A new grain – Kernza – finds its way into products
There’s something in wheat that speaks to our American souls.
We sing to “amber waves of grain.” Wheat sheaves were minted on the backs of pennies until 1959. Wheat, milled into flour, earned Minneapolis the nickname of Bread Basket of the World.
Now a new grain, bred from intermediate wheatgrass — a different species but a wild cousin of wheat — is being introduced to our farms. After nearly a half-decade of research and development, Kernza is entering the market as a delicious, healthful grain.
Kernza grains are a pretty mahogany color and the size of rice or grass seed. When cooked, whole-grain Kernza has a wheaten, slightly nutty flavor with notes of molasses. Marshall Paulson of the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis tosses cooked Kernza into pancakes, savory waffles and grain salads.
“It adds a chewiness and texture and a nice nuttiness to the mix,” he says. Paulson also makes crackers and tortillas with Kernza flour milled for wholesale use by Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Minneapolis.
“The flour has a unique personality,” Paulson says. “Its slightly sweet, grassy flavor reflects the land where it’s grown.”
Jeff Casper, co-proprietor of Dumpling & Strand, those innovative “noodlers at large” in St. Paul, is making long fettuccine-shaped pasta with Kernza, which is sold at their stand at two farmers markets and at local food co-ops and several stores (see dumplingandstrand.com for complete list).
“We’re looking at ways to showcase Kernza’s distinct rye-like flavor and soft brown color, ” Casper says. He is adding a levain (sourdough starter) to the pasta dough to give it a little tang. He suggests serving Kernza pasta tossed with a parsley pesto or mushrooms sautéed in browned butter.
“Our noodles are not a blank canvas or carrier for other foods, they are equal partners on the plate,” he says.
A useful crop
The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., is responsible for domesticating Kernza, and has trademarked its name (hence the capitalization). In 2013, it began collaborating with the University of Minnesota, where agronomy professor Don Wyse leads the Forever Green Initiative. This team of researchers, farmers, food producers and entrepreneurs is developing and promoting the use of new crops that enhance water and soil quality.
A crop of Kernza covers the farm year-round and is not tilled for planting each season; it absorbs water and prevents runoff, reduces erosion, captures carbon and provides year-round ground cover for wildlife.
“These perennial crops add to the productivity and profitability of a farm, creating new economic opportunities while enhancing our environment,” says Jacob Jungers, a University of Minnesota ecologist.
Carmen Fernholz, a farmer in Madison, Minn., has been growing Kernza for five years. The crop produces years of harvests and provides grazing for cattle in the spring and fall. Grown organically, it eliminates the need for chemicals, cutting costs dramatically.