Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The tricky business of buying farro

My heart sank as I peeled the $8.99 price sticker off the package of farro I got at Whole Foods.  It looked just like the package I bought a few years ago.  What made me suspicious was that after 20 minutes of cooking this farro was still no where near chewable.  Ah-ah! Under the price sticker was hiding that terrible word "Whole."  Could they choose a better place to put that sticker?  What's people's obsession with everything whole anyway?  We do peel eggs and bananas, don't we?  And we normally remove bones from fish even though they are full of calcium.  Why not sell farro in edible form?  If this was my first attempt at cooking it, I would vouch to never go near this grain again, but luckily I've cooked farro many times before and had a feeling I knew what trap I have fallen into.

Let me back up for a minute and explain what farro is.  It's the grains of an ancient wheat variety known as emmer.  I don't know if you noticed, but in the recent years farro has become the darling grain of restaurant chefs.  It has an earthy flavor without the feel of cardboard.  It gets tender quickly, but doesn't turn mushy easily.  It can be used in soups, in salads, in side dishes, and in risotto preparations instead of rice.  Cooking it is idiot proof (assuming you bought the correct product).  If you can boil boxed pasta, you can cook farro.

Buying farro is where things get hairy. The problem is that restaurants and recipe writers just call it "farro."  What they really want to say is "farro perlato" or "pearled farro."  "Pearled" grains are polished to remove most of the outer bran making them more tender.  When I first started cooking farro, about 5 years ago, I was lucky to only come across the pearled variety at my local Whole Foods.  I didn't know what the word "perlato" meant back then and didn't pay attention to it on the package.  I just bought it, cooked it, ate it, and was happy.

Since Whole Foods farro was a bit pricey ($9/Lb), I thought I found a bargain when I saw it at Christina's spices in Cambridge.  It was 4 years ago, so I don't remember the price.  They labeled it "spelt / farro."  Many on-line sources convince me that spelt and farro were the same thing, so I decided to try it.  I remember swearing when after 3 hours of cooking that stupid grain refused to become tender enough to eat.  That's when I thought I had farro buying all figured out.  I now had empirical evidence that spelt and farro were not the same thing and if I wanted farro, I needed to buy farro (ideally, imported from Italy since that's the type I had wonderful results with).

Little did I know that there was plenty more "wrong" farro I could buy.  As I found out on my recent trip to Whole Foods, not everything labeled "farro" and imported from Italy tastes like that heavenly grain I got in restaurants.  My local Whole Foods carries two types of farro.  One is labeled "whole farro" and the other is labeled just plain "farro."  Both of them look and taste just like spelt and in my opinion have no good culinary applications except for being added to salads in small quantities.  Now that I have tried whole farro, I wouldn't be surprised if the emmer wheat that farro comes from and spelt (another type of wheat) are indeed very similar.  The main difference is in how they are processed.  There is no reason why they couldn't polish spelt to rub off the bran like they do for farro perlato.  I have just never seen it sold that way.
Whole Farro on the left / Farro Perlato on the right

I asked the Whole Foods grains guy about farro perlato, and he said they don't carry it (at least not in that store).  I guess they are thinking that "whole" grains sell better to the health conscious Whole Foods shoppers.  The funny thing is that the nutritional labels for whole farro and farro perlato don't look any different.  They both have about the same amount of fiber and protein, so there are no great advantages to inflecting pain and suffering on your jaws.

"Now I am in trouble," I thought.  "Where will I get farro for my beans and grains class?"  I started googling for "farro boston" when a much easier solution dawned on me.  I buy all my cooking tools on-line.  Why not farro?  I was concerned that the shipping costs were going to be nasty.  But eventually, I found one company who sold it through Amazon at a very reasonable price of $12/Lb including shipping.


That's barely more than what Formaggio's in Cambridge charges for farro and definitely more convenient.  It breaks down to $6.50 for farro and $5.50 for shipping.  I ordered one pack to try.  It was perfect.  Now that I took a closer look, the shipping costs per package go down if you order more than one.  So buying 2 packs of this farro on-line is no more expensive than buying it at Whole Foods.

April 13, 2011 update:  Thanks to my wonderful reader, Chris, I was able to locate very inexpensive farro perlato in the Boston area.  I just called Formaggio's Kitchen in Cambridge and they indeed have farro perlato.  2.2 Lb bag sells for $9.  That's half the price of Whole Foods.  Whoever thought to seek a bargain at Formaggio's!

Once you are the proud owner of farro perlato, the rest is easy.  Bring lots of salted water to a boil like you would for pasta.  Stir in farro and cook until tender but toothsome, about 20 minutes.  Drain and serve hot, or rinse in cold water and serve in a salad.  You can also cook it using a risotto method just like you would Arborio (or any other type of risotto rice).

For the dish in the picture, I combined cooked, rinsed, and cooled farro with fennel and radishes (both were sliced on a mandoline), thinly sliced scallions, dill, and sectioned oranges.  I dressed this salad with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  The sexy looking fish on top is broiled sable.

40 comments:

Lyndsey said...

I am so glad that you posted this. I have been looking for farro without any luck finding it. Now I know where to buy it and what kind to get! Thanks!

Louise said...

We're not cosmopolitan enough to have a Whole Foods, but our Fresh Market has Fattoria Pieve a Salti Farro Perlato from Siena, Italy for $3.39 for 9.1 oz. And, this is off topic, Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste, which KA sells for $12.95, for $7.99. And, Valrhona chocolates. Can you tell I went specialty shopping yesterday? :-)

Helen said...

That's a really good price on farro. It's about the same as the one I got on amazon (that package is twice as big), but you don't have to pay shipping :)

chris said...

I've love farro and have been cooking it for a while as well. I've found that Formaggio Kitchen has a couple different options, one of which is a 2 lb bag of farro perlato for under $9.

By the way, I've also found that if I soak the farro in cold water for 20-30 minutes before cooking in boiling water, it cooks faster, and retains a little more aroma and flavor :)

Helen said...

Chris,

Thanks for the tip on Formaggio's. I haven't been there for a while. Maybe their farro isn't as expensive as I remember.

Cheers,
-Helen

Jamie said...

Great article -- I did the same head-scratching as I wondered how it was my (whole) farro was still tough after an hour of cooking. I think it's weird that most recipes don't tell you there are two different kinds.

Like Chris, I've found that if you soak the whole farro for half an hour, you're in business.

Alicia said...

FYI you can buy a semi-pearled farro through amazon... about $18 for 3 lbs. Subscribe so it's delivered on a schedule and get another 15% off. I have mine delivered monthly, and it's $15.40 for the 3 lbs. That's slightly more than what you're paying at your local place in Boston, but the ease of having come right to your door once a month is worth the few extra cents. And I can attest to the fact that it's delicious. Cook on medium heat for 30 min and it's perfect!
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0028VZEJQ/ref=rcx_subs_dp

Helen said...

Thanks Alicia! I am with you on the convenience factor. I used to be willing to go any distance for an ingredient; now with 2 kids, I'll pay whatever it takes to have it delivered to my door :)

Cheers,
-Helen

Anonymous said...

At costco you can get 3 lbs pearled organic farro for $6.99!

Helen said...

Thank you so much for the costco tip. I love their organic quinoa and if I could get farro there, it would be a dream come true. Which costco do you go to? I don't think I've seen farro in mine (Waltham, MA), but maybe I just missed it.

BPfahnl said...

It might also be worth checking the bulk section of your local co-op. My co-op has organic pearled farro on sale this month for $2.79/lb. Regular price is $3.49/lb.

Shirley said...

I found some for $3.79 a lb. in Quincy, at Good Health Natural Foods (couldn't find it at Stop & Shop or Hannaford). I had tasted this great farro salad when eating out and wanted to re-create it at home, but this pearled farro looks different from that salad when cooked. Hmm... wonder if the chef used spelt or something else instead?

Helen said...

Pearled farro tastes completely different from whole farro. Try buying whole to see if that's what you had in a salad. Call the restaurant where you had it and ask them :) If using whole, soak it overnight and then simmer for 30-60 minutes depending on how crunchy you want it.

ashley said...

Good news for Boston farro fans -- J. Pace (North End) now carries 3 pound bags of semipearled farro for $15.99. That's just a little over $5 a pound. I called around before finding it there. Formaggio told me their 1 lb bag of pearled was $8, and Capone said theirs was $7 a pound. Russo's and Whole Foods only stock whole farro right now. And Costco doesn't carry it at all, unfortunately.

Canvas Ranch said...

I am a small farmer in California and I grow farro. It is NOT spelt. And pearled farro takes all the bran off the grain. Hence, less nutrition. I am happy to send you a pound to taste the difference. Just email me!

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Canvas Ranch,

Thank you so much for your generous offer, but I don't accept any products for free. I have tasted both pearled and un-pearled farro. They both have their uses, but are not interchangeable. I prefer pearled and I don't mind reduction in nutrient benefits. I eat for pleasure :)

Cheers,
-helen

Emma said...

Hi Helen,
I just found pearled farro in the bulk grains section at my local Whole Foods. It was $5.99/lb, but this was in Cleveland (I know food is cheaper in the midwest). It was labeled simply 'farro,' but I looked at a grain and it appeared to have the hull removed, so I took a chance on it, and yep, it's pearled.

I just had some, and the taste and texture are nearly identical to a grain I used to eat when I lived in France- a product called Ebly, which is what the Italians call Grano- pearled whole durum wheat berries. It's impossible to find stateside, though, so the farro was an awesome find.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Emma,

So glad you found a reliable source for farro. That's a great price too. Wish my Whole Foods carried it in the bulk isle.

Cheers,
-Helen

Moe said...

Found this post in a google search, where I also found Organic Farro for $3.99 a pound on nuts.com...and they offer bulk discounts.

Just thought I would share in the event you're still spending $9 a pound or someone doesn't know where to look.

Brenda said...

Just got back from my Costco in the Livermore, CA, and they are featuring The Di Amante Farro Perlato for $6.99/3-lb bag. The shipment arrived a couple months ago and they want to move it. I think they get it in once a year or once every other year. My favorite recipe is a broccoli salad with cooked farro but also use as a platform for fish and add nuts and dried fruit.

Brenda said...

The Costco in Livermore, CA is featuring it for $6.99/3-lb bag. For the past two years, they get it in once a year until it sells out. Not sure why they would carry quinoa all year over the Di Amante Farro Perlato just once a year -- it's also USDA Organic.

Helen Rennie said...

Thanks Brenda! I've asked my Costco in Waltham, MA several times, and they said they don't carry it. But maybe I asked at the wrong time of the year. Will try again :)

Roberto Donati said...

Although pearled and semi-pearled farro is easier and faster to cook, it has also been stripped or partly stripped of its fiber and nutrient rich bran. If you have the patience to soak overnight, use whole farro to advantage of its amazing flavor and tremendous nutritional benefits.

Helen Rennie said...

pearled farro still has a ton of fiber and protein. Whole farro doesn't work in some dishes (like risotto). Also some people find the chewiness to be unpleasant and in some cases it causes digestive distress (only for some people). there is no better or worse farro. It depends on what you like.

Anonymous said...

In Atlanta at he dekalb farmers market, the Italian pearled is $2.99 a pound last I checked and delicious.

Anonymous said...

I found 100% organic semi-pearled farro from Abruzzo Italy - reasonably priced - at this online store: gourmetfoodcorner.com. The exact link to the product is the following:

http://www.gourmetfoodcorner.com/pantry-essentials/grains-beans-legumes/farro-semi-pearled-casino-di-caprafico

Anonymous said...

$9.00 a pound is an obscene mark-up on pearled farro. Whole Foods really asks for too much.

ben said...

Thanks so much for clearing up the confusion about farro/spelt/pearled,non- pearled, etc. Even in Peoria, Il farro doesn't cost $9.00 per lb! I buy the whole grain farro by bulk at a local health food store for about a third the cost. Cooking time isn't really a problem because I use a pressure cooker.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Ben,

I just bought a pressure cooker last week. Would you mind sharing your timing for farro? Is it pearled or not? What pressure are you using?

Thanks!
-Helen

Lee said...

I bought whole farro at Whole Foods recently and was thrilled to find it! I didn't know that there was whole, pearled and semi-pearled at the time, and although I like the chewiness of the whole farro, I'm on the hunt now to find and try pearled! Great discussion!

Leala said...

COSTCO!!!

Helen Rennie said...

Yes, Costco finally started carrying it even in the Boston area :)

Rex said...

Hi Helen,

Thanks for writing this...I am one of those people who can't digest whole grains of any kind. Have you found some farro to be more pearled than others? I would really like to find the white rice version of farro (no bran or germ at all) I don't care about the nutrition, only digestibility...I live in Brookline. Besides Formaggio's, anywhere else you can recommend?

Helen Rennie said...

The one sold at Russo's is pretty polished. Costco started carrying it, but they didn't have it last time I was there. Theirs is pretty polished too.

Rex said...

Thanks a lot for that tip Helen. I just went today and the farro was as polished as I think I can hope for...they had two types of farro perlato (pearled farro). One was tightly sealed and organic, the other came in a box.

Johnny Smith said...

The whole trick to cooking the whole form you had trouble with is you have to soak in in water for 8 to 16 hours and then cook it. Locally (Snohomish County, WA) it sells for $3.99 a pound.

Helen Rennie said...

Yes, I soak whole farro, and it's delicious in salads, but doesn't work well in risotto type dishes.

handsoftimeconcierge said...

I usually buy my farro at Southend Formaggio. On a recent trip to Trader Joe's in Brookline I looked to see if they had it there and found only the quick-cooking kind. I was skeptical, but it a smaller bag and a fraction of the cost so I bought it. I am surprised at how good it comes out.

Ellen S said...

Whole grains do not have their bran removed. Bran is fiber (fibre). It is good for us! Eating fiber is not like eating fish bones or scales, or banana peels. . . Perhaps you were jesting? I wonder if you use brown rice. It is just white rice that hasn't had the bran layer removed, ergo, it takes longer to cook. Like whole farro. I like both whole and partial (!) grains, but find that I use the whole more and more often. And buy the refined ones less. Just taste better.

Anonymous said...

I too am dismayed at the high price of this grain. I began to buy it in bulk form at Whole foods Somerville. It's the only WF store that sold it this way. Unfortunately, they discontinued it and now stock it pre-packaged on the shelf from Italy as "Whole Farro" $8.99/lb or, one can buy the less costly "Red Mill" which has been "polished" for faster cooking, $3.99 LB.
I have no patience with soaking or long cooking methods and have had great results cooking whole Farro in 7-9 minutes using a pressure cooker....that right, the old fashioned Presto 5 quart I inherited from my mother who aquired it 60 years ago. One part grain to one &1/4 part water ( little salt).
I first had this grain in a fantastic smoked gravlax dish, in a cream sauce at TW Foods on Waldon St. I now use it to sub for all other starches, it goes great with steak or any fish. It can be easily made into a Pilaf or rissotto style only after it's cooked to your desired doneness. The whole grain rules. The Perlato is a compromised grain, however, it's half the price. Wish I could find this for less money.
Thanks for your blog!