Buckwheat groats, the seeds of a flowering plant, frequently appear in recipes for a raw food diet, and in products such as buckwheat flour, soba noodles, and kasha, or roasted groats. Buckwheat comes from the Fagopyrum esculentum plant, which is related to rhubarb and sorrel. In Asia, buckwheat comes from the related Fagopyrum tataricum plant.
Buckwheat has been cultivated for more than 8,000 years and is sometimes called an ancient grain. It was a common crop worldwide until nitrogen fertilizer was introduced in the 20th century, which increased the production of corn and wheat. As a result, these crops were planted in fields formerly used for buckwheat, and the production of buckwheat fell dramatically, although it still figures prominently in Eastern European cuisines.
What Is Buckwheat?
The name buckwheat causes some confusion; this gluten-free seed is unrelated to wheat, although it can be used in place of wheat grains such as bulgur, wheat berries, spelt, and freekeh, using the same cooking method. Although it does cost more, buckwheat is still a comparatively inexpensive source of high-quality protein. The triangular kernels are considered a "pseudocereal," the category name for seeds from non-grass plants commonly consumed in the same way as grains. Amaranth and quinoa are also pseudocereals.
Because it has no relation to wheat, buckwheat is gluten-free. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other cereals, but it is not found in seeds of flowering plants. While buckwheat lacks gluten, there can be cross-contamination if it's processed and packaged in a facility that also processes wheat. Some people are allergic to buckwheat as well.
How to Cook Buckwheat
Rinse buckwheat, then cook it in a 1:2 ratio of water. Bring the water to a boil, add the buckwheat groats and some salt, let it come to a boil again and then cover the pot, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook it for about 15 minutes or until it becomes tender.
Buckwheat groats can be ground into flour for use in noodles, crepes, pancakes, and many gluten-free products; it is the primary ingredient in Japanese soba noodles, but many brands include some wheat flour as well, so packaged soba noodles may not be gluten-free. For those on a raw food diet, raw buckwheat groats add texture and nutrition to granola, cookies, cakes, crackers, and other bread-like products. They can also be sprouted for use on sandwiches and in salads. Anyone can add a satisfyingly nutty crunch to any dish, from yogurt to soup to salads, with a sprinkle of raw buckwheat groats. Buckwheat, which becomes gelatinous in liquid, also makes a good binding agent for baking.
What Does It Taste Like?
With a stronger flavor than common grains such as wheat, oats, and rice, buckwheat may seem a little bitter in comparison. The naturally toasty, nutty flavor becomes more intense with roasting.
Many recipes temper the intensity of buckwheat with portions of like ingredients, such as wheat flour in buckwheat pancakes, but others highlight the earthy flavor of the crunchy kernels.
Where to Buy Buckwheat
Most grocery stores stock packages of buckwheat groats; check the baking and cereal aisles or look near the rice and beans. Buckwheat flour should be on the baking aisle or possibly stocked with the international products. Some natural food stores sell buckwheat groats in the bulk bins. Look for kasha, pre-toasted buckwheat groats, near the breakfast oats. You can also find varied buckwheat products from raw groats to packaged crackers online.
Store dried buckwheat groats as you would any grain, in an airtight container protected from light, heat, and moisture. It does not have a particularly long shelf life, however. The Whole Grains Council recommends using buckwheat groats within two months. Buckwheat flour should also be stored in an airtight container, and it should be used right away, or within a month. Keeping it in the freezer doubles its shelf life.
Raw Buckwheat vs. Kasha
Toasted buckwheat is used to make traditional dishes in several different cultures. Generally, toasted buckwheat is referred to as kasha in the United States. If you are looking for raw buckwheat groats, you'll avoid kasha. You can always tell by the color and the aroma. Kasha is a much darker reddish-brown color and has a strong nutty, toasted scent to it. Raw buckwheat groats are light brown or green and don't have much of an aroma at all. You can sprout them or use them in a variety of raw food recipes.
Yanagida N, Sato S, Takahashi K, et al. Reactions of Buckwheat-Hypersensitive Patients during Oral Food Challenge Are Rare, but Often Anaphylactic. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2017;172(2):116-122. doi:10.1159/000456008