Whole grain freekeh hails from the Middle East and North Africa, where it has been consumed for centuries, especially in southern Lebanon and Egypt. But its more recent rise in the United States can be partly traced to an appearance on an "Oprah Winfrey Show" segment in 2010. Vegetarians and vegans might be credited for starting the "ancient grain" food trend that includes quinoa and teff, but it's gaining in popularity among mainstream American consumers looking for healthy, interesting alternatives to oats and rice.
What Is Freekeh?
Occasionally called "farik" or "frik," freekeh is a healthy whole grain, similar to bulgur wheat, farro, spelt, and wheat berries but with distinct characteristics. The Arabic-derived word "freekeh," from farak, which means "to rub," refers to the production process, not the name of a plant. Growers harvest durum wheat before it fully ripens, then burn the stalks to remove the chaff. The moist young grains survive the fire, and vigorous "rubbing" or threshing releases the now toasty green kernels.
How to Cook Freekeh
Whole freekeh takes about 45 to 50 minutes to cook, but you can commonly purchase it cracked, which cuts that time in half without removing the nutritional content of the whole grain.
Cover whole freekeh generously with water or broth and bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 45 minutes or so until the grains reach your desired consistency. After, you can simply drain any excess water. To prepare cracked freekeh, use a little bit more than the common 2:1 ratio of liquid to grains, so about 2 1/2 cups of water or vegetable broth for every 1 cup of freekeh. Simmer freekeh, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes or until the grains absorb all of the liquid and soften. Fluff it with a fork before you serve it. Like with pasta, some people prefer to cook freekeh in salted water with a bit of oil, but you can try it both ways and determine if this is your personal preference or not.
If you're already used to cooking with whole grains, you'll have plenty of ideas for using freekeh, from whole grain salads to pilafs, stir-fries, risottos, tabbouleh, and soups. If you can make it with rice, you can probably substitute freekeh—sushi, anyone?
What Does It Taste Like?
The smoky flavor of freekeh differentiates it from other wheat products such as bulgur or wheat berries, though it has a similar nuttiness and chewy texture. You can also purchase pre-seasoned freekeh, such as in tamari or rosemary sage flavors.
You can substitute freekeh for nearly any whole grain in nearly any recipe, so anytime you would use rice, bulgur, wheat berries, quinoa, or any of the other ancient grains, you can choose quick-cooking freekeh instead.
Where to Buy Freekeh
Many natural grocers stock cracked freekeh along with the other packaged whole grains, but, unlike other whole grains, it's hard to find freekeh in the bulk foods section. Occasionally, you may find it in the ethnic foods aisle, along with other Middle Eastern foods. Many smaller co-ops and organic grocery stores stock this grain as well. Freekeh importers have store locators on their websites, and of course, it's widely available online. A specialty shop with Middle Eastern products might stock imported brands.
Follow any tips for whole grain storage to keep freekeh fresh in your pantry. Generally, store it in an airtight container away from heat, moisture, and light; properly stored, whole freekeh can last for several years without going rancid. Cracked grains don't stay fresh quite as long, so if you plan to store cracked freekeh for more than a few months, keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. You can save leftover cooked freekeh in an airtight container in the refrigerator for three or four days, or in the freezer for up to three months.
Nutrition and Benefits
Similar to power-packed sprouts, young freekeh grains retain more nutrition than grains harvested after they fully ripen. A 3/4-cup serving of cooked freekeh (about 1/4 cup of uncooked grains) contains about 130 calories and less than 1 gram of fat. It also delivers 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of dietary fiber. Most notably, it packs a whopping 80 percent of the recommended daily value of manganese and a significant dose of B vitamins, which support your body's metabolic functions. It's also high in zinc and iron, which are important for bone and muscle health.
Like quinoa, freekeh makes an excellent source of protein for vegetarians and vegans. It’s free of cholesterol and sodium and contains no saturated fat. It’s also credited with being a prebiotic, encouraging the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Freekah is a low-glycemic grain and contains lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that fight against the free radicals that can lead to aging and heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.