Pronounced free-kah and sometimes called ‘farik,’ freekeh is one grain that is truly ancient. It has been a staple in Middle Eastern diets since the earliest of times, but like with many of the other heirloom grains and seeds we have been visiting in our series, freekeh has recently surged in the Western world, where it has smitten chefs and consumers alike.
So, what is it about freekeh that has captivated food lovers, and why are cooking mavens calling it the new super grain slated to knock quinoa and its counterparts out of the rice cooker?
Put down your spatulas, take off your oven mitts, clear the counters, and start getting a taste for all things freekeh.
With a name that truly sounds freaky, what do we know about this born-again phenom and what properties does it possess that has enabled it to rise to the top of the foodservice popularity charts?
First things first: Freekeh is a wheat – which means it is not gluten-free and should not be served to customers with gluten sensitivities or Celiac disease. Barring that, however, freekeh comes with a heaping-plateful of favorable assets, including a dense nutritional profile that is hitherto unmatched in the world of grains, pastas, and cereals.
Harvested young while it is still green, freekeh is roasted over an open fire, which burns off the surrounding chaff and straw. What is not burned, however, is the moist, firm, slightly chewy inner grain which is described as tasty with an earthy, slightly nutty and smoky flavor. Moreover, while it may be harvested young, it is more nutritionally-packed than any other mature grain and is said to ‘freekehly’ possess an unexpected amount of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. It is also low in fat and notably low on the glycemic index, which makes it an excellent choice for people managing diabetes or trying to keep their blood sugar levels steady.
And if all that wasn’t enough reason to sing freekeh’s praises, multiple studies have deemed it a heart-healthy, plant-based food that reduces the risk of heart disease, that may help lower blood pressure and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and that keeps you feeling full long after you’ve finished eating it, making it a smart choice for anyone on a diet or trying to maintain a proper weight.
Freekeh and Gut Health
In another claim-to-fame, whole grain freekeh is rich in prebiotics. Prebiotics are those indigestible fibers that are said to promote the growth of ‘good’ bacteria in your digestive system and more specifically in your gut. It also contains an insoluble type of dietary fiber, which adds bulk to food waste, helping it pass through your bowels more easily and efficiently.
Vitamins and Minerals
If we could ‘unpack’ freekeh’s treasure chest of vitamins and minerals, here is some of what we would find:
- Manganese, an essential mineral that helps reduce inflammation and regulate blood sugar
- B Vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and zinc – all of which strengthen bone and muscle health and contribute to overall health
- Antioxidants, which help defend the body against unstable free radical molecules that contribute to the development of chronic illnesses and degenerative diseases. In particular, freekeh contains the powerful antioxidants Lutein and zeaxanthin, which play a role in preventing age-related macular degeneration and in boosting eye health
Another heirloom grain from the wheat family which is trending in U.S. restaurants is farro. Featured prominently in Middle Eastern cooking for centuries and considered yet another nutritional cocktail, farro is available in three forms: whole grain, pearled, and semi-pearled (in the latter, some of the wheat bran has been removed, resulting in a more tender grain). A plant-based protein with a chewy texture, farro is vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, a good source of carbohydrates for diabetics, and is rich in fiber, iron, B vitamins, and zinc.
How to Cook Freekeh and Farro
Both grains are best prepared like pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add your selected grain. Boil (approximately 15 minutes for farro, 30 minutes for freekeh) until the grain is soft. Drain, cover, and let steam for about 10 minutes.
Not sure how to use these grains in recipes or add them to your restaurant’s menu? Here are some suggestions:
- Similar to pasta, both freekeh and farro make a delicious salad: Simply add your choice of vegetables, protein, cheese, lemon, and vinaigrette.
- Freekeh, lauded by chef’s for its chameleon-like versatility, can easily replace other grains called for in recipes. You can also add it to soups, casseroles, or enjoy it as a hot breakfast cereal instead. Note that it is available in two formats: whole and cracked, with the latter taking a shorter amount of time to cook.
- Farro makes an especially good risotto and is popular in Italian cooking. For an easy recipe, follow these directions: 1. Cook grain in water. 2. Sauté with chopped onions, garlic, and a little butter. 3. Add 1 cup of chicken stock or vegetable stock and let simmer. 4. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
How to Toast for the Most
Did you know that traditionally dry grains were toasted before cooking to intensify their flavor and to enhance the taste of the final product? Furthermore, since grains soak up the flavor of whatever is added to their cooking water, you can infuse new life into any dish with your choice of added herbs, spices, and aromatics. Some ingredients to consider adding while cooking farro and freekeh include: onion, garlic, shallots, celery, rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves.
To toast grains prior to cooking, you can either cook them in a dry skillet over medium heat (stirring often) until they are slightly brown, or spread grains on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven at 350°F until lightly browned (approximately 10-15 minutes). However, be careful not to over-toast and burn, in which case they will taste bitter.
The Future of Ancient Grains in Your Restaurant
The future of ancient grains in the food industry is looking bright, which means there are many good reasons for you to use them in your restaurant’s recipes and highlight them on your menus. As reported by the NDP Group, which provides expert industry analysis and market research advisory, case shipments of ancient grains to restaurants and foodservice outlets have experienced double-digit increases. In the words of Annie Roberts, vice president of NDP’s supply track: “The increasing popularity of ancient grains at foodservice outlets is partly due to consumer interest in the grains, but also because chefs appreciate the unique flavors of these grains.” Similarly, Geoff Stella, vice president of marketing at Ancient Grains, points out that cereal manufacturers have noticed the health halo associated with whole grains, while chefs are championing them for their versatility and flavor.
Farro and Freekeh Recipe
Ready to get your farro and freekeh out? If so then here are some ways to pamper your customers and try your hand at this delish recipe.
Moroccan Freekeh/Farro Salad
- 1 cup freekeh OR farro
- 4 large (or 6-8 medium) carrots, diced
- 2 tsp. olive or canola oil
- 1/2 cup sliced green onions
- 1 1/2 cup chopped spinach
- 3/4 cup garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
- 1/2 tsp. cumin
- 1/4 tsp. cardamom
- 1/4 tsp. coriander
- 1/8 tsp. black pepper
- 1/8 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp. clove
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup olive or canola oil
- 1 tsp. chopped garlic
- 1 tsp. salt
- Cook freekeh or farro. Drain, rinse, and cool.
- Mix together the spice blend.
- Toss carrots in spice blend with 2 tsp. of oil. Cook at 425F for 15-20 minutes.
- Mix dressing ingredients together.
- Combine freekeh/farro, carrots, dressing, and remaining ingredients in a large bowl and stir until well mixed.
- Bon Appétit!