Wheat berries are whole, unprocessed wheat kernels that contain all three parts of the grain, including the germ, bran and starchy endosperm. Only the hull, the inedible outer layer of the grain, has been removed. As a result, wheat berries retain all of the grain's vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. All wheat products are made from wheat berries, including white and whole-wheat flour.
Whole grains, including wheat berries, have a long list of health benefits. Studies continue to show that consuming whole grains can help lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Research has also shown that substituting whole grains for their refined counterparts can help with weight control. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed the eating habits of over 70,000 women and found that those who consumed the most whole grains consistently weighed less than those who ate the least.
Wheat berries, like all whole grains, get the nod for their exceptional nutrient profile. They're high in fibre, low in calories and packed with vitamins and minerals. A half-cup (125 ml) serving of cooked wheat berries is a great source of manganese, selenium, phosphorus and magnesium. Wheat berries also contain lignans, phytochemicals thought to guard against breast and prostate cancers.
Wheat berries contain gluten, so they're not suitable for people with celiac disease.
Nutrient information per ½ cup (125 ml) of cooked wheat berries:
Source: The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook, 2008
There are a few different varieties of wheat berries, varying in size, colour and texture. Wheat berries are usually named after their growing season (winter versus spring), gluten content (hard wheat versus soft wheat) and colour (red versus white). Here are the most popular varieties of wheat berries that you're likely to find at specialty food stores and supermarkets.
Hard Red Spring and Hard Red Winter - These types of wheat are hardy, high in protein and brownish in colour. They are often used to make ‘hard' flours used to make bread and other baked goods.
Hard White - This type of wheat has a hard kernel and light, pale colour. It's often used for bread and brewing.
Soft white - Similar in colour to hard white wheat, this type is characterized by a softer kernel, and is often used to make pastry flour.
Wheat berries are becoming available at large grocery stores and specialty food stores.
While cooking time may vary slightly between the varieties, the different types of wheat berries are usually interchangeable in recipes.
If buying wheat berries in bulk, make sure the container that the wheat berries are stored in is dry, well-covered and free from any moisture or dust. Buy products from a store with a high product turnover to ensure the freshest product available.
If buying pre-packaged wheat berries, there are a few brands available in Canada, including Bob's Red Mill which is one of the most popular. Many packaged wheat berries are also organic.
Wheat berries should be stored in a cool, dry place. Consider storing wheat berries in the fridge to extend their shelf life - they'll stay fresh for up to a year or more. Because wheat berries look similar to other whole grains, including spelt and barley, store them in a clearly labeled container.
The cooking instructions for different types of wheat berries are similar.
For stovetop cooking, bring 2 ½ cups (625 ml) of water to a boil for every 1 cup (250 ml) of raw wheat berries. Before adding wheat berries to boiling water, place them in a colander and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Add wheat berries to boiling water, and stir until water returns to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until wheat berries are tender. Remove from heat, drain off any excess water and fluff wheat berries with a fork. 1 cup of raw wheat berries will yield 2 ½ cups cooked wheat berries.
Wheat berries can also be added to soups and stews during cooking. Allow for at least 45 minutes of cooking time and add extra water since wheat berries absorb water and double in size once they're cooked.
Depending on the type of recipe you'll be adding wheat berries to, cooking time may vary slightly. For instance, a salad tastes better with slightly al dente, or chewy wheat berries, while other dishes such as breakfast porridge may require wheat berries that are slightly softer and cooked longer.
From soups and stews, to muffins and salads, wheat berries can be incorporated into just about any type of dish, or enjoyed on their own as a side dish.
Healthy ways to enjoy:
- Toss ¼ cup (60 ml) of cooled, cooked wheat berries with low fat yogurt, blueberries and a few walnuts for a nutritious start to the day.
- Make wheat berry porridge; instead of cooking the grains in water, cook them in non-fat or 1% milk to increase your calcium and protein intake. Add a diced apple and 1 tsp of ground cinnamon to the pot with the wheat berries during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Sprinkle with brown sugar and slivered almonds.
- Swap ¼ cup (60 ml) cooked wheat berries for croutons on your salad to add texture and fibre.
- Make a whole grain entrée salad by combining equal parts cooked wheat berries, black beans and sliced grilled chicken breast. Season to taste with lime juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.
- Cook wheat berries in low sodium chicken or vegetable broth instead of water for a simple, yet tasty side dish to accompany grilled fish, chicken or meat.
- Enjoy a hearty winter meal by adding ½ cup (125 ml) of uncooked, rinsed wheat berries to your favourite soup recipe. Add an extra 1 cup (250 ml) of water, otherwise the wheat berries will absorb water and thicken the soup.
- Toss cooked wheat berries with grilled vegetables and season with balsamic vinegar, freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.
- Add ½ cup (125 ml) of cooked, cooled wheat berries to muffin or quick bread batter for added texture.
- Toss cooked wheat berries with sliced fruit and drizzle with honey for a healthy mid-afternoon snack.
Did you know?
- Wheat is the most commonly used grain in North America.
- After rice and corn, wheat is the most widely cultivated grain in the world.
- Other forms of whole wheat include bulgur (steamed hulled wheat berries that are dried and cracked), spelt (an ancient form of wheat available as berries, flour and pasta), and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye).