Move over, quinoa and faro, there's a new supergrain in town. Freekeh has similar nutritional value to many other so-called ancient grains (i.e. healthy as hell), but it's also imbued with a smoky flavor and satisfying chewiness that is unique. In other words, you should buy it. Here's everything you need to know — along with a recipe for a Freekeh side dish.
What Is it?
Freekeh is wheat that is harvested while still young and green, then toasted and cracked. Its name roughly translates to “rubbed,” a term that relates more to preparation method than anything else, as the burnt skin was once rubbed away by hand to reveal the toasted grain beneath. A staple of early Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine since as far back as 2,000 B.C., freekeh is still common in these regions today.
What does it taste like?
Smoky and slightly nutty. “The smoke notes aren’t overpowering, but they’re just enough to make it one of the most robust grains. So it works well with — and stands up to — bolder flavors,” says Ann Taylor Pittman, Executive Editor of Cooking Light and the author of Everyday Whole Grains: 175 New Recipes, From Amaranth to Wild Rice. This flavor is one of freekeh’s biggest draws, as it brings more complex notes to otherwise plain salads and bowls. Another draw? Its texture. Pittman says the best way to describe it is as beefed-up bulgur. “It’s chewy, but not impenetrable in the way that some bigger grains can be,” she says.
Why is it so healthy?
As is the case with most whole grains, freekeh is a complex carbohydrate that’s low in fat and high in both fiber and protein. In fact, it has more protein and nearly twice as much fiber as quinoa and is one of the most satisfying grains around. Nutrient-wise, it’s jam-packed with iron, calcium, and zinc.
Another benefit? “As an ancient grain, it’s different in makeup than modern wheat and, as such, some folks tolerate it better,” says Pittman. Freekeh is what Pittman refers to as a “gateway grain,” in that its approachable flavor and texture make those less likely to dig into health food pile it on their plates.
Okay, so how do I cook with it?
“It’s incredibly versatile, holding up well in soup, working beautifully for a grain bowl or pilaf, where its texture stays nice and separate,” says Pittman. She adds that freekeh can also step in to replace some of the meat in traditional recipes, recommending a 1:1 ratio of meat to freekeh in everything from pasta sauce to sloppy joes.
For some inspiration, Pittman provided a recipe for a hearty side dish featured in her book.
Freekeh with Chard and Roasted Carrots
3 medium carrots
12 oz of Swiss chard
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
½ tsp kosher salt, divided
¾ cup finely chopped onion
½ tsp cumin
1 ¾ cup unsalted chicken stock
1 cup uncooked cracked freekeh
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Assorted fresh herbs (such as basil parsley, basil, and oregano)
1. Preheat oven to 425°.
2. Cut carrots in half lengthwise; cut each half into 1½-inch-long pieces. Cut thicker pieces in half lengthwise. Remove leaves from chard stems; tear leaves, and set aside. Cut stems into 1½-inch-long pieces; set aside. Combine carrots and 1 tablespoon oil on a small jelly-roll pan; toss to coat. Cover pan with foil. Roast at 425° for 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven (leave oven on). Add chard stems to pan with carrots; sprinkle with ⅛ teaspoon salt, and toss to combine. Roast, uncovered, at 425° for 12 minutes or until tender.
3. Heat a large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil; swirl to coat. Add onion; sauté three minutes. Add cumin; sauté 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add stock and freekeh; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Add chard leaves; cover and cook 5 minutes or until chard wilts. Stir well to combine. Stir in ⅜ teaspoon salt and pepper. Add carrots and chard stems; toss gently to combine. Top with herbs, if desired.