Spelt is an old-world hulled wheat species that is closely related to common bread wheat. Spelt flour can be used as a substitute for wheat flour in bread, cakes, pastries, and pasta. European spelt is the only cereal that originated in Western Europe. Between the 12th and 19th centuries, spelt was one of the major cereals of Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland before it got replaced by higher-yielding bread wheat.
Over the last years, spelt has experienced a revival in Europe because of increased consumer interest. Spelt is more flavorful than bread wheat and easier to digest. However, spelt promises lower yields than bread wheat and requires an additional processing step: hulling. Because of this, and because it is a niche product, spelt flour is more expensive than wheat flour.
In the graph below, you can see the decline of spelt cultivation (red line) in Swabia in favor of bread wheat (blue line) in the early 20th century.
To counteract this trend, breeders have optimized old spelt cultivars over the last centuries to be more closely related to bread wheat. The main goal of this selective breeding is to match the yield and baking characteristics of bread wheat to make spelt more appealing to farmers, bakers, and the food industry. Therefore, some modern spelt cultivars are hard to distinguish from bread wheat whereas some old cultivars show big differences.
Newer spelt cultivars are less flavorful than old cultivars but they are better suited to bake bread or to make pasta. They also show higher yields, have a reduced plant height to minimize lodging, and possess a better protein quality.
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What are the differences between spelt and wheat?
The gluten quality of spelt flour is inferior to the gluten quality of wheat flour
The main factor determining the strength and baking properties of wheat and spelt flour is the protein quality. Spelt flour contains more gluten proteins than wheat flour but it doesn’t have the same superior breadmaking quality. This is because the ratio of gliadins to glutenins is lower for bread wheat than for spelt. Glutenins give the dough elasticity whereas gliadins act as plasticizers that weaken interactions between the crosslinked glutenin chains.
Glutenins are a group of heterogeneous low and high molecular weight polymers. A high ratio of high molecular weight to low molecular weight glutenins is associated with increased dough strength and superior glutenin quality.
The glutenin-B1 gene encodes the high molecular-weight glutenin subunit Bx17. This glutenin subunit is associated with superior breadmaking quality in bread wheat. The glutenin-B1 gene in spelt differs from the glutenin-B1 gene in wheat and thus the glutenin quality of spelt is inferior to the glutenin quality of wheat.
To summarize, there are two main reasons for the inferior gluten quality in spelt compared to bread wheat:
- Spelt has a higher ratio of gliadins to glutenins than bread wheat. Gliadins plasticize (soften) the dough.
- The glutenin quality in spelt is lower than in bread wheat because spelt is lacking genes that are associated with superior breadmaking quality in wheat flour.
While there is a nonsignificant correlation between protein content and breadmaking quality in bread wheat flour, there is no such correlation in spelt flour. If you purchase spelt flour, never ever be misguided if anyone advertises a certain protein content to you. More is not better! It’s all about the gluten quality as I have already discussed in detail in my post about strong wheat flour.
Why are spelt doughs stickier than wheat doughs?
One of the most common claims that I have heard bakers make is that spelt flour absorbs less water than wheat flour. This is false. Most spelt flours can absorb more water than wheat flour. The stickiness and plasticity of bread dough are not only influenced by its water absorption capacity but by multiple factors. I was enraged when I saw that Google gives us misinformation on this topic!
Less water is needed to form batters and doughs from spelt flour because spelt doughs are softer thanks to the higher amount of gliadins that act as plasticizers. A spelt dough at 60 % hydration is softer and stickier than a wheat dough at 60 % hydration but it hasn’t absorbed less water than the wheat dough.
Water absorption in flour is complex and depends on multiple factors. Among the most important factors that influence water absorption in flour are:
- The particle size of the flour. Fine flour particles of about 20-30 µm have a negative impact on water absorption whereas particles larger than 100 µm in diameter are positively correlated with water absorption.
- The higher the protein content, the more water flour can absorb.
- The higher the starch content (particularly damaged starch), the more water flour can absorb.
- the higher the content of pentosans or arabinoxylans (particularly of the water-soluble fraction), the more water flour can absorb.
Gluten proteins possess a much higher water-binding capacity than starch. Spelt flour has a higher protein content than wheat flour. Therefore, most spelt flours can absorb more water than wheat flours. However, higher water absorption of flour doesn’t make bread airier!
If a miller wants to increase the water absorption of his flour, then he can mill it more coarsely. A coarsely-milled flour has a superior water absorption compared to a finely-milled flour. It is less sticky. However, the quality of the gluten network of the coarsely-milled flour is worse because larger particles are detrimental to the development of a strong gluten network.
Assuming the particle size is identical, we can add more water to wheat flour than to spelt flour because wheat doughs are less sticky and firmer at higher hydrations thanks to their superior gluten quality. Dough stickiness is a complex phenomenon. The stickiness of bread dough depends on its water absorption but it also depends on the dough rheology and structure.
A high ratio of high molecular weight glutenins to low molecular weight glutenins, as in wheat flour, decreases stickiness. Gliadins, which spelt flour contains in a larger proportion than wheat flour, are monomers with a lower molecular weight than glutenins. The gliadins can’t form an extensive network. Gliadins get in between the glutenin molecules and plasticize (soften) the gluten network. The more molecules of low molecular weight are in the flour, the stickier it tends to be. A well-developed gluten network with a large proportion of high molecular weight glutenins, and a low proportion of gliadins, makes bread dough less sticky.
Spelt flour can typically absorb between 60-70 % water. Thus we would assume that it can easily handle hydrations of around 65 %. But that is often not the case. The optimum hydration for many spelt flours is lower than their water absorption capacity. Most spelt flours for breadmaking take between 58-62 % water before they become soft, sticky, and hard to work with.
Which spelt cultivars produce the best bread?
For spelt, we have to distinguish between old spelt cultivars (“UrDinkel” in German) and modern spelt cultivars. Among the modern spelt cultivars with superior breadmaking properties are:
These modern cultivars are more similar to bread wheat than old spelt varieties. They have a superior gluten quality.
However, many people claim that modern spelt cultivars lack the unique flavor and character of old spelt cultivars. An old spelt cultivar (“UrDinkel”) with good breadmaking properties is:
- Bauländer Spelz
Then there is a wide variety of old spelt cultivars with acceptable breadmaking properties and a subpar gluten quality. Some of the most common “UrDinkel” cultivars that are popular in Europe are:
- Oberkulmer Rotkorn
- Ebners Rotkorn
- Roter Tiroler
You can easily bake a tasty loaf of bread with these “UrDinkel” cultivars. However, baking with old spelt cultivars requires some special considerations and techniques that I will discuss in the next part of this post.
How to bake bread with spelt flour?
Working with spelt flour is more challenging than working with wheat flour. Spelt doughs are weaker, softer, and stickier than wheat doughs. Adding to that, the crumb of spelt bread can turn out unpleasantly dry as if the bread is stale if the hydration is too low. We call that “Trockenbacken” (baking dry) in Germany.
Therefore, baking with spelt flour requires special considerations and techniques:
- For whole grain spelt bread, at least 75 % of the flour should be finely-milled as finer flour can form stronger doughs than coarsely-milled flour. The remaining 25 % can be bran, seeds, grains, or flakes.
- If you want to bake sourdough spelt bread, no more than 10 % of the total flour weight should be part of the sourdough. Otherwise, the acidity in the resulting bread will be too pronounced. Pure spelt sourdough has a low yeast activity so that it is recommended to add Baker’s yeast to the final dough. If you don’t want to add Baker’s yeast to your bread dough, then it is recommended to work with a mixed sourdough of spelt and rye flour.
- The addition of dough improvers is recommended for spelt cultivars with subpar gluten quality. Especially the oxidizing agents ascorbic acid and acerola cherry powder work wonders when it comes to improving dough elasticity.
- Reduced water addition is recommended to keep the dough firmer and less sticky. However, this also results in a dry crumb. Therefore, more water should be incorporated into the dough by pre-gelatinizing a small amount of spelt flour with hot water. Gelatinized (cooked) flour can hold more water than raw flour. This flour paste is called “water roux” or “tangzhong” in English. In German, we distinguish between a “Brühstück” (brewed thing) and a “Kochstück” (cooked thing). To prepare a “Brühstück”, hot water is poured over the flour (or seeds, flakes). To prepare a “Kochstück”, the flour and water are heated in a pot until the flour gelatinizes and forms a thick paste.
- Gentle mixing and low dough temperatures (22-24 °C | 70-75 °F) are recommended. Spelt doughs are weaker than wheat doughs and less resistant to mechanical stress. However, the gluten network in spelt doughs takes longer to develop. Don’t rush the process when kneading spelt dough. You need to develop the dough gently for an extended amount of time. Short and intense kneading is not appropriate! Spelt dough is fully kneaded once the dough releases from the sides of the bowl and once the dough surface appears a bit brighter and drier than the inside of the dough.
- It is recommended to lengthen the bulk fermentation (first rise) for spelt doughs and to decrease the proofing time (final rise). Spelt dough has less stability than wheat dough. If you leave it to proof for too long in between shaping and baking the loaf, the dough might run wide and you will end up with a flatbread. A lamination step at the beginning of bulk fermentation helps to increase dough stability. To laminate a dough, you need to stretch it out on a work surface. Then you can fold it inwards from both sides to the center and roll it up. Watch the video that I have embedded you below for visual reference.
- Traditionally, many people in Germany prefer an even crumb with many small holes over an uneven and wild crumb. To achieve an even crumb in wheat bread, many bakers rely on a short bulk fermentation followed by an elongated proofing time. This doesn’t work for spelt doughs because they don’t tolerate long proofing times unless you bake the bread in a loaf pan. To achieve an even crumb and to elongate the bulk fermentation, it is recommended to punch down the dough (or stretch and fold it, laminate it) a few times during bulk fermentation to redistribute the gas bubbles and prevent the formation of any large gas bubbles. Stretching and folding, as well as lamination, also increase the dough stability and proofing tolerance.
How to make spelt noodles (pasta)?
Other than for bread, cake, or pastries, spelt flour can also be used to produce pasta. Of course, the most iconic noodles made from spelt flour are spätzle. However, “Italian-style” noodles are also traditional in Swabia. Noodle makers are ubiquitous in Swabia and they produce noodles that are at least as good as the Italian ones.
Spelt noodles made without eggs have a greyish color. They don’t look as beautiful as yellow semolina noodles. But this is something that I don’t care about because the noodle quality is defined by its texture, not by its color. If you don’t like the greyish color of spelt noodles, then add eggs to the noodle dough.
The main factors that influence the pasta texture are:
- The protein content and the gluten quality
- The drying process/ technology
Spelt cultivars with great breadmaking properties are ideal for producing spelt noodles. The better the gluten quality, the better the texture of spelt noodles. Noodles with a good texture are firm, elastic, and extensible. They possess a low or absent stickiness and bulkiness.
The lower gluten quality in spelt noodles than in semolina noodles can be compensated for by drying the noodles at high temperatures above 80 °C (176 °F). High-temperature drying produces a strong protein network that prevents starch granules from escaping the noodles during cooking. For achieving a good product when drying at high temperatures, a high gluten quantity is more important than a superior gluten quality.
Sun-drying spelt noodles is no good idea. In general, if you make spelt noodles at home, I advise you to not dry them. Homemade spelt noodles taste best freshly prepared from spelt flour with a good gluten quality. As for bread, the gluten quality is more important than the gluten quantity.
Spelt cultivars, with a good gluten quality, that are well-suited to produce fresh spelt noodles are:
What can I substitute spelt flour with?
Spelt flour can be substituted with wheat flour. Because spelt doughs are typically prepared with less water than wheat doughs, I advise you to add 5-10 % more water to the dough to compensate for the increased elasticity of wheat doughs.
If we bake bread, hydration is not a perfect indicator of the dough’s consistency. The content, composition, and gluten quality (+ other factors that I have discussed above) between flours differ, and thus not all flours behave the same at an identical hydration level. A spelt dough might be soft and sticky at 65 % hydration whereas a wheat dough is elastic and nonstick.
If I substitute wheat for spelt flour, then my main goal is to replicate the consistency of the spelt dough and not to copy its hydration. A bit more water is therefore often needed when I use wheat flour instead of spelt flour. Having said that, in most recipes, like for example spätzle or German pancakes, spelt and wheat flour can be substituted at a 1:1 ratio.
If you’ve never baked with spelt before, then I invite you to take a look at my spelt bread recipe. Baking with spelt flour is just as much fun as baking with wheat flour. I cook and bake with spelt all the time and I can only encourage you to give spelt a try. You will be amazed by this marvelous grain that the Germans refer to as “Schwabenkorn” (Swabian grain).