Buckwheat, a staple food across the world, has been increasing in popularity here in the United States due to the surge in demand for gluten-free foods.
Buckwheat is a 3-cornered grain closely related to sorrel, knotweed and …rhubarb? It was first domesticated in Southeastern Asia around 6000BC, and then quickly spread across Asia to Europe and the Middle East. Today, Russia and China are the world’s leading producers of buckwheat, followed by Ukraine and the USA.
Here in the US, buckwheat was a common crop until the advent of nitrogen fertilizers in the 1950’s, after which wheat and corn increased in popularity. Today, with the increase in popularity of gluten-free grains, buckwheat is grown on over 77,000 acres, yielding almost 80,000 tons.
Buckwheat is a versatile crop, and can be grown in less fertile or acidic soils. It is a short-season crop, meaning it grows quickly and does not need a long growing season to mature. In hot climates, it is planted later in the season, and blooms in the cooler weather. Because of its preference for slightly cooler weather, it can also be used as a second crop, after crops like wheat or barley have been harvested.
Buckwheat also makes a good cover crop for weed suppression, since it grows more quickly than weeds and will choke them out. A buckwheat cover crop can then be tilled into the soil for fertilizer. Buckwheat can also be used around the edges of a field for soil erosion control, or as wildlife cover and feed.
Buckwheat responds with increased production to pollination by honeybees, and is sometimes even used as a honey crop. It has a long blooming period, providing nectar in early fall when other sources are limited. Buckwheat honey is very dark in color, and has a very strong flavor. I’ve tasted buckwheat honey – it’s definitely an acquired taste. Under the right conditions, a single acre of buckwheat can support an entire colony, and yield up to 150 pounds of honey in a season, up to 10 pounds a day!
Until the recent increased interest in buckwheat for human food, about 75% of the grain produced was used for livestock and poultry, about 5-6% for seed, with the remainder for human consumption. Between 5 and 10% of the seeded acreage was turned under for fertilizer. Several thousand acres were harvested green for extracting rutin, an herbal supplement taken for bolstering the cardiovascular system. Today, the major use of buckwheat is for human food.
Buckwheat is similar to a sunflower seed, with a single kernel inside a hull. The vast majority of buckwheat for human consumption is ground into flour and used in a wide variety of dishes. Buckwheat noodles are widely eaten across Asia, including China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, and even northern Italy. The making of buckwheat noodles has actually become a traditional art in these regions, since using a flour without gluten to hold it together makes working buckwheat noodle dough tricky.
Buckwheat pancakes (TheCitySlicker’s favorite), are a popular meal around the world, as are thinner buckwheat crepes. Buckwheat groats are often made into porridge in western Asia and eastern Europe, which often considered the definitive peasant dish. Finely milled buckwheat farina is widely used to thicken soups, gravies and dressings, or eaten as a breakfast food. Buckwheat flour can be made into a wide variety of foods including noodles, breads, crackers, and more. Bob’s Red Mill produces both buckwheat groats and flour.
Recently, buckwheat has been an increasingly popular beer ingredient, to make gluten-free beer for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. The French also make an exclusively buckwheat whiskey by malting and fermenting it, then aging it in French oak casks.
The hulls of buckwheat are often used for upholstery fillings, including pillows and zafu, a special ottoman used in meditation. Hulls can also be used as soil mulch, poultry litter, or animal bedding.
Buckwheat is high in several important nutrients, including manganese, copper, magnesium, fiber, and phosphorus, and is low in calories. Nutrients in buckwheat, including the flavinoid rutin, have been linked with increased cardiovascular health.
So, there, now you know a little more about this ancient grain! Next time you’re out for breakfast, order the buckwheat pancakes. Their rich, nutty flavor will hook you! And, if you’re adventurous, I might be able to get a sample of buckwheat honey for you to try! Just let me know!
Information on buckwheat was taken from the following sites: