What is spelt flour? It is similar to regular (wheat) flour, but different. In fact, there are many spelt health benefits that you cannot get from wheat flour. The most commonly used flour is made out of wheat grain, but that does not mean that it is healthy. Wheat flour is the main ingredient of white bread, rolls, pizza dough, and just about every other baked good. But at Healthy Hildegard we believe that the spelt vs. wheat discussion is one worth having.
Spelt flour is the same thing in form, but made from spelt grain. So, the best way to answer the question “what is spelt flour?” is to first get familiar with the grain that defines the flour: spelt.
What is Spelt?
Spelt (Triticum Spelta) is an ancient cereal grain in the wheat family. It is similar to wheat in many ways. Spelt, however, is an entirely different species with different qualities. Qualities that were noticed by Hildegard of Bingen.
Where Does Spelt Come From?
The story of spelt flour begins with one of the oldest cultivated grains, dating back thousands of years.
Spelt is often called an “ancient grain.” In fact, spelt was one of the first grains to be ground into flour and used to bake bread, so bread owes part of its history to the spelt bread that came before it.
The spelt grain – sometimes called “berry,” is the seed of the spelt plant, which is a naturally evolved hybrid of ancient prairie grasses. The seed or grain is what is used to produce spelt flour.
Spelt grows in similar conditions as that of wheat, but is much hardier, thriving in a variety of soil conditions and is less demanding of nutrients. It is also much more competitive against weeds and is winter hardy, though some wheat varieties have been bred to be hardier to cold, called “winter wheat.” Spelt can be planted in autumn and harvested mid-summer. It grows like wheat but can be much taller than wheat – and unlike wheat, spelt grain remains in its hull through harvesting.
For this reason, spelt is known as a hulled or “covered” grain, meaning that the seed is protected by a tough, inedible outer layer that covers the grain until it is mechanically removed. The process of separating, blending, and grinding the spelt grain into spelt flour is called milling.
The difficulty involved in removing the hull is part of why modern wheat, with its more fragile outer layer, quickly replaced spelt and other hulled grains in domesticated agriculture.
For a comprehensive overview of spelt, read our post: What is Spelt?
How is Spelt Flour Made?
After the grain is harvested and the grains are separated from the remaining parts of the plant, the spelt grains are sent by truck or rail car to a flour mill where the grains are made into flour through a multi-step milling process.
The spelt grains are tested, inspected, and graded for quality and to ensure that the batch of spelt has desirable characteristics. The spelt is then cleaned and mechanically separated from other seeds, debris, and foreign objects.
The grains are then sent through a system of cooled steel rollers that crush the grain into its various parts. The process of grinding, sifting, and blending is repeated until the desired consistency is achieved. The end result is what we call flour.
Flour is the powdery result of grinding raw grains (like spelt or wheat), but can also be produced from other sources like seeds, nuts, chickpeas, lentils, and potatoes. Flour is the main ingredient in bread and many other baked goods. So, what is spelt flour? It is flour made out of spelt. But what what else makes spelt flour different from regular wheat flour? Let’s take a look.
How is Spelt Flour Different from Traditional Wheat Flour?
Now that we covered what spelt is and how it is processed to make spelt flour, let’s look at the most important part of the question “what is spelt flour?”: How spelt flour differs from traditional wheat flour. First, a bit more about the grain that becomes flour.
The whole spelt (and wheat) grain kernel consists of three primary parts: bran, germ, and endosperm.
Each part of the spelt grain contains its own unique nutrients and attributes. When the whole grain is milled into flour, the entire kernel is milled, thus the bran, germ, and endosperm contribute their nutrients and qualities, which is why spelt flour is the most naturally nutritious flour.
Spelt flour is almost always produced from the whole spelt grain. Wheat flour, however, is predominantly milled to produce more commercially appealing flour derived from only part of the wheat grain. In fact, this is why spelt flour retain its nutritional value better than that of traditional flour.
Most wheat flour producers will separate the endosperm from its germ and bran during the milling process. This type of milling results in a finer texture and longer shelf life. The downside of this additional processing, called refining, is that it reduces the nutrient quality.
In fact, the reduction of nutrients created by refining whole grains is so substantial that the nutritional value of un-enriched white flour is minimal. Specifically, the refined flour contains only one-quarter of the fiber and three-quarters of the protein found in the whole-wheat grain. Furthermore, 17 key nutrients are lost in the process, according to a study by the Whole Grains Council.
In order to replace what was lost through refining, vitamins and minerals are added back into the flour. Typically, these additives consist of the B vitamins of riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, and folic acid. Iron is also added with some producers including calcium.
Most western governments, the USA included, require some form of enrichment specifications and/or labeling requirements. This refined flour is then called enriched or fortified flour, which accounts for an estimated 95% of all wheat flour milled in the US. Thus this is the form of common wheat flour that makes up the majority of flour consumed.
While we prefer whole, natural forms of nutrients (like those that come from nutritious spelt flour), enriched flours are often fortified at levels that exceed the pre-processed levels. With the improved shelf life, these flours have been instrumental in eliminating nutrition-deficit diseases throughout the world.
Spelt Flour is a Whole Grain Flour
Back to the question that is so often searched online — “what is spelt flour?” Spelt flour is almost always milled as a whole grain, so there is no need for enrichment. It is also rarely bleached because part of the appeal of spelt flour is its naturally darker color. Spelt flour is also rarely used commercially in processed foods that focus on visual appeal. Essentially, spelt flour is the unrefined cousin of wheat.
Many spelt mills produce spelt flour using what is called stone milling. This is an ancient process that utilizes natural stone surfaces, better known as milestones, to grind the grain into flour. Stone mills were the first industrialized grain mills. The mills replaced the stone and pestle, though many cultures continue to utilize this technique.
The early stone mills produced a finer and more consistent flour than could be achieved by hand. As a result, these mills were a boom to the local economy. They were also a sign of wealth and status. Prior to electricity, stone mills relied on draft animals, water wheels, or raw human force to turn the stones. The resources required to develop a stone mill were well out of reach for most people.
Modern Flour Milling
Millstones today are really just larger, more efficient, versions of the old stone mills. Most millstones are still sourced from burrstone, which is a textured, porous, and extremely strong sandstone or limestone.
To preserve the freshness of spelt as it is milled to become spelt flour and to minimize friction, the rotating or rolling stone surfaces are cooled as they grind the grain. Stone milling is a popular method of milling for ancient and heirloom grains like spelt as it involves minimal processing, resulting in the most natural and nutritious flour possible.
Stone milling also tends to produce a slightly coarser texture than modern industrial milling, which can present positive attributes or challenges depending on how you intend to use the flour.
If you want to taste the answer to “what is spelt flour?”, see our spelt flour recipes for the many ways you can enjoy the taste and nutritional benefits of whole grain spelt flour.
Spelt Flour was an Important Part of a Medieval Diet
The increasing notoriety of Hildegard of Bingen has helped spelt regain much of the popularity it lost due to the advent of modern wheat cultivation.
During the Middle Ages, spelt or “dinkel” as it is called in Germany where Hildegard lived, was a common grain. Even so, Hildegard of Bingen believed spelt to have healthy, even healing properties.
Unlike wheat, spelt has never been hybridized or genetically modified from its original form, though spelt qualities can vary depending on where it is grown. So unlike modern industrialized grains, spelt is still very much like it was when Hildegard of Bingen recommended it as part of her healthy medieval diet.
For more about Hildegard of Bingen and spelt, see our post Hildegard and spelt.
What is Spelt Flour? a Healthy Alternative to Wheat Flour
Spelt flour has also become increasingly popular because it is a good alternative to wheat flour. Those who cannot tolerate the gluten in wheat flour may tolerate spelt flour. Spelt does contain gluten, so people with moderate to severe gluten allergies or celiac disease need to avoid it as they would wheat. People with mild sensitivities, however, may find spelt flour to be a healthy alternative to wheat flour.
For more details, see our post about spelt and gluten: Is Spelt Gluten Free?.
What is Spelt Flour? Delicious and Nutritious
Most importantly, spelt flour is gaining popularity because it tastes great. Spelt adds a pleasant, slightly sweet and nutty flavor to your favorite recipes. Plus you’ll get the nutritional benefits of whole grain flour without the complexity or compromise that often comes with gluten free flour blends.
Like many of the heirloom grains making a comeback, spelt flour is popular because it has a strong nutritional profile. And for many people – even those without gluten sensitivity, spelt can be easier to digest than wheat.
The hulled aspect of the spelt grain also means it is subjected to fewer pesticides during cultivation. Hulled grains like spelt are also better protected from contaminants throughout the harvesting process. Spelt is an heirloom grain, which means there is a much lower risk of exposure to genetically modified varieties.
We hope we have answered your question, “what is spelt flour?” For more about the benefits of spelt, read our post about Hildegard’s view on spelt.