Teff, a tiny grain with a lengthy history, is trending huge in the 2019 food industry. Popularly used in traditional Ethiopian cooking for thousands of years and still a staple of African cuisine today, teff’s spot in the modern limelight follows the trajectory of the other ancient grains we have been following in our ongoing “Trending Seeds and Grains” series. We have already learned that the tiniest of seeds can pack a nutritional punch and adds truth to the saying that good things really do come in nature’s small packages… But there is a reason why teff is quickly rising the charts, becoming a star ingredient among chefs and a featured dish in a growing number of U.S. restaurants. So, let’s sink our teeth into the culinary nitty-gritty and find out what trending teff is all about.
Small But Mighty
Measuring less than 1 mm in diameter, teff is said to be the smallest grain in the world! So small, in fact, that its endosperm and bran germ cannot be separated and it can only be consumed whole (think poppy seeds…). Yet while it would take approximately 100 teff grains to measure up to the size of one kernel of wheat, its calcium content exceeds that of all other grains and it boasts a larger percentage of bran and germ. This makes teff a bona fide source of dietary fiber, iron, protein, and manganese, a mineral that plays a critical role in bone health.
Teff Nutritional Advantages
However, this are only the tip of the tongue when it comes to teff’s nutritional assets. Recognized as a ‘super food’ in both ancient and modern times, teff is gluten-free and dairy-free, allowing you to include it in recipes for your lactose- and gluten-intolerant customers. Furthermore, a single cup of cooked teff yields a remarkable 80% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron, 32% of the RDA for calcium, contains 13% protein (equivalent to one extra-large egg), and a host of other micronutrients (i.e. phosphorus, copper, zinc, thiamin). This makes it a great plant-based alternative to meat and really the ideal food for any health-conscious individual.
Why Teff is Trending
If the foodservice professional in you has been paying attention, you may have already picked up on some familiar rumblings connecting ancient teff to modern food industry standards. (Do the terms ‘all natural,’ ‘organic,’ ‘clean label,’ ‘local,’ and ‘sustainable’ ring a bell?)
The fact is that the widespread acceptance heirloom seeds and grains have been experiencing among the American public is in no small part due to how well they satisfy consumers’ increasing hunger and thirst for the following:
- Healthier food and beverage choices
- Ingredients that are natural, organic, pure, and that appear on authentic, transparent clean labels
- Products that are gluten-free, wheat-free, nut-free, dairy-free, meat-free, sugar-free, preservative-free, additive-free, and non-GMO
- Locally grown foods
- Foods produced using ecologically-sensitive methods in environmentally friendly conditions
Teff Popularity a Natural Progression
Since connecting with your customers and meeting their demands is the bread-and-butter of your foodservice business, let’s do a taste test to verify if teff checks out. Healthy, all-natural, organic, and pure? Check. Plant-based and ‘free of…’? Check. Sustainably produced and grown? Here is what we know:
- Until recently produced almost exclusively in Ethiopia, teff is now grown locally in the U.S. and elsewhere
- Tiny in size, it easy to cultivate and spread across fields
- Able to survive both wet and dry climates, including drought and waterlogged conditions, teff grows well almost anywhere
- Producing a fair amount of organic material for the soil and helping break the pest cycle, the crop is a welcome addition to farmers’ plant rotations
In the words of biochemistry professor John C. Cushman, Ph.D., at the University of Nevada where teff has been tested: “It’s a dual-purpose crop. You get this high-value, nutritional, desirable grain (for human consumption), and then you have the grass that can be harvested as forage or fodder, just like alfalfa.” He also suggests using teff as a crop alternative to alfalfa as its grain is superior for human consumption.
Ancient Grains Tell a Story
Ancient grains and their rich histories tell a story that today’s consumers want to hear. Current trends indicate that especially among millenniums, today’s largest eating-out demographic, diners want to connect personally with the foods they order by reading about their origins, learning about their histories, and having an authentic culinary experience. They are also willing to pay top dollar for ‘getting a feel for the real deal.’ So be sure to provide your customers with the 411 on teff, offer them some delectable teff dishes and desserts to choose from – and you will have a sure-fire recipe for success.
The History of Teff
Speaking of stories and ancestral heritages, teff’s history tells a fascinating tale. Native to Ethiopia and Eritrea, teff has been a food staple as well as a cultural symbol for over 2,500 years. One of its most popular applications is in making injera, a tart, spongy, fermented flatbread consumed by millions of Ethiopians each day. Moreover, due to its high mineral content, it was once the go-to energizer for long-distance runner and endurance athletes.
Why has teff only recently made its culinary debut in the United States and elsewhere in the world? This is due to the export ban the Ethiopian government put on their prized crop in efforts to protect its domestic supply and keep the grain affordable at home. Explained by Khalid Bomba, the chief executive of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, the intent of the ban was to avoid a repeat scenario of what happened when international interest skyrocketed for quinoa, another super grain: “We don’t want to be in a situation similar to Latin America where they started exporting quinoa and then all of a sudden the local population couldn’t afford it. We’ve learned the lesson of quinoa, and that’s just not going to happen in Ethiopia.”
Fast-forward, and a few years ago the government introduced a program to assist Ethiopian farmers in improving the efficiency of their teff production methods, i.e. teaching them to plant the grain in rows and use fewer seeds to obtain a higher yield. The program was so successful that the country’s nationwide production increased by almost 40%, creating a surplus. Under these conditions, said Bomba, the agricultural agency felt ready to ‘dip its toes’ in the international market by allowing a limited number of farmers to export teff to the U.S. and other countries.
Today, the teff market is at an all-time high and the grain is being manufactured around the globe, allowing consumers everywhere to enjoy the grain’s pleasant earthy and nutty flavor.
How to Cook and Bake with Teff
If you have worked up an appetite for some recipe and dish recommendations, your taste buds are about to be pampered with a menu of ideas on how to cook and bake with teff. For starters, since it’s a relative newcomer, here is how the ancient-new-again grain looks: Teff naturally comes in ivory, dark brown, or black, with each color offering a distinct flavor ranging from bitter to semi-sweet.
Teff can be consumed on its own, as a flour, as a breakfast porridge, mixed with other grains, added to vegetables and stews, as a gluten-free substitute for breadcrumbs, as a binding agent in meat and vegetable burgers, and to make crusts. Teff is also increasingly appearing in cake/brownie mixes and in snack products such as crackers.
You can use teff flour to make pancakes, waffles, muffins, scones, breads, and bread varieties such as banana bread and cinnamon bread. Teff adds a fine, fluffy texture to recipes, and you can incorporate versatile teff flour into your baking by following these guidelines: For the best results, replace 25%-50% of the flour called for with teff flour, allowing it to lend its unique taste without overpowering other flavors (Warning: Using 100% teff flour in recipes can result in dough akin to wet sand and crumbly/gritty baked goods).
Cooking and Storing Teff
Prepare plain teff as follows: Combine 1 cup of teff with 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to simmer, and cook until water is absorbed (approximately 20 minutes).
Teff can be stored in the freezer for up to 12 months or for six months in an airtight container in a cool place.
Finally, having whet your appetites and hopefully tantalized your taste buds, here is a recommended teff recipe to experiment with. Enjoy!
Oat Teff Pancakes
A gluten-free pancake featuring teff and oat flours.
- 1/2 cup oat flour
- 1/2 cup brown teff flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tbsp. melted butter
- 1/2 cup cooked brown teff
- In a mixing bowl, combine oat flour, teff flour, baking powder, and salt.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, and butter.
- Fold in cooked teff. Set aside.
- Heat skillet on low to medium-low heat (grease if required).
- Pour batter in small (¼ cup) circles onto skillet. (Add 1-2 tbsp. of milk to thin the batter if necessary)
- Cook for 1-2 minutes, until pancakes begin to slightly bubble. Flip and cook for another 1-2 minutes until pancake is cooked through.
- Serve with (optional) butter, maple syrup, or a fresh berry topping.