For some, Italian cuisine is nearly synonymous with carbohydrates – people immediately think of wheat-rich pasta, and pizza dough; crusty Italian bread, and creamy risottos.
But there is far more to cucina italiana than pasta and pizza. Today, we’ll be investigating the most common grains found in Italian cooking.
The Mediterranean diet is upheld as one of the best in the world, with the average life expectancy being 83.20 years (compared to the US average life expectancy of 78.79 years).
Diet in the Mediterranean consists of healthy fats (such as olive oil), colorful veggies, and a small amount of meat or fish. The largest component of the Mediterranean diet, though, is still grains and cereals. (Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest is where we get the word “cereal.”)
Often, these grains are whole, such as spelt, barley, and corn, meaning that they’re jam packed with fiber and protein, alongside all their slow release of energy boosting carbs.
Farro is the Italian (and ethnobotanical) word for three types of hulled wheat. Hulled wheat refers to wheat that cannot be threshed. The three types of wheat referred to as farro are:
- Emmer wheat (also referred to as farro grande), which is an ancient variety of hard wheat.
- Spelt (also referred to as farro piccolo)
- Einkorn wheat (also referred to as farro medio)
Emmer wheat is the most common variety of farro grown in Italy, and is often thought of as the most high-quality wheat for cooking, meaning it is sometimes called ‘true farro’. It is usually grown in the mountain regions of Tuscany and Abruzzo.
Farro has been eaten in Italy since ancient times – its name actually comes from the Latin word for flour – ‘farina’.
There is some confusion, especially in native English speakers, as to what farro actually means – in America, ‘farro’ is frequently used to refer to any kind of steamed or boiled grain, presented in salads or similar foods.
In terms of texture and taste, farro resembles brown rice, and has a nutty flavor, that is similar to that of oats and barley. It is used in salads, and to make a farro risotto, amongst other dishes.
All three types of grains that make up ‘farro’ are nutrient-dense, and can easily be part of a healthy diet. The tough (but tasty) husk on farro grains does make it more difficult to process than other commercially available grains, but also means that their nutrients stay intact through the cooking process.
They contain little fat and are packed with fiber and protein, as well as vitamins A & E, magnesium, and iron. A one-cup portion of farro will contain to grams of fat, 47 grams of carbohydrates, eight grams of protein, and six grams of fiber.
Compared to rice, it had double the amount of protein, and is the most fibrous contemporarily popular grain.
With many ancient grains coming back into fashion (though, people in the regions that grown farro will say it never went out of style), you might be jonesing to get your hands on a packet of farro and see if it holds a candle to your beloved quinoa (we promise that it will).
Look out for it in your local supermarket, where farro is often referred to as ‘Italian mixed grains’ or ‘Italian wheat’. Alternately, it can be ordered off of specialist retailers online.
As a type of wheat, all types of farro are not suitable for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Polenta is a pantry staple in Italy. It has its roots in northern peasant cooking, but now is one of the most versatile component of many types of Italian cuisine, featured in multiple dishes, ranging from hot porridge, a loaf, or cooked into fries – a common menu item at fancy modern Italian restaurants.
Polenta is made out of corn – through the process of drying corn, and then grinding it into a fine meal or flour consistency. It has a rich yellow (reminiscent of the color of bright egg yolks), and a slightly sweet flavor.
Polenta can be cooked with a liquid component to make a creamy, hot and thick dish (a lot like warm winter oatmeal), or can be allowed to cool, set and then be sliced (which can be served instead of other carbohydrates – like pasta, potatoes and rice).
It can also be used in the place of flour in baked goods, and breadcrumbs to coat fried food.
You can buy polenta grains from most supermarkets, delis, and specialist stores year round (though it might be labeled as corn meal). Note – never buy corn flour expecting polenta, ac cornflour is just the starch derived from the corn grain, and won’t cook as you expect.
Rice (or, as the Italians call it, ‘riso’) is one of the most widely-eaten grains globally, and Italy is no exception. In fact, Italy is the largest producer of rice in the whole of Italy, and the northern region of Lombardy is the countries ‘rice bowl’ (particularly the provinces, Lodi, Mantua, Milano, and Pavia).
Rice is produced by the Oryza sativa plant. In Italy, rice is grown between April to October, and there are many varieties that can be found in the irrigated Lombardian paddies.
The most common types of rice are Carnaroli, Arborio, Vialone Nano, Baldo, Lotus, Balilla, Selenium, Rome, Gladius, Volcano, and Nembo.
There is a multitude of rice types available on shop shelves in Italy. The Carnaroli and Arborio varieties are most commonly used for the preparation of risotto dishes. There are also incredibly fun types of rice that other parts of the world don’t necessarily have.
Riso orange and riso violet, which are naturally colored rice cultured and cultivated by Eleonora Bertolone and her company in Collobiano.
These types of rice get their names from the vivid colors they turn – orange and purple, respectively – when cooked. They are often used as a vibrant side dish and are served alongside a variety of meat and fish dishes.
Semolina wheat flour is a coarse, purified wheat middlings (which means that they are produced in the intermediate milling stages of the wheat production process) of durum wheat. Semolina is used to make couscous to puddings, but is mainly used in Italy in the manufacture of pasta.
Italian semolina typically comes in different types, which are essentially differentiated on their ‘graininess’, though this differentiation seems to be lost in the English language, with all of them being referred to as semolina. Here is how to differentiate between them, and know what to use them for:
- Semola – milled multiple times, this is the finest type of durum wheat flour. It is ised in fresh pasta, pastry crèmes, sauces, and in pâtisserie without yeast. Look for packets of semolina that say ‘semola rimancinata di grano duro’.
- Semolato – medium milled durum wheat, that is usually used in dry and fresh pasta, as well as machine-made homemade bread.
- Semola Integrale – the coarsest, as it is ground including the wheat germ. It appears brown and is fiber rich. It can be used in anything that semolina can be used in – just be prepared for it to be wholemeal.
- Semolina – fine milled durum wheat, used in pâtisserie with yeast and flatbreads, as well as pasta, bread and pizza dough.
‘Semolina’ is also occasionally used to refer to designate coarse middlings from other types of wheat (i.e., not durum wheat), or even other grains entirely, like rice and corn.