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Did you grow up eating buckwheat pancakes and loving (or hating) kasha? Maybe you’ve tasted buckwheat crepes in Brittany, slurped soba noodles in Japanese restaurants, or have a passing acquaintance with blinis and caviar? If so, you might think that you know buckwheat, but...
You may not have noticed that buckwheat has crept (no pun intended) into the repertoire of pastry chefs and bakers. We find buckwheat beguiling in all kinds of desserts and baked goods. The Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies from my book, Pure Dessert, attracted a minor cult following in blogs and pastry kitchens ten years ago. These days I make buckwheat soufflés, biscuits, scones, sponge cakes, butter cakes, gingerbread, cookies, and crackers. Buckwheat is one of my favorite flours.
Its name notwithstanding, buckwheat is a pseudo-cereal—neither grass nor grain—and has nothing to do with wheat. Gluten- and grain-free, buckwheat has more protein, fiber, and B vitamins than an equal weight of oats or whole wheat flour, and it’s a good source of potassium. If you are an avid omnivore (like me) such details are incidental; you’ll fall in love with buckwheat for its robust, earthy, grassy, slightly bitter (in a good way), hoppy flavors, which also has hints of rose.
Buckwheat can be purchased as whole groats (little pyramid shaped seeds), toasted or raw, or as a fine, slightly crystalline flour that’s slate-y lavender brown, flecked with darker bits of hull.
Beyond Kasha and Porridge: Fun with Whole Buckwheat Groats
Of course, you can make the iconic “kasha” side dish (rather like pilaf) or porridge, by cooking groats accordingly to the packet's instructions. But why not get a creative with this unique faux grain? Toasted buckwheat groats are crunchy and flavorful, like tiny nuts, and can be used like nuts, to top salads or enhance granola, like so:
Add some to cookie or cracker dough why don’t you? I can even imagine a crunchy chocolate bark or a seedy brittle. Buy groats pre-toasted for a bold, nutty flavor, or raw for a subtle, grassy flavor. Regardless of how you buy them, toast them (again) in a dry skillet, stirring constantly over medium heat, until they are fragrant and a shade darker than they started. Pre-toasted groats will become a darker shade of brown and their hulls will start to burst. Raw groats will lose their pale green and tan hues and turn a light brown—but don’t toast these long enough for the hulls to burst or they will have a burnt flavor. Once cool, put groats in a jar and use them as you will.
Baking with Buckwheat Flour
As a general baking rule, replacing all of the wheat flour in a recipe with a single non-wheat flour is a recipe for disaster, unless other alterations and changes are made to the recipe to avoid the outcome falling apart, tasting like sawdust, or otherwise misbehaving. Some of you know this from sad experience—and that’s why whole books are written on gluten-free baking! Buckwheat flour can be particularly tricky in batters because excessive mixing or beating may produce some rather scary (and bad tasting) cement. All of this to say that specific recipes—rather than freestyling it in the kitchen—are usually needed to bake successfully with buckwheat.
Fortunately, there are exceptions…
Pancakes, Waffles, and Crepes
Pancakes, waffles, and crepes provide exceptions to the usual perils of freestyle gluten-free baking. These breakfast favorites get plenty of structure from eggs, so it’s relatively safe and easy to replace regular all-purpose wheat flour with a gluten-free flour such as buckwheat. And, these recipes call for mixing just enough to blend wet and dry ingredients without beating or whipping—so there is little risk of reinventing cement! Simply take your family’s favorite recipe and replace the all-purpose wheat flour for an equal amount of buckwheat flour (by weight or volume). Adjust the fluidity of the batter with extra liquid or flour, as you might ordinarily do when a batter is a bit too thick or thin. Just one thing: If you are new to the distinctive (and arguably assertive) flavor of buckwheat, do start gently, by using a half and half combo of buckwheat flour and rice flour (white or brown) to replace the wheat flour. (If gluten is not a problem for you, simply replace half or any part of the all-purpose wheat flour with an equal quantity of buckwheat flour.)
Buckwheat pancakes, waffles or crepes are especially delicious with sour cream or crème fraiche and honey or berry syrup or fresh blackberries. Try buckwheat blintzes, or make this beaut:
Using buckwheat flour and wheat flour together
If you are not living gluten-free, it’s fun and easy to experiment by introducing small amounts of buckwheat flour to favorite baked goods. You can generally swap 25% of the wheat flour with buckwheat flour (by weight or volume) in cookies, muffins, scones, or biscuits, and even cakes and quick bread, and crackers, without a problem. Some results may be extra delicate or tender due to the reduction in gluten, but this can be a plus. If you like your results, swap a bit more of the flour next time.
Flavor affinities for buckwheat
Walnuts, toasted hazelnuts, figs, blackberries, plums, dried fruit, plum and blackberry preserves, dark spices, coffee, rose, brown sugar, honey, sour cream, crème fraiche, goat cheese…
For recipes that feature buckwheat flour together with all-purpose wheat flour, see Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich. For entire chapters—and a real celebration—of gluten-free buckwheat desserts, see Flavor Flours, soon to be released in paperback as Gluten-Free Flavor Flours.