“What’s the story with buckwheat? It can’t be gluten-free, right?”
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some variation of this question. It’s reasonable enough to assume something called “wheat” contains gluten… but that assumption is, fortunately, wrong!
Buckwheat is actually not related to wheat at all, and is yet another gluten-free grain that is safe for celiacs and quite nutritious.
While many people associate buckwheat with pancakes, this grain has many more delicious uses…
What Exactly is Buckwheat?
Buckwheat is not a “cereal” or a “grass” (the classifications of most familiar grains) but instead is related more closely to plants such as sorrel or rhubarb. The name “buckwheat” is believed to derive from “beechwheat” – with the word “beech” describing its similar appearance to the seeds of the beech tree.
Buckwheat has ancient roots, and evidence has been found of it growing in China almost 5,000 years ago. Because it requires only a short growing season, it is well adapted for regions such as Eastern Europe, where it has long been a staple crop. It was widely grown and consumed in the United States in the 1700s and 1800s but has declined in popularity.
The Many Gluten-Free Uses of Buckwheat
Buckwheat’s hulled grains are called “groats”, and buckwheat groats are referred to in Eastern Europe as “kasha.” This earthy-flavored grain is easy to prepare and can be made into breakfast porridge, added to stews, prepared like a pilaf, or mixed with gluten-free noodles and fried onions to make the popular Ashkenazi Jewish dish kasha varnishkes.
It can be used to replace wheat groats (also called bulgur) in recipes such as the Middle Eastern taboule salad. When ground, buckwheat makes fine flour that can be added in small quantities to gluten-free pancake batter for classic buckwheat pancakes; or, it can be used as the exclusive or primary flour to make much more dense, dark and nutritious pancakes. It can be used in gluten-free breads as well.
Avoid using buckwheat flour in pastries, cookies, and any dish that shouldn’t have a darker color and distinctive whole grain flavor.
Buckwheat farina, marketed in the United States as “cream of buckwheat” cereal, is buckwheat ground to a consistency similar to coarsely ground cornmeal. It makes gluten-free porridge much like Cream of Wheat, or a savory side dish that can be prepared and served much like polenta.
Enjoy Your Gluten-Free Buckwheat with Caution
Japanese soba noodles, often served in soups, are buckwheat-based. However, use caution since most soba noodles contain some measure of wheat flour in them as well.
The same is true for buckwheat pancake mix: unless it is specifically labeled as gluten-free it is likely to contain wheat flour. Recipes for buckwheat blinis (Russian crepes), galettes (a French delicacy) or Indian buckwheat puri breads are easy to find, but when offered a buckwheat-based dish in a restaurant or a friend’s home, always be sure to ask about ingredients as these may not be purely made of buckwheat.
In the store, always be sure to read labels… everywhere else, be sure to ask lots of questions!
Buckwheat is Quite the Gluten-Free Grain
Buckwheat has some surprising uses, too. Unlike many other gluten-free grains it produces a malt that can be the basis for a good ale. Buckwheat flowers are a favorite of bees, and buckwheat honey is well known as a dark-colored honey with a deep, rich flavor that can be described as malty and earthy.
Our favorite part: buckwheat is extremely nutritious! One hundred grams of uncooked kasha (buckwheat groats) contains 10g fiber, 12g protein and 14% of the RDA for iron. It is particularly high in niacin, manganese, phosphorus, copper and magnesium. Buckwheat groats, flour and hot cereal can be found in mainstream grocery stores, health food stores, and online specialty shops. Give this healthy gluten-free grain a try in both savory and sweet dishes!