Monday, December 15, 2008

Frikeh & Other Green Grains

(Here's another excellent post from Anthony Boutard.  Some day I'll get him to upload his own articles, but as long as he keeps sharing such wonderful writing I'm not complaining.)
Frikeh & Other Green Grains

The core of this entry is cribbed from an article we wrote for Growing for Market a few years ago.

Most of us think of small grains in their mature, dry state, which allows them to be stored for many years. Less well known is the tradition of enjoying small grains in their immature (green) state as a perishable, seasonal delicacy. Throughout the Middle-east, from Egypt to Turkey, immature durum is processed into frikeh (frik, firik, freekeh). In southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria, immature spelt is roasted to produce grünkern. Across North Africa, heads of green barley are steamed and then threshed. There are similar traditions in the Ukraine and Georgia using bread wheat.

These green grains are more nutritious than mature grains, high in dietary fiber and low in phytic acid. The smoky, sweet and grassy quality of the grain adds a unique and new dimension to vegetarian dishes. I believe we are the only frikeh makers in the US. Most is imported from Syria, Jordan and Australia. The Australians have mechanized the process.

Harvest of the grain is done during the brief interval between the “milk stage,” when endosperm is still liquid and sweet, and the “soft dough” stage, when the endosperm is solidifying and developing its starches. Too early and the grains shrivel; too late and the grains are no longer sweet and green. The right moment is when a kernel is pinched and yields only a tiny drop of “milk.” The window for high quality frikeh production is about four days.

We cut the wheat with a sickle bar mower and the sheaves are stacked on the corrugated metal sleds with their heads lined up in a row. The heads are then roasted with a large propane burner. The goal is to burn off the awns and scorch the chaff that surrounds the grain. The fire imparts a smoky flavor to the grain, and the heating stops the maturation of the endosperm and stops the degradation of the chlorophyll. The ideal frikeh grain is green with just the tip charred.

Next year, we hope to modify a hedge trimmer so we can harvest just the heads. The less straw we handle, the easier the task. We are also thinking it might be possible to do the parching in a pepper roaster.

The next step is to thresh and winnow the grain. Scorched durum is very easy to thresh and it can be done by hand, at least for home use, if not commercially. All of our test runs were burned with a plumber’s torch and threshed between our hands. Depending upon other tasks at hand, a farmer can probably hand process 200 LB of frikeh in a couple of days, enough to add some zip to a CSA box. It might be tedious alone, but a fun project for interested subscribers.

For small batches of seed grain, we use a screen made from 1x4 boards and 4x4 hardware cloth. Rubbing the heads of grain on the screen allows us to thresh small lots faster than messing around with a thresher. This should work fine for frikeh. We use a larger stationary thresher for the task. A small combine that allows hand feeding would also work. Be forewarned, it is a sooty business, and you end the day looking like one of Dorthea Lange’s coal miners.

From Anthony's Grains

Our first year, we hand winnowed all of the grain. We now produce over a 1,000 LB per year, and use a Clipper seed cleaner. You will need to clean the grain twice, once after threshing and then later when the grain is dry. The grain is at its very best fresh, but in that moist and sweet condition it is more perishable than berries or peaches. Drying allows the farmer to sell it at a measured pace, which is how we sell most of our frikeh.

Drying is the most perilous part of the process. In our first year, we dumped hundreds of pounds of grain destroyed by molds and yeasts. We learned a couple of things from the experience. First, clean the grain immediately, you don’t want anything that can hold or trap moisture. Second, tarps are not a good surface for drying grains. The grain must dried on screens, otherwise it will mold very quickly.

We use two-foot wide 8x8 hardware cloth for the screens. The frames are made from 1x4 boards. We have both four and eight foot long trays. The longer trays must have a divider in the middle. We have found both sizes work well. The longer trays are easier to move with a forklift. These trays are great for all sorts of odds and ends, such drying beans, garlic and peppers, as well as storing sweet potato tubers for slips.

When fresh, we put a thin layer of grain in each tray, consolidating the trays as the grain dries. The trays are stacked five or eight high atop a sawhorse and stickered with furring strips. A sheet of corrugated roof panel sits on top to keep the birds and squirrels at bay. Situate the trays in a barn or on a porch where there is good airflow. Better yet, move them outdoors during the day, keeping a corrugated sheet on top.

During the first few days of drying, especially, it pays to be obsessive about the process. We set up an empty screen on the horses and pour the grain out of the tray that it sat in overnight into the fresh screen. This is the best way to shake up the grain, and assure that it is drying evenly

The finished grain is rinsed a couple of times and cooked for 45 minutes to several hours. It holds up well to extended cooking. Frikeh is traditionally served with lamb or chicken. Tradition aside, the grain may be used in any recipe that uses rice or bulgur wheat. It is extremely versatile and wonderful with all summer vegetables. We cook up big pots of the grain and use it over several meals. It can be used in soups, salads, raitas and pilafs.

A longtime champion of frikeh, Paula Wolfert provides a recipe or two in each of her various middle-eastern cookbooks.

For three years, we parched spelt for grünkern. It is delicious, and a completely different flavor from the durum. Unfortunately, it was too time consuming to clean. The tip of the spelt head has a sharp tip that detaches and is inedible. The tip is almost the same size as grain of spelt, and was not removed by the seed cleaner. Lots of hand work. If you have a gravity table kicking around, it might be worth a try. There were a many sad faces when we dropped the grünkern.


Musselman, L. J. and A. B. Mouslem. 2001. Frikeh, roasted green wheat. Economic Botany 55(2): 187-189. See
Wolfert, Paula. 1998. Mediterranean Greens and Grains. NY: HarperCollins. 368p.
Wolfert, Paula. 1994. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. NY: HarperCollins.
Wolfert, Paula. 1994. Mediterranean Cooking. NY: HarperPerennial. 320p.