Emmer is an ancestor of modern bread wheat and was one of the first domesticated crops. It was the main cereal crop in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs. Because of its lower yields and inferior bread-making qualities, emmer has been largely replaced by bread wheat. Emmer flour can be used to make bread, pancakes, and pasta. Whole or cracked grains (bulgur) can be added to soups or be used to cook porridge.
In recent years, emmer has experienced a revival in Europe. This is partly due to its characteristic taste but also because it is claimed to be healthier than common bread wheat. Nevertheless, the popularity of emmer is still far below the popularity of wheat and spelt. Grain yields are lower and the gluten quality of emmer wheat doesn’t match the gluten quality of bread wheat or spelt.
A brief history of emmer cultivation
The early days of bread-making
The invention of bread dates back roughly 10 000 years. The first people to bake leavened flatbreads were the people in Sumeria, in southern Mesopotamia. At approximately 6000 BC, the Sumerians found out that mixing old dough (sourdough) with the freshly-prepared dough will cause the dough to rise. But not any dough was able to hold onto the gas produced by the yeast naturally present in sourdough. Two grains proved suitable to produce leavened bread: the ancient wheat species emmer and einkorn.
The technology of breadmaking was passed on from the Sumerians to the Egyptians from where it spread to Greece and ancient Rome. Over the years, these civilizations refined the Sumerian breadmaking process to produce bigger and lighter loaves of bread. For the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, baking leavened bread was a sign of sophistication and superiority of their civilizations.
While the Egyptians produced leavened sourdough bread of excellent quality as early as 3000 BC, the Chinese started to figure out dough fermentation a few thousand years later during the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 CE). Just as for the Middle East and Europe, the step from a primitive society that consumes whole grains to an advanced society that consumes refined and processed grains was seen as proof of the superiority of the Chinese civilization.
Why is emmer called the “Pharaoh’s wheat”?
The reason why we associate emmer with Egypt nowadays is that the Egyptians chose to cultivate emmer even though a new and superior wheat species appeared at the beginning of the Early Bronze age (3000 BC): free-threshing bread wheat. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great of Greece conquered ancient Egypt. Then the Romans arrived a few years later in 30 BC and took control over Egypt. The Greeks and Romans started replacing emmer with durum wheat.
However, emmer cultivation didn’t disappear completely in Egypt during Greco-Roman times. Great quantities of the harvest were imported to Rome. In the Roman empire, emmer was known as the “Pharaoh’s wheat”. In some areas of Italy, until today, emmer remains a popular grain to bake and cook with.
Nevertheless, bread wheat was the preferred and superior grain of ancient civilizations. From 1000 AD onward, hulled wheat species like emmer, einkorn, and spelt were replaced by free-threshing wheat species like bread and durum wheat over most of Europe. The Northern parts of Switzerland, Swabia, and Austria were an exception. In these areas, the soil was poor so that spelt wheat remained the major cereal until it was replaced by bread wheat in the early 1900s.
Today, emmer wheat covers only 1 % of the total world wheat area. It is still cultivated in Ethiopia, Iran, Eastern Turkey, Transcaucasia, the Volga basin, ex-Yugoslavia, Central Europe, Italy, Spain, and India. In the US, emmer cultivation was introduced in recent years on a small-scale as a specialty product. In Egypt, emmer cultivation has progressively disappeared over the years. The “Pharaoh’s wheat” is not grown in the country of the Pharaohs anymore.
Can emmer wheat be used to bake bread?
What kinds of bread can be baked with emmer flour?
Emmer flour can be used to bake bread. Baking bread was the main use for emmer wheat in ancient Egypt. But we have to consider that bread can take on many forms.
In Germany, when we think of bread, we typically think of something like this:
However, emmer bread baked in ancient Egypt and Rome didn’t look like this. Early breads made from emmer wheat were flatbreads. They were similar to a pita or focaccia. In the picture below, you can see how I imagine what ancient Egyptian emmer bread looked like. I call this flatbread “Pharaoh’s bread”. I will publish this and other recipes with emmer wheat in separate posts to keep the blog organized. Today’s post is all about the background knowledge and not about the recipes.
Nevertheless, you can find tall bread loaves made entirely from emmer wheat in Germany. The quality of the emmer flour that we bake with nowadays is obviously better than the quality of the emmer flour that was used by the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians. However, because of its lower gluten quality, emmer bread is denser than wheat or spelt bread. German-style sandwich bread made solely from emmer wheat is as dense as pure rye bread although its texture is reminiscent of wheat bread.
If you prefer a lighter loaf of bread, as I do, then you can mix the emmer flour with wheat or spelt flour. If you want to bake pure emmer bread, then I recommend you to take a look at Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Indian flatbreads. Flatbread is delicious and you can also stuff it with delicious fillings if you slice it open or use it as a taco wrapper.
Besides bread, emmer flour is also delicious in cakes and pancakes. Shortcrust pastry and other non-yeasted pie crusts can be prepared with it. And why not attempt a batch of German pancakes made from emmer flour?
The gluten quality of emmer compared to spelt and bread wheat
Just as einkorn and spelt, emmer contains more protein than wheat. However, the protein quality of emmer is poor compared to bread wheat. While modern spelt cultivars can almost match the gluten quality of bread wheat, that is not the case for emmer.
Emmer contains a higher percentage of functional proteins (30-39 %) than bread wheat (15-25 %). The functional proteins in wheat and emmer flour are albumins and globulins. They are not part of the gluten network. The gluten network is made up of the storage proteins: the gliadins and glutenins.
Besides having a lower gluten content, the ratio of gliadins to glutenins is higher in emmer. Gliadins plasticize (soften) the dough. Glutenins are responsible for the elasticity of bread dough. The more gliadins, which interrupt the glutenin network, are in your flour, the softer and weaker the dough.
|Wheat species||Gliadin to glutenin ratio|
|Bread wheat||0.75 – 2.5 to 1|
|Spelt||3 to 1|
|Durum wheat||4 to 1|
|Emmer||4.5 to 1|
|Einkorn||6 to 1|
As if that is not enough, the percentage of low molecular weight glutenins, which are associated with inferior bread-making quality, is higher in emmer than in bread wheat. Researchers believe that this is due to selective breeding of bread wheat to contain a higher percentage of high molecular weight glutenins, which increase dough strength.
What the gluten network in emmer looks like
It’s very easy for us to observe the gluten network at home. We can prepare a simple dough with flour and water and then remove all the other dough ingredients (mainly starch) by washing the dough with water. This is also an official method to determine the flour quality in bakeries or the food industry.
In a bakery, they weigh the washed gluten to determine the wet gluten content. Another parameter that typically gets determined is the gluten index. To determine the gluten index, the gluten network is placed in a coarse filter basket and centrifuged. The more of the gluten gets retained within the basket during centrifugation, the higher the gluten index and the better the baking performance.
For me, it’s not so interesting to know the gluten index or exact wet gluten content. My goal is to observe with my eyes what the gluten looks like.
I prepared three doughs made from wheat, spelt, and emmer. I hand-kneaded them until the gluten network was well-developed. In the picture below, you can see that all flours produced smooth doughs at a hydration of 58 %. The wheat dough was firm and seemed a little under-hydrated to me whereas the spelt dough was slightly sticky and softer. The emmer dough was as firm as the wheat dough although that is most likely due to its higher ash and protein content. The whitest emmer flour that I can get here is a Type 1300 with 12.7 % protein whereas my wheat flour was a Type 550 flour with 9.8 % protein. The spelt flour was a Type 630 with 12 % protein.
I was very excited that my emmer flour passed the windowpane test! The dough tore a little but I would consider this a solid gluten development.
Then it was time to wash the dough to reveal the emmer gluten. That was disappointing! Look what happened…
Compared to the gluten in the wheat and spelt dough, the gluten quality in the emmer dough was underwhelming. The gluten quality of the spelt almost matched the gluten quality of the bread wheat. The spelt gluten was softer and more extensible but it was smooth and didn’t fall apart.
What do we learn from this? While spelt is an ideal substitute for bread wheat, we shouldn’t expect any wonders from emmer when it comes to bread-making. This is not the stuff that baguettes or ciabatta are made of!
Important factors to consider when baking with emmer flour
The tips that I have given you for handling spelt dough are also valid for emmer dough. The most important things you need to consider when working with emmer are:
- The gluten network in emmer dough is much less resistant than in wheat dough. Knead the dough slowly and gently until it is stretchable. It’s ok if the dough tears a little while stretching it out thinly.
- Stabilize the dough by laminating or stretching and folding it a few times during bulk fermentation. Do this gently and don’t rip the gluten network.
- Prolonge the bulk fermentation and keep the proofing time short so that your bread doesn’t run wide in the oven. Oftentimes, emmer bread is baked in a loaf pan to solve this problem.
- Keep the dough firm. If the hydration is too high then the dough will be too soft and have no stability. To incorporate more water into the dough, it is advisable to pre-gelatinize a small amount of the flour by pouring boiling water over it.
- The stability of the dough can be improved by adding 2 % fat, dairy, or vinegar in relation to the flour weight to the dough. Acerola cherry powder (0.1 %) and Vitamin C (0.1-0.3 %) work even better but you need an accurate scale to measure the tiny quantities required.
- Just as for spelt, the acidity is more pronounced in emmer sourdough bread than in wheat sourdough bread. For emmer bread, it is enough to acidify 10 % of the total flour weight if you prefer a mild taste. Many people prefer emmer sourdough bread over spelt sourdough bread because of its sweeter taste that is due to the higher concentration of reducing sugars in emmer flour.
- Emmer flour is often blended with spelt flour. Both flours need to be kneaded gently because of their suboptimal gluten quality. They pair nicely and the spelt helps a lot with increasing dough stability and the loaf volume. Of course, emmer can also be blended with bread wheat flour instead.
Is emmer healthier than common bread wheat?
The general composition of emmer flour is not much different from that of bread wheat flour. Emmer flour contains fewer carbohydrates than bread wheat flour and is richer in proteins, minerals, and fat. From a nutritional point of view, the higher mineral content is what distinguishes ancient wheat species from common bread wheat.
|Nutrient||Emmer||Common Bread Wheat|
|Digestible carbohydrate [%]||70.5||72.4|
|Total fiber [%]||13.1||13.3|
Emmer wheat is rich in zinc, magnesium, and copper. Adding to that, emmer is a rich source of Vitamin E. If you have are deficient in any of these micronutrients, then consuming emmer instead of bread wheat might be a good idea. Other than that, emmer offers no additional health benefits compared to bread wheat.
Don’t expect any wonders from emmer wheat. Choosing emmer over bread wheat from a nutritional point of view is unjustified. Modern bread wheat is no less healthy than ancient wheat species!
The reason why we should consume more emmer wheat is its taste. Emmer has a sweet taste to it with an unmatched aroma. It’s a marvelous grain to consume if you are looking for more variety in your diet.