Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Confessions of a buckwheat snob

March 29, 2011 update: thanks to the helpful comments from my wonderful readers, I found a good buckwheat option at Whole Foods: Pocono Kasha, so there is no need to go searching for a Russian grocery store as I wrote in this post.

Cooking advice focused on the origin of ingredients makes me skeptical.  Do you have to use tomatoes from Italy for your pizza sauce or French butter for your tart dough?  Absolutely not!  Of course, I am not Italian or French, so it's easy for me to adopt such a casual attitude toward their ingredients (though I do think that American prosciutto sucks).  But would I be able to be as open minded when it comes to buckwheat -- a quintessentially Russian grain that I started eating before I got all my teeth?

I had a bad experience with American buckwheat a few years ago and since then I stuck to the buckwheat from the Russian stores.  But preparing for the Beans and Grains class made me think twice about buying Russian buckwheat.  Did I really want to tell my students that they have to go to a specialty store to buy something as basic as a grain?  Surely there was a way to make buckwheat from the bulk isle of Whole Foods taste good.  

I decided to try the obvious first -- cook it just like I would Russian buckwheat.  The result was a mush covered in something that resembled wet dust.  No wonder most Americans have such a lowly opinion of this grain.  

I noticed that the groats were not as even in color in the Whole Foods buckwheat as they were in the one I was used to cooking.  Some were brown, some beige, and some slightly green.  

Whole Food Buckwheat

Russian Buckwheat

I was guessing that the Whole Foods groats weren't roasted evenly (even the darkest ones were not roasted enough).  I put the buckwheat in a single layer on a cookie sheet and roasted it in 375F oven for 15 minutes.  It turned darker and the green color was gone.  

Now I decided to tackle the wet dust problem.  I noticed that Whole Foods buckwheat groats were covered in a fine brown powder.  I was guessing it was the result of some of the groats getting crushed and was hoping that washing and draining the groats would help.  

Unfortunately, all my efforts didn't amount to much.  Roasting produced a slightly more flavorful buckwheat, but it did not improve the texture.  While some groats were toothsome, many turned to mush.  Washing barely made a dent on the wet dust problem.  I tried reducing the amount of water.  I tried both stove top and oven preparations.  No matter what I did, I couldn't get the groats to cook evenly and keep their shape.  
Cooked Whole Foods Buckwheat
Cooked Russian Buckwheat
Finally, I gave up.  If you want to cook buckwheat, buy it from a Russian store.  In the Boston area, many Armenian stores carry Russian buckwheat as well.  I always try to find groats that are as dark as possible.  But not black!  If they are black, it means they are still in their shell and that doesn't taste good.  I've never seen Russian buckwheat sold this way, but I have seen it in an American specialty store recently, so now I know to warn you that you want your groats to be whole but without the shell.  

Sept 17, 2013 update -- since the original post was published I found an alternative way to cook buckwheat.  Surprisingly, it's almost identical to the way I cook sushi rice.

Basic Buckwheat Recipe  (from Sept 17, 2013)

1 cup whole buckwheat groats
1 3/4 cups water (2 cups for completely tender results)
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (3/4 tsp table salt)
1-2 Tbsp butter

  1. Pour buckwheat in a single layer on a white plate (as much as will fit), remove bad grains and anything that looks suspicious.  Repeat with remaining buckwheat.
  2. Rinse buckwheat in a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl.  Add enough water to fill the bowl.  Swoosh the buckwheat around in the sieve.  Lift buckwheat with the sieve and put in a 2 quart pot.  Add water and salt.  Cover, set over high heat, and bring to a boil watching the pot carefully.  Don’t uncover.  As soon as you see small amount of steam escape from the cover, turn down the heat to very low (for electric stove, have another burner preheated to low and move a pot to that burner).  
  3. Cook 25 minutes.  
  4. Take off heat.  Keep covered.  Wrap the pot in a towel and let it sit 30 minutes.
  5. Stir in butter and serve.  Buckwheat goes extremely well with cooked onions, mushrooms, and duck.

Basic Buckwheat Recipe (originally written in this post)

1.5 Tbsp butter (plus additional for serving)
1 cup whole buckwheat groats (if possible produced in Russia)
1 2/3 cups boiling water (subtract 2 Tbsp from that if you want a more toothsome buckwheat)
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (3/4 tsp table salt)

Note: buckwheat tastes best cooked in the oven, but if your pot can't go in the oven, you can cook it on the stove top.
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Set an oven-proof sauce pan over medium heat.  Add 1.5 Tbsp butter and wait for it to melt.  Cook the butter until it just starts to turn brown, swirling the pan frequently.  It will take a couple of minutes.
  3. Add the buckwheat and cook stirring until it's completely coated in butter and  gives of a nutty aroma, 2-3 minutes.  
  4. Take off heat and add water and salt.  Be carefully as the water will spatter. 
  5. Cover the pot.  Put in the oven for 18 minutes (or cook on the stove top at low heat).  Buckwheat is done when all the water is absorbed.  
  6. Leave covered to rest for 15 minutes.  Serve with additional butter.  Buckwheat goes extremely well with cooked onions, mushrooms, and duck.
Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days and reheated.  


Nowhere Girl said...

Hi Helen,

Of course it doesnt make you a snob, unless being a snob means being able to distinguish the difference between superior and inferior products.
It makes you an expert who imparts her expertise and information to others for their benefit, and surely thats the point of having your blog?
The difference between the grains sold in the wholefood aisle of the supermarket and an independent shop specialising in certain foods, is that the specialist shop is often better in knowing its niche product. That's how it survives against the big boys.
I find the same with good quality brown rice.
I can't buy it in the supermarket when I've learnt that my local wholefood collective supplies a much better product.
They've been doing it for years, and they have sorted the best suppliers out, because they really know what they are looking at - or rather, what they are tasting. They eat that kind of food all the time themselves.
Keep up the good advice.

lola said...

Hi Helen,
This is my first time to your site. I found you when googling Richard Bertinet's Sweet Dough. I'm attempting a date and almond filled sweet bread and wanted to try his recipe. Your info from a post last year was helpful. I'll let you know how it all turns out and thanks for the information.

Louise said...

Wow, I've only prepared Wolff's Kasha. Now I'll have to search for better buckwheat. I'm a believer of food snobbery on the basis that we can only eat so much so we may as well have the superior items. I found your site about a month ago and have been looking at it regularly as you prepare things I love. Thanks for your insight.

Dania@The Cookery said...

I really like your bean-legume-grain-posts, Thanks!
I love Kasha and prepare it often. A few things I learned:
1. Bulk kahsa (anywhere, not only in WholeFoods) is cheaper but is unevenly roasted and quite abused meaning it has a lot of broken groats and grain dust, kasha is very delicate.
2. I discovered like you did that rinsing it really doesn't work... it doesn't get rid of the problem and if you cook rinsed kasha it gets really mushy. Instead if you do have "abused" kasha the best thing you can do (aside from not buying it...) is to sift it. It helps a little.
3. And finally I never bought kasha in a Russian store but WholeFoods does have a better kasha option. It's Pocono Kasha. Pocono Kasha is sold in a box (that I think protects it better), is evenly roasted, all groats have the same woody like color and it cooks really nice- I think. Perhaps you can try it and if it seems right to you you can add that option to your students.

Louise said...

I just looked up Pocono Kasha and it's from the same company as the Wolff brand I always buy. Maybe I've done OK after all. :-)

Helen said...

Hi guys,

Thank you so much for the Pocono suggestion. I'll try it and will report back. I tried sifting the bulk buckwheat too instead of rinsing, but it barely helped.


Anonymous said...

My Russian mother-in-law showed me how to make buckwheat very easy and you don't need to add any butter to start with. (Feel free to add it later if you like it that way!) You can buy toasted or raw (or unevenly toasted) buckwheat and toast it a little more yourself, and have consistent results. Who wants buckwheat mush. (If it is raw buckwheat you will just need to toast it longer).

Start boiling water in a teapot. Put 1 cup of dry buckwheat in a large saucepan. You can go ahead and add a little salt at this point. Heat the buckwheat on medium to medium-low heat. After a few minutes, depending how much heat and how thick your pan, you will need to start flipping it around in the pan.(Hence use pan with long handle and maybe oven mitt.)

Flipping works better than stirring. Pick the pan up and toss the buckwheat around a bit, so it toasts evenly. You need to really keep an eye on it or you can burn it, especially once it gets going. After 5-10 minutes you will notice a slight color change (brown to darker brown, or pale greenish to light brown if it was raw). You might even smell an odor like cooking popcorn kernels.

When it's almost done you will need to be watching constantly and maybe flipping every 10-20 seconds or as needed. When buckwheat is nicely heated and evenly toasted, pour in 2 cups of the hot water, which should already be boiling. Carefully and not too fast as it will want to splatter. Put lid on the pan and make sure heat is medium low so it can simmer/low boil. Mine has a glass lid which is helpful.

In 5 minutes check to see how it's coming. If you see water in bottom of pan it's not done. If it's all gone, it's done. Since it's possible to boil some of the water away if your lid doesn't have a good enough seal, or if heat was too high, you could turn off the heat and taste a bit and make sure it's not too chewy. It's unlikely but if it is, your heat was a bit high, and you can add a splash or so of hot water from your teapot with heat on low and let it cook a minute or so more to absorb.

After you cook this a few times you get the hang of it. If you do not heat up the buckwheat first, or if you do not boil the water first, you will end up with mush. If you are using roasted buckwheat, you will not need to toast it as long, but you do need to heat it up evenly and the pan before you add the hot water so I toast it a little to ensure good results.
After you have made it a few times, you get the hang of it and maybe have a favorite pan etc that you find works best.
So as you can see you don't need to add butter or eggs to the buckwheat just to get it too cook up nicely!
ps I've also found that if I do 1.5 cups buckwheat and 3 cups water, results are even more consistent if that's possible. But that's quite a lot of buckwheat.
One way it's great to eat buckwheat leftover is to add a bit of milk and some salt. My kids eat it that way even when it's freshly cooked.

anastasia said...

It was so nice to read that I am not the only person who buys everything in Whole foods, but orders the Russian buckwheat in bulk from the Russian store on the Internet. One bite of the good stuff and you are hooked!

Anonymous said...

The reason buckwheat gets so mushy is that raw whole foods buckwheat needs to be soaked overnight first. The water in the morning will be the consistency of a gel. It will probably be filled with tannins and other unwanted saccharides. Pour it off and rinse thoroughly. Then the buckwheat needs to be dehydrated, and then...finally...toasted in the oven or in a pan and added slowly to boiling water in a 2:1 water:buckwheat ratio. That's the best way to cook it...after much experimentation and frustration! I have a dehydrator for this purpose.