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Cooking Wheat Berries

by Elizabeth Skipper | November 26th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

wheat (400x400)I just cooked with wheat berries for the first time. Following the recipe, I cooked the wheat berries for almost 2 hours (simmering in broth).  They were excellent!  I was wondering if there is a quicker way to cook them or if I could put them in a crock pot, so I don’t have to spend hours waiting for them in the evening.

 Two hours seems like an awfully long time to cook, even for a hard grain like wheat berries. There are a few possibilities as to why your wheat berries took so long, and some remedies.

 Do you know whether they were hard or soft wheat berries? Hard wheat berries have more protein in the endosperm, the starchy part of the berry, than soft wheat berries do.

The former makes higher protein flour which is better for bread; the latter makes lower protein flour which is better for pastries and cakes. If you can find them, soft wheat berries don’t take quite as long to cook as the others. Your best bet is to look in a health food store.

 Have you any idea how old they were? If purchased in a store with low turnover, age might have been a factor; the older the wheat berries, the longer it will take them to cook. Perhaps you had them on hand for a while. Don’t buy more than you’ll use within a year.

 Did you soak them? For reasons both nutritional and culinary, soaking is a good idea. Whole grains like this contain both phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, which soaking breaks down, rendering the grain more digestible and speeding up the cooking time. Some claim it only cuts about 10 minutes off the cooking time, so why bother? Though it requires a little forethought, I think it’s worth it for nutritional reasons alone. In addition to making them more digestible, soaking increases the amounts of many vitamins, including B vitamins, and breaks down gluten and other difficult-to-digest proteins.

 Soak wheat berries with cold water to cover, and add a couple of tablespoonfuls of a neutralizer such as whey, whole milk yogurt, kefir, or buttermilk. If you’re avoiding dairy, use lemon juice or mild apple cider or Japanese rice vinegar. These help break down the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Drain off the before adding the liquid you’ll cook the wheat berries in.

 The kind of pot makes a difference. The heavier the pot, the greater the heat retention, which will speed things up a little. A tight-fitting lid keeps moisture from evaporating, so they don’t dry out. If that does happen, be sure you add more boiling liquid, not cold.

 Certainly you can use a slow cooker to prepare wheat berries. Soak them and then cook them on low for eight to twelve hours. A sturdy grain like this can take long cooking (as you’re already aware!), so the first time you try this, plan on the maximum amount of time, and begin checking at the eight-hour mark. I think you’ll find they take at least ten hours.

 On the other end of the spectrum, if you have a pressure cooker, you can use that. Lorna Sass, in her book Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure, gives a cooking time of 35-45 minutes, using 3 cups liquid to 1 cup wheat berries. I think if you’re soaking, the shorter time is probably about right.

 Did you add salt during the cooking? They’ll take longer cook if the water’s salted – add it after they’re done. Toasting the well-drained grains before cooking will enhance their flavor, too, although it will increase the cooking time.

 Lastly, consider cooking up a large quantity at one time. These will keep refrigerated for a week, and will freeze well. Put them up into individual portions – freezer bags store nice and flat – and defrost what you need when time’s short. Although they’ll still be wholesome for longer, use within a month or two for best quality, so be sure to label with the contents and date.

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