Jane Says: Is Farro Better Than Other Grains?

Farro is everywhere these days. Here’s why you might want to add it to your dinner table.

What is farro?

What is farro and why is it getting so much press lately? (Photo: Getty Images). 

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I feel like I'm seeing farro everywhere these days. Is it better than other grains?”

 —Paul Hogan

Whole grains have an image problem: As delicious as they are, they’re perceived by many as difficult or time-consuming to cook and, frankly, a little on the stodgy side. These days, too, their age-old health benefits get pushback from the anti-grain crowd.

But farro has sex appeal (it’s Italian!), and although some would say the grain is an overnight sensation, I beg to differ—I first had it in a New York City restaurant a good 25 years or so ago. Although hampered in part by scarce availability, farro (pronounced FAHR-oh) has since become the darling of chefs both in the United States and Italy, due, I think, to the ever-growing popularity of rustic Italian food.

Chefs prize it for its nutty flavor, delicate chew, and versatility, and I would wager that anyone who first experiences it in a restaurant soon finds himself or herself on the lookout for it at the supermarket, natural foods store, or big-box store. I’d hesitate to use the word “better” to describe farro—it’s so subjective—but it’s fair to say that it makes a great gateway grain.

So what exactly is farro? The clearest explanation (and the one most useful when shopping) I’ve found is from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011), by Maria Speck, who writes that the term farro is “commonly used when referring to three ancient wheat varieties first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent and still grown in Italy: farro piccolo (also known by the German einkorn), farro medio (also known as emmer, the Hebrew word for mother), and farro grande (also known as spelt).”

The imported Italian farro available in the United States is usually the emmer variety. It’s often semi-perlato, or semi-pearled, meaning it retains some, but not all of its bran and nutrients. Most recipes are written for this kind of farro; without any soaking, it cooks up fast, in about 25 minutes—a godsend if you are trying to put hot breakfast cereal or a weeknight meal on the table.

And as long as we are in the Quick Meals Department, I should also mention farro pasta. The brand I’m familiar with is Rustichella d’Abruzzo, available at some supermarkets and online. It is not cheap—an eight-ounce box of the spaghetti is almost seven bucks—but in terms of flavor, it’s far more refined than any other whole-grain pasta I’ve tried. In texture, too, it hits that pleasantly chewy al dente note that we all expect from properly cooked pasta.

Farro is delicious as a hot breakfast cereal (it’s wonderful with peaches) and in soups, salads, side dishes, and and even desserts (a little crumbled fresh ricotta, a drizzle of honey—you get the picture). One preparation that everyone loves is farrotto—farro cooked like risotto. And once you start working the grain into your culinary repertoire, think about upgrading to whole-grain farro. Unlike the semi-pearled type, it hasn’t had any of its bran and germ removed, so it contains more fiber and nutrients—which include B vitamins (especially B3, or niacin), and important minerals such as manganese and zinc.

As far as complex carbohydrates go, it’s rich in the cyanogenic glucosides that stimulate the immune system, regulate blood sugar levels, and lower cholesterol. Although it isn’t a complete source of protein, like quinoa, farro contains more than, say, brown rice, and it also contains lignans that give it antioxidant properties. In general, whole grains take longer to digest, so they keep you feeling full longer and provide sustained energy. They’re also thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

So what about gluten, you ask? Farro is not gluten-free, but it is considerably lower in gluten than commercial wheat varieties. People with mild wheat sensitivities (which are distinct from celiac disease) often find it easier to digest.

When buying domestic whole-grain farro, you are supporting U.S. farmers at the same time. One producer is Lentz Spelt Farms, in eastern Washington State; the family, which cultivates and sells all three types of farro, wrote a piece about farro in 2010, and if you are interested in more technical information about the genetics and history of the varieties, I suggest you take a look.

Other mail-order sources I can vouch for are Bluebird Grain Farms (“Organic Heirloom Grains From Plow to Package”), also in Washington. They’re renowned for their biodynamically grown whole-grain emmer farro, the cracked grain (great for hot cereal, polenta, or as a stand-in for bulgur in tabbouleh), and freshly ground whole-grain flour. Cayuga Pure Organics, in upstate New York, also sells whole-grain emmer farro at the Union Square Greenmarket, in Manhattan. And Anson Mills, in Columbia, South Carolina, sells a deep-flavored slow-roasted spelt farro as well as a farro piccolo that is a bit lighter in color and texture; it has a great affinity for summer produce and is wonderful in salads once the hot weather sets in. I am so there.

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