You may be hearing more about spelt lately, or seeing more spelt-based products on the shelves. Or perhaps you are like many other people these days that are taking interest in alternatives to wheat. This article will give you all you need to know about spelt, starting with: what is spelt?
What is Spelt? An ancient Grain.
Spelt (Triticum spelta) is an ancient grain, closely related to common wheat (Triticum aestivum). Spelt is considered an “ancient” grain because it is one of the oldest cultivated grains, dating back over 5,000 years – with some evidence of spelt consumption dating as far back as 8,000 years.
The history of spelt is complicated. Scientists still can’t confirm its exact origins, though it is generally thought to be a hybridization of a wild goat-grass (Aegilops tauschii) and the ancient grain emmer, another Triticum genus grain, originating in southeast Asia and later the middle east.
What is Spelt? A Wheat Alternative.
Due to the unique qualities of spelt, it has been gaining popularity as an alternative to wheat.
Spelt, also known as dinkel wheat or hulled wheat, is closely related to common wheat (Titicum aestivum), the modern version of wheat that is widely cultivated. Spelt, however, is in a different subspecies (Titicum spelta) and so spelt is by no means identical to common wheat.
Since spelt was not widely cultivated like common wheat, it was not subjected to the genetic modifications inherent in mass domestication. Spelt has not been altered over time to optimize its value as a staple crop like wheat has, so it retains much more of its original qualities. The heirloom nature of spelt also means that it is subject to far more genetic variability than common wheat.
Greater genetic variability means that the proteins and other nutrients in spelt can differ depending on where the crop is being produced. These differences are even more pronounced when compared to the nutritional profile of common wheat, which is much more consistent due to mass production of the same genetic strains.
Spelt can also contain a broader range of nutrients than other members of the wheat family. Some scientists suspect that the variable protein and nutrient mixture in spelt is why it tends to produce a much lower risk of allergic response, e.g. celiac, than wheat, even though the two grains are in the same botanical family.
From a nutritional standpoint, whole spelt and whole wheat are quite similar. Consumed in moderation, both contribute a healthy profile of macronutrients. It really comes down to your personal preference, but if you are looking for some historical precedent as to the health benefits of spelt, see our posts on Hildegard and spelt and Hildegard’s medieval diet.
What is Spelt? Not gluten free.
After “what is spelt”, the next most common question is: “is spelt gluten free?”. The short answer is “no”.
Spelt contains gluten protein just like common wheat, though wheat tends to be higher in protein and gluten – and the gluten in wheat is stronger and more elastic, which is why wheat is the preferred grain for breads and other baking, but also problematic for digestion and allergies.
The structure of the gluten protein found in spelt, however, is different than that of wheat. It is more fragile and water-soluble making spelt gluten is easier to digest but also more difficult for baking. The different gluten structure, along with the type of fiber and other unique properties of spelt may make it a better alternative for people who are not celiac but may have mild gluten sensitivity.
What is Spelt? A Hulled Grain.
Both spelt and wheat belong to the Triticum genus of plants, which consists of grasses that are cultivated for their seeds – otherwise known as “cereal grains.” There are 242 species of Triticum, but the most widely cultivated (by far) is what we call wheat or common wheat (Triticum aestivum.)
Because spelt and wheat are closely related many people will refer to spelt as a type of wheat, or even as “spelt wheat”, but spelt is different from wheat in many ways, most notably that it is a hulled grain, which is why it is sometimes called “hulled wheat.”
Hulled grains are those grains that retain the hull, or the thick inedible husk that surrounds the grain, upon maturity and harvest. In cereal crops like wheat, barley, oats, rice, and others, the grain kernel we eat is actually the seed of the plant. As the grain grows on the plant it is protected by this tough hull, sometimes called a husk that surrounds the seed to protect it from insects and the elements.
The removal of the hull is accomplished by either threshing, to loosen the hull for later processing, or by winnowing, to remove the hull entirely. In some grains, by the time the grain is mature the hull is already thin and fragile, rendering it easy to remove. In this case, little or no threshing is required and the grains can be simply tossed around in the air – or winnowed, to separate the hulls. In hulled grains, the husk is still fully intact, requiring threshing, a more intensive removal process.
Over the eons, common wheat has been bred such that the hull is thin and papery at harvest, thus reducing the processing time. Spelt, however, still has a strong husk at maturity, requiring more labor to prepare it for consumption. Hulled grains like spelt and it’s wheat-related cousins emmer and einkorn have not changed as much over time because they were not as widely cultivated due to their tough hulls.
Spelt is much the same as it was thousands of years ago, which is part of why this ancient grain is gaining popularity. Modern harvesting techniques have eliminated much of the difficulty of threshing, but more importantly, the tough hull means that the plant can be grown organically or with minimal pesticides much easier than wheat because the plant is naturally better protected against insects and pollutants. The strong hull also means the grain remains fresh and retains its nutrients longer after harvest.
What is spelt? It’s all in a name.
Part of the confusion around spelt is because it is called by several different names. Depending on geography and even mistaken identity, spelt can be dinkel, spelt wheat, or even farro. In our post: dinkel, wheat, or spelt, we talk about how this grain has acquired so many different names over the years.
Spelt is sometimes called farro because in Italy spelt can be a type of farro. Farro is actually an ethnic term, derived from Italian Latin that refers to a group of hulled wheat varieties – not a specific grain, prepared as a traditional dish. To add to the confusion, in Roman times spelt was referred to as Farrum. But in modern times Farro might refer to spelt (Triticum spelta), emmer (Triticum dicoccum), or einkorn (Triticum monococcum), depending on the region in Italy and the use.
In general, Italians consider “true” farro to be those preparations made from emmer. Farro can, however, be prepared with spelt, in which case it is called farro grande, referring to the larger size of the spelt berry relative to the other two farro grains, but generally speaking, farro is not spelt.
So what is spelt? Well, spelt is dinkel. Dinkel is more than just a river in Germany; it is the German name for spelt. When it was imported to the region from the Middle East somewhere after 1500 BC, primarily Germanic tribes cultivated it. So as it spread throughout Europe, the name dinkel remained.
What is spelt? A Versatile, Healthy grain.
Spelt can be used in many different forms. As flour, spelt can be used in baking just as you would use wheat flour. Spelt can also be consumed in its whole grain form, known as spelt “berries” in salads, soups, or hot cereals.
Spelt has a lovely, nutty flavor similar to barley. Spelt has more natural sugar than wheat so it can also taste slightly sweet depending on the preparation. Spelt is sold as flour and as whole berries and a number of brands are incorporating spelt into prepared products like bread, pasta, cookies, crackers, and even beer!
For some ideas on how you can incorporate spelt into your diet, see our spelt flour cookie recipe, spelt flour bread recipe, spelt flour coffee cake recipe, spelt four banana bread recipe, or even our spelt flour pizza dough recipe for some delicious ways to use spelt flour in baking.
In addition to the many ways you can use spelt flour, we have also compiled some great recipes that illustrate the versatility of this ancient grain. We have spelt breakfast habermus, spelt summer salad, and spelt tabbouleh salad recipes that highlight the slightly sweet and nutty flavor of the whole spelt grain or “berry.” We have also written about how spelt can be a healthy alternative to coffee by following our simple spelt coffee recipe.
Now that you know the answer to “what is spelt?” You may be wondering about the health benefits of spelt. See our post on the 8 soundbites on spelt benefits for a summary of the health benefits of spelt.
So what is spelt? It is a delicious whole grain that can be prepared in a wide variety of ways to enjoy a healthy meal.