific equipment or knowledge to mill or bake with. This makes it harder to produce these guys on a larger scale, especially when farmers are competing with mass-produced grain.

BUT, good news is coming!

There has been a slight uptick in the interest of these seeds as more and more people are becoming aware of the nutrients on their plates. Heirloom varieties bring a wide range of unique, hearty flavors and nutritional benefits since they're typically grown using traditional, sustainable farming practices, without genetic modification or selective breeding. These practices support soil health and biodiversity, which plants love! Not to mention, heritage grains are often processed using a stone mill, this helps to preserve the nutrients of the grain that are stripped away with modern, industrial practices (more on this coming next week).

Photo by Hailey Aitkins

Examples of heritage grain:

  • Kamut

  • Buckwheat

  • Red Fife wheat

  • Purple barley

  • Turkey red wheat

  • Sonora wheat

  • Marquis wheat

  • Rye

Sadly, many farmers prefer to cultivate modern grains as they’re easier to process and cheaper to grow, but they often lack the unique flavors and nutritional profiles of heritage grains. Their production has significantly slowed, becoming more and more limited over the years.

Now of course, there are still farmers growing these varieties today. They're often are those with a particular interest in maintaining agricultural diversity, to whom I think deserve a big round of applause.

Mixing flours in a bowl for sourdough

Using ancient / heritage grains in sourdough:

Each variety will require slightly different variations (I haven't experimented with them all so I can't speak for each one). However, a general place to start is by substituting a small portion of your all-purpose or bread flour with one of these, then watch, and record what you find.

For example, let's say you're baking two loaves with a total flour weight of 900g, replace about 100g of that with an ancient grain. I wouldn't go much more than this as these flours have a higher protein content and therefore, absorb more water. You could end up with a very dense, unpleasant taste.

Start small and consider adding a few extra splashes of water to the loaf in order to hydrate these guys. I recommend adding the water in stages, followed by a mix, to avoid overhydration and soupy loaf (been there).

Modern Varieties:

These grains are the newer, “up and coming” varieties that are most commonly grown and consumed today. These grains have morphed and changed over the years through modern breeding techniques like selective breeding, hybridization, and genetic modification. These practices are used to achieve specific traits like uniformity, increased yield, adaptions to local conditions, and disease resistance, among others.

While modern grain has undoubtedly contributed to the global food supply and helped to feed millions of people, there are some concerns about its potential health implications.

Examples of modern grain:

  • Certain wheat varieties

  • Corn

  • Rice

  • Barley

Modern grains (of course, not all) are commonly cultivated using monoculture farming practices, a type of agricultural practice that produces one single crop on the same soil for many seasons. The purpose of this is to maximize production at a cheaper cost. With this, comes a few downsides though.

Since the soil is exposed to the same crop year after year, aka the same nutrients year after year, the soil may become deficient in the nutrients it's not receiving. It's like you and I: if we were to consume the same foods every day for months at a time, even if those foods are highly nourishing, we'd only be getting the select nutrients those foods provide, potentially becoming deficient in the others we're not receiving. What could this result in? A greater risk of developing certain diseases. The same is true for soil.

The lack of nutrient diversity creates a weakened environment that then becomes susceptible to a range of diseases. As a result, large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are often required in an ironic attempt to "protect" the now very bare, sad soil. As you can see, it can become a neverending cycle. Grow the same crop over and over, and use chemicals to make it better.

Another common practice in growing modern grain is the use of Genetically modified seeds (GMO), a product that has largely been designed to resist certain pests, and herbicides, and / or acquire certain traits. Some people argue that the use of these seeds can negatively impact soil biodiversity and small-scale farmers. Others argue they can be a tool for sustainable agriculture and food security. But, that's a hefty topic for another day, in which I'd love to know if this is something you'd be interested in reading... :)

Final Thoughts:

I think it's important to note that despite the type of grain a farmer chooses to grow, i.e. ancient, heritage, or modern, he or she may still choose to partake in monoculture farming practices, use pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals, and process their grains in a way that further strips it of its nutrients. So yes, while these practices are more common in modern grain, they are certainly not limited to them.

All 3 varieties have their use in creating an incredible loaf of bread. Ancient and heritage varieties add depth to a loaf, packed with flavor and a nutritional profile that is hard to compete with. But above all, the way the farmer cared for their crops and how they choose to process the grain into usable flour, will ultimately determine the taste, texture, and nutritional punch of a slice of bread.

Because yes, if sourced well, and taken good care of, a slice of bread can indeed be a source of nourishment. ;)

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