Einkorn Contains More Protein Than Any Other Grain, but That’s Only One Reason RDs Call It the ‘Mother of All Grains’

Photo: Stocksy/Nicola Harger
Roughly 12,000 years ago, humans began farming instead of just hunting and gathering. This is what allowed einkorn, the first wild seed that was gathered and planted, to become the 'mother' to all other species of wheat. But einkorn isn't only special for its history—it's also unique because it is one of the few grains that has remained unhybridized in the wake of industrial farming. What's more, einkorn wheat is significantly easier to digest than other wheat varieties, even for those with gluten sensitivities (but not celiac disease).

Ready to learn more about einkorn, the 'mother of all grains'? Here, a breakdown of einkorn's benefits, how to cook with it, and why you're about to see an array of nutrient-dense products made with this type of wheat of come to market in the coming months.

What is einkorn, exactly?

Also referred to as farro piccolo in Italian, einkorn is a member of the same wheat family as emmer (farro medio) and spelt (farro grande). The difference is that emmer and spelt are the results of natural cross-breeding. And while most other grains have also naturally cross-bred with other plants or been selectively bred for large scale farming, einkorn has remained entirely unadulterated.

Thanks, in large part, to Carla Bartolucci, the late founder and president of Jovial Foods and its sister company, Bionaturae, einkorn is still around today. Bartolucci and her husband started growing einkorn near their home in Northern Italy in 2009 and made it their mission to help ensure that the ancient grain would live on in its unaltered state. Jovial is now the leading producer of einkorn in the world, making einkorn products available at large scale, including organic pastas, flours, wheat berries, crackers, and cookies. (As an FYI, einkorn is sold by a few other companies, often under the name farro piccolo and not at the same scale as Jovial.)

Health benefits of einkorn

The evolution of wheat and industrial farming has not only transformed how our wheat grows, but also the nutritional value of the grains themselves. For one, modern wheat is three times the size of einkorn grains, meaning there is a different ratio of bran, germ, and endosperm; this is what gives it its unique protein content. Einkorn, in fact, contains approximately 30 percent more protein than modern wheat—and the most protein of any other grain—as has 15 percent less starch.

As Giulia Viola, Bartolucci’s daughter and now co-owner of Jovial, says, "einkorn is a balanced grain.” The benefits go on and on: Einkorn contains over 200 percent more of the antioxidant lutein than modern wheat, 75 percent more manganese, 50 percent more riboflavin, 40 percent more zinc, and 20 percent or more of magnesium, thiamin, niacin, iron, vitamin B6, and fiber.  (...Talk about a mic drop.)

While many modern wheat products may have some of these micronutrients in large amounts, this is because they have been fortified.

Einkorn and gluten sensitivity

There are several reasons that einkorn is more easily-digestible both in general and for those with gluten sensitivities. Some literature states that einkorn is lower in gluten, but this is not actually true: Einkorn actually has higher levels of gluten due to its higher protein content. Rather, it is the unique gluten makeup (and weaker gluten structure) of einkorn that makes it so different than that of modern wheat, as well as what makes it more easily-tolerated by many people that have a sensitivity to wheat.

"Einkorn is is free of the high-molecular-weight proteins that make modern wheat difficult to digest,” says Viola. Speaking from personal experience, she shares that she had avoided gluten completely as a child due to her intolerance. But when Viola's parents reintroduced gluten in her diet in the form of einkorn, she remained symptom-free—just as she had on a gluten-free diet. Viola is now able to enjoy pasta, a cultural staple in Italy, like never before.

Einkorn also has a simpler genetic makeup compared to modern wheat, as well as a different starch makeup. These two factors also help make einkorn easier to digest without the spikes in blood sugar that can come with eating more refined forms of grains or wheat.

How to use einkorn in cooking

Einkorn can be found as a whole-grain berry or it can be milled into a flour, which is used to make a variety of wheat-based products such as pasta or crackers. Its flavor is often described as slightly nutty and sweet. Maria Speck, an expert on whole grains and the award-winning author of Simply Ancient Grains and Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, praises einkorn’s “amazing starchy plumpness and gentle chewiness." Its deliciously tender texture, she says, works beautifully in her recipe for maple pudding with farro piccolo (find it below!).

Einkorn’s unique protein and nutrient composition means it reacts differently when incorporated into recipes, especially when used as a flour in baking. Like other forms of wheat, einkorn can be ground into a whole-grain flour or refined into an all-purpose flour, meaning a portion of the bran and germ have been removed. Both can be used in baking, depending on your preference—the whole grain will have a nuttier flavor.

“When making a dough, einkorn’s weaker gluten structure requires more gentle handling—such as the stretch-and-fold technique—rather than traditional kneading,” explains Speck. When using einkorn flour for the first time, Speck recommends replacing just half (or even just a third) of the all-purpose flour instead of going all-in. "This is so you can start to become familiar with how the einkorn behaves," she says. “Also, keep in mind that einkorn is easier to use in pancakes, muffins, and other quick bread recipes, especially if einkorn is new to you. This is because these baked goods do not rely only on strong gluten strands for structure.” If a recipe relies on the stronger gluten from an all-purpose flour, such as in a cake, bread roll, or scone, Speck suggests that extra egg can be added to compensate for the weaker gluten in the einkorn.

In Bartolucci’s cookbook Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat, she points out that einkorn also absorbs liquid more slowly than other flours, including liquid from a source of fat, so the dough may require a bit more liquid (or more resting time) to soften up for the best final texture.

To get started cooking with einkorn, look for top-quality products from Jovial Foods, Bluebird Grain Farms, Anson Mills, Marsh Hen Mill, and Maine Grains. Then try out Speck's delicious maple pudding with farro piccolo recipe below.

Maria Speck's maple pudding with farro piccolo recipe

Serves 4

For the farro piccolo:
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup farro piccolo (einkorn)
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
For the pudding:
1 1/4 cups half-and-half, plus more as needed
3 Tbsp maple syrup, preferably the darker Grade B, or more as needed
2 (3-inch) strips of lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
Softly whipped cream, for serving
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling

1. To prepare the farro piccolo, add the water, farro piccolo, and cinnamon stick to a medium heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the kernels are tender with a slight chewiness, 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the type. A fair bit of the kernels should burst and show their starchy centers, and there will be water left (do not drain).

2. To make the pudding, add the half-and-half, two tablespoons of the maple syrup, the lemon zest, vanilla, and salt to the farro. Return to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring a few times and pressing on the lemon strips to release their etheric oil. Decrease the heat to maintain a gentle bubble and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the pudding thickens to a creamy consistency and the grains swell, about 20 minutes more. It should still be a bit soupy.

3. To finish, take the saucepan off the heat and remove the cinnamon stick and the zest. Stir in the remaining one tablespoon maple syrup, or more to taste. Spoon into individual dessert bowls or cups and serve warm. Or, spoon the pudding into a medium bowl and press a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap right on top to avoid skin formation. Cool to room temperature and chill for about two hours. The pudding will continue to thicken—you may need to add a bit of half-and-half before serving to loosen it. Spoon into individual bowls.

4. Garnish each bowl with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle with cinnamon.

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