While obsessively researching wheat on the web, my husband Michael came across a description of freekeh, or Gruenkern (pronounced groon cairn), that is, green wheat. It is apparently something of a craze in certain foodie/grainy circles of people and a traditional food in both the Middle East and a few villages near Wurzburg, Germany; go figure. So when we had a small weedy stand of Warthog hard red winter wheat in one of our gardens that was not doing well we decided to harvest it and try our hand at making freekeh.
There are slight differences in the way the green wheat is processed in Germany and the Middle East according to the websites we researched. We tried both ways, albeit in an improvised fashion. Both cultures harvest the wheat at the dough stage; when you squeeze a grain it ruptures into a thick cream, kind of like toothpaste or a little harder.
This is roughly how the Germans make Gruenkern: The heads of wheat are removed from their stems and the whole heads are roasted over a slow fire in a steel pan or pot until they are lightly toasted, stirring to keep them from scorching. We mimicked this by toasting the heads on two cast iron skillets over low heat on our stovetop. When the heads were golden brownish, we removed them from the heat. Germans generally make Gruenkern out of spelt.
People in the Middle East use durum wheat for making freekeh. After harvesting, they dry the wheat heads still attached to their stems in the sun, then make a pile out of them. They set the pile on fire and burn off the straw, leaving charred heads behind. Since we don’t have the right climate for this method we tried to mimic it by baking wheat heads in our oven at 250 degrees for an hour, then taking the oven roasted heads and tossing them in a large fine-mesh metal strainer over a wood fire for a few minutes to char the heads. This video shows a slightly different production method, but it is the same idea.
Once the toasted wheat heads were cool, we rubbed them between our fingers to separate the grain from the chaff. It is surprisingly easy to separate out the grain that way. The word “freekeh” derives from the Arabic word meaning “to rub”. We rubbed the wheat heads in a wire basket over a cookie tray to separate the biggest chaff from the grain and the finer chaff. The big stuff stayed in the basket, the grain and smaller stuff fell through to the cookie tray.
After we rubbed the wheat, we winnowed it out on our deck in front of a fan to remove the wheat grains from the chaff.
The photo below shows commercial freekeh we bought at a Middle Eastern grocery store on top, Gruenkern on the lower right and home made freekeh on the lower left.
We cooked both kinds of green wheat separately so we could do a taste test. We put ¾ cup of green wheat in a pot with 2 cups of water, brought the water to a boil, simmered for 10 minutes over low heat, then put a lid on the pot and simmered for 30 more minutes. If you purchase cracked freekeh it will cook more quickly. We let the cooked green wheat rest covered for five minutes.
Taste test results- the freekeh was more crunchy, flavorful and smoky than the Gruenkern. Both were good. Germans tend to use Gruenkern in beef soups or to make vegetarian burgers. They often toast the grains in a dry pan before adding them to soup and don’t precook them first. Freekeh is more often made into a tabouli salad or used in chicken dishes. We opted to try a salad with our homemade freekeh. We will use our Gruenkern tomorrow for a side dish with our usual stir-fried curry vegetables.
RECIPE: FREEKEH SALAD
- ¾ cup freekeh
- 2 cups water
- 1 peeled cucumber, seeded and diced
- 2 tomatoes, diced
- 1 cup parsley, minced
- ½ cup mint leaves, minced
- ½ cup finely chopped red or yellow onion (optional)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely minced or put through a press
- salt and pepper
- Place freekeh in pot with water. Bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Cover and simmer until tender, about 30 more minutes. Remove from heat when tender and still somewhat chewy. Cool.
- Toss in a bowl with cucumber, onion, tomato, parsley, mint.
- Mix together oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Drizzle over salad, toss. Eat at room temperature or chilled.