When corn and soybean prices tumbled in 2013, a 7th generation family farm on the outskirts of Detroit pivoted from growing these commodity crops on their 2,300-acre farm to cultivating alternative grains and seeds. The family decided to explore heirloom grains, which as the term suggests, are ancient grains passed from one generation to another and prized for their unadulterated uniqueness.

“We started growing teff in 2015 and have since experimented with oats, buckwheat and millet,” said Claire Smith, founder and chief executive officer, Teffola. “Starting in fall of 2020, the teff and buckwheat found in our granola is being sourced directly from our farm.

“Originally our goal was to mill teff into a flour and sell to Ethiopian restaurants for their traditional injera bread, which is a fermented flatbread similar in taste to sourdough,” Ms. Smith said. “We even got onto Amazon, but the traction and buzz just weren’t there.”

Then one day Ms. Smith put the whole teff grain into granola and loved the flavor. She called it Teffola and started selling it to friends and family, eventually branching out into farmers’ markets and local grocery stores.

“It’s nutty, hearty, rich and different,” she said. “Each grain has different levels of vitamins and minerals, amino acids, fiber and more. Heirloom grains also have a deeper, purer flavor since they haven’t been manipulated as much as your average wheat flour.”

Teff pairs very well with buckwheat and oats, Ms. Smith found, and is the base for the original Teffola. The newer Berry Burst variety is made with teff, oats and millet.

“Teff is high in protein and fiber and known for its high levels of calcium and iron,” she said. “It is the world’s smallest grain, at half the size of a poppyseed, which makes cleaning it very difficult. But because of the size, the entire grain is used, including the germ, endosperm and bran.”

Teff yields a dense flour. Ms. Smith recommended substituting 15 to 25% of flour weight with the brown or ivory teff varieties, which are nutritionally similar.

“Millet is a small round grain that is probably most known for being the main ingredient in bird food,” she said. “But it’s an excellent grain to add to your rotation due to the high amounts of protein and antioxidants. One mineral that it’s particularly known for is magnesium, which is key in heart health and cell tissue repair.”

This grain may be used to substitute a higher percentage of a formulation’s flour weight than teff because its flavor profile is lighter and brighter than teff. At higher percentages, there won’t be as much change in texture in the finished product.

Millet is used in Asia and North Africa to make a variety of flatbreads, sometimes blended with sorghum or other grains. Millet blends well with oats, sweet rice flour and tapioca flour.

Quinoa is a tiny, disk-shaped seed that is recognized as the only grain containing all of the essential amino acids in a healthful balance, rendering it a complete protein. It has an unusually high ratio of protein to fiber and is very high in potassium. This versatile light grain has a slight nutty flavor. 

“Quinoa flour can be used to replace wheat flour for gluten-free baking,” said Maria Tolchinsky, senior business development manager-global plant-based proteins, Ingredion Inc. “In gluten-free cookies, it can represent up to 100% of the flour. In other applications, like in gluten-free bread, it is best to blend the quinoa flour along with other gluten-free flours and starches to find the right balance of physical and organoleptic properties.”

The company sources a proprietary quinoa grain to make a specialty flour that is lower in amylose than other quinoa grains. This ingredient may improve the shelf life and freeze/thaw stability of some gluten-free products when replacing other gluten-free bulk flours. 

Amaranth was a staple of the Aztecs and is high in fiber and protein as well as multiple vitamins and minerals. It has a sticky, gelatinous texture and a nutty, slightly earthy and spicy flavor with peppery notes.

Barley is a gluten-containing grain that packs in the fiber, some of which is in the form of beta-glucan, a soluble fiber with recognized health benefits. Mildly flavored, the pearled variety is chewy, while whole barley is even more so.   

“Barley works well as a substitute in breads and traditional baked goods, like muffins, cookies and cakes,” said Paula Labine, marketing director, baking, milling and starch, ADM. “The gluten barley contains is crucial for the structural benefits needed to produce a good rise.”

Einkorn, emmer, farro and spelt are essentially the same grain. Names vary because of country of origin. Because of this grain’s low-gluten content, it is often favored by those who cannot tolerate wheat. However, because of the low-gluten content, this grain is not typically used in bread production. It contains about 40% more protein and 15% less starch than commercial wheat and is abundant in B vitamins and trace minerals, including iron. It has a nutlike flavor with a hint of sweetness, making it very versatile. 

 “We recently worked with a cracker company who explored using blue emmer in a new project,” said Joni Huffman, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Healthy Food Ingredients. “It’s almost like tasting wine when you try breads or crackers made with heirloom grains; they have more complex flavor notes that are derived from the higher level of tannins in the whole grain flours.”

Sorghum is similar to corn. This gluten-free grain cooks up like rice and is light in color with a slightly sweet mild flavor. 

ADM offers a sustainable and drought-resistant sorghum flour that is domestically sourced in Kansas and milled in a certified gluten-free facility. It contains resistant starch and other phytonutrients and has a neutral flavor that works well in a variety of applications.

“Among the largest of common cereal grains with a golden-brown color, triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye that is a little more than a century old,” said Vikram Ghosh, technical lead, The Annex by Ardent Mills. “With a subtle rye flavor and balanced sweetness, triticale is well suited for use in a variety of baked items and ideal for sweet and savory pastry applications.

“White sonora is an heirloom wheat with a buttery yellow color and a sweet flavor making it ideal for many recipes,” Mr. Ghosh continued. “The flour makes a stretchy dough and is great for bakers where the lasting sweet flavor and nutty texture is favored.”

Many heirloom grains are both desired and avoided because of their rich flavors and unique textures. Formulations might require flavor masking and taste modulation to create bakery and snacks that consumers prefer, without sacrificing any nutrients.

“Bakers wishing to experiment with heirloom grains have a lot of varieties to choose from, but they must remember they don’t replace wheat flour,” Ms. Labine said. “Understanding the technical aspects of each ingredient, such as protein levels, is necessary to uphold the structural integrity of breads and baked goods. Recipes will need to be adapted to balance flavor and texture, as well as to achieve the desired final product.”

Mixing and kneading times often need to be adjusted. Water content and hydration times are also likely going to change, as whole grain flours typically require more hydration.

“Start with your end goal and work back from that,” Mr. Trouba said. “Remember, more than ever before, consumers have the ability to choose foods that align with their individual values, whether that’s personal health, planetary health, supporting farmers, etc. Heirloom grains have the ability to reshape modern foods.”

This article is an excerpt from the December 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on heirloom grains, click here.