One of the earliest crops to be domesticated, buckwheat is thought to have originated in Central Asia. Some historians speculate that its earliest use as a food was most likely in China 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. It later became popular throughout Europe and eventually made its way to the United States likely with Eastern European immigrants. These immigrants grew large quantities of buckwheat, which is a versatile, hardy, and easy-to-grow, short-season grain crop that can adapt well to poor soil. Although demand for buckwheat in this country as a food source is currently relatively small, its desirable nutritional value is slowly improving its popularity.
Interestingly, the “wheat” in the name buckwheat is misleading because it isn’t related to wheat at all. In fact, buckwheat isn’t a true grain, but rather the fruit of a leafy plant belonging to the same family as sorrel and rhubarb. It is often referred to as a pseudo-cereal, since the grain is used in ways similar to cereal grains. Its name comes from a Dutch word that translates as “beechwheat,” most likely a reference to the plant’s triangular fruits, which resemble beechnuts.
Buckwheat contains plant protein and significant amounts of the amino acid lysine, which is lacking in most plant foods. Buckwheat is also an excellent source of iron and magnesium, and has a respectable amount of the B vitamin niacin.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Buckwheat in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of buckwheat
Americans are most familiar with buckwheat as a flour used to make the pancakes called blini. But whole-grain buckwheat is widely available and can be cooked and offered as an alternative to rice. Buckwheat contains little gluten and may be a good grain choice for individuals who have gluten sensitivity to that protein substance, but not for people with celiac disease.
The types of buckwheat on the market include:
Buckwheat flour: A common ingredient in pancake mixes, buckwheat flour is also used to make Japanese soba noodles. It is available in light, medium,and dark varieties, depending on the kind of buckwheat it is milled from. The dark flour has the strongest flavor. You can make your own buckwheat flour by processing whole buckwheat groats (hulled kernels) in a blender or food processor.
Buckwheat grits: Sold as buckwheat cereal or cream of buckwheat, these finely ground, almost white, unroasted groats cook quickly and develop a soft and creamy texture. They are best served as a breakfast cereal or as a rice-pudding-style dessert.
Buckwheat groats: They come either hulled (with their inedible black shells removed) or unhulled. Unhulled groats—which are available in some specialty stores—are used for sprouting. Hulled groats come in two forms: white (unroasted) or brown (roasted). The white groats have a fairly mild flavor and can be substituted in dishes that call for white or brown rice.
Kasha: Roasted, hulled buckwheat kernels that are either whole or cracked into coarse, medium, or fine granules are commonly known as kasha. Enjoy their toasty flavor as an accompaniment to meat or as the basis for a grain-and-vegetable main dish.
Buckwheat and eggs
Many recipes for buckwheat dishes call for a beaten egg to be mixed into the groats before cooking. The addition of the egg keeps the kernels separate as they cook, so they have the consistency of rice rather than oatmeal. As grains cook and absorb water, their cell walls rupture and release the starches contained inside, thus causing the grains to stick together. Egg albumin—a protein—acts as a sealant, strengthening the outer cell walls of the groats and preventing them from rupturing. The egg also supplies the buckwheat with essential amino acids, making a complete protein. It does, however, add fat and cholesterol— but only a little. One half-cup of cooked kasha prepared with one egg will have about 1 gram of fat and 43 milligrams of cholesterol. To avoid the added fat and cholesterol and still get the protein benefit, use just the egg white.
How to choose the best buckwheat
If purchasing in bulk from open bins, shop in markets that have a brisk turnover. The buckwheat should not have any stale or rancid odor, and they should look whole, rather than dusty or powdery. Buy only what you’ll use within a short period of time.
If buying kasha in boxes, check the label to make sure you’re getting the granulation you want. If possible, check for a “sell by” date as well.
How to store buckwheat
To prevent bug infestation, store buckwheat in tightly sealed containers. In the summer months, if you have room, place buckwheat in the refrigerator or freezer.
7 buckwheat recipe ideas
- Add buckwheat to soups and stews as a thickener.
- Serve buckwheat instead of rice or in combination with brown, white, or wild rice.
- Combine cooked buckwheat groats or kasha with tuna, chopped mushrooms, and a yogurt or vinaigrette dressing for a main-dish salad.
- Use cooled, cooked kasha as you would bulgur wheat, to make tabbouleh.
- Add cooked kasha to burger and meatloaf mixtures.
- Cook buckwheat grits in milk or a milk/water mixture for a hot cereal or serve them as a dessert with dried cherries stirred in.
- Combine buckwheat with black beans to make a veggie burger.
Buckwheat and Currant Pancake Mix