Buckwheat, a small 'grain' with a big impact

Martin Philip, King Arthur Baking Co.

Can a cookie bake a difference? With buckwheat, the answer just might be yes.

Buckwheat seeds before dehulling and milling for flour or processing into kasha or groats

YATES COUNTY — I don’t brake for cookies. I’ll travel cross-country for a croissant or take a plane for a pizza, but I won’t get off the couch for a cookie unless it's seriously special.  

Buckwheat flour made at Birkett Mills in Penn Yan is the  key to making Martin Philip's Buckwheat-Cardamom Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

Recently I found that cookie. Crispy edges, melty center, chunks of dark chocolate cloaked in the fragrance of browned butter and cardamom: this is the one. And my excitement goes beyond what’s on the tray. The bigger story here is a special ingredient, one that's both a baking and an environmental powerhouse. 

Buckwheat, it’s not wheat 

Buckwheat, named for its triangular seed that resembles that of the beech tree (“boec,” meaning beech in Dutch became “buck” in modern English), is a fruit, or pseudo-cereal. Though it’s often treated like a grain, it’s not technically a grain like wheat or rye; instead, it’s related to rhubarb and knotweed and is gluten-free. (Yes, the name is confusing.)

Native to Asia and one of the oldest cultivated crops, buckwheat traveled westward across Eastern Europe to France. Most of what we see on our tables today takes one of four primary forms: flour (used for everything from bread to brownies, blini, pancakes, and French galettes), groats (the hulled seeds), kasha (the hulled seeds, toasted), and noodles (predominantly soba from Japan but also other versions in Italy). 

At the height of the American buckwheat boom in the 1860s, over 1 million acres were planted. Nothing could beat buckwheat’s ability to grow quickly in unimproved soil (maturing to harvest in 90 days, much quicker than wheat at over 200 days) and feed people. With more nutritional value than traditional grains, it was unrivaled as a fast “pioneer crop.”

“Buckwheat is one tough customer,” says Klaas Martens, a third-generation farmer in Penn Yan. “You can throw it in dust and it’ll sprout.” 

The disappearance of  "nature's fertilizer"

I asked Klaas about the decline of buckwheat acreage from its high point in the 1860s to a low of only 50,000 acres in the 1960s. Klaas links the reduction in acreage to the use of chemical fertilizers. “The balance [of nutrients] in the soil is something that farmers picked up intuitively over the years but were ‘freed from’ when we started inventing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,” he explains. “[The fertilizers and pesticides] allowed us to plant whatever we wanted or made the most money on.” Klaas knows about this firsthand. He originally worked his land conventionally, but he ultimately experienced negative health effects that he related to the use of chemical herbicides on his fields. 

There had to be a better way. “How did farmers do this before we had these products?” he thought. Searching for the root of previous best practices, Klaas found his way to a soil manual from the 1920s that stated simply, “Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control.” Looking at his own farm, Klaas was inspired by the idea that farming methods and crops like buckwheat could hold the solution to pest and weed control and show the way beyond chemical fertilizers.  

The buckwheat solution 

Klaas tells the story of a class he took in college. The professor had students test a soil sample for phosphorus, an essential element for early plant growth. “He was playing a trick on us,” relates Klaas. “The sample had no phosphorus.” With everyone scratching their heads, the professor asked, “How would you grow a crop on this land?” The consensus among students was to apply fertilizer. “That might work, but there’s a better solution: plant buckwheat,” said his professor, who went on to explain that there was phosphorus in the soil, but that it was chemically bound to other minerals and unavailable to plants. Buckwheat roots can dissolve those chemical bonds, freeing phosphorus in amounts that exceed what the plant itself needs for growth. In essence, buckwheat unlocks the door, helping transition the soil and create a supportive environment for subsequent crops without the need for chemical fertilizers.

Combining buckwheat, Robson Farm, Hall, N.Y.

Again, farmers used to know this. Going back to the buckwheat boom, early farmers had significant difficulty with wheat (which needs lots of available phosphorus), but over time they learned that wheat (and legumes like beans) performed better after buckwheat, benefiting from buckwheat’s soil-transforming power.

“We talk about ‘peak oil,’ but really, we’re in the days of ‘peak phosphorus,’” says Klaas. Current estimates project that the world’s remaining supplies of phosphorus will last 20 years given the current rate of agricultural use. Conventional farming, with significant reliance on the chemical application of phosphorus, a mined mineral, will need to find a different model to feed our growing planet. 

A crop like buckwheat, which frees phosphorous in the soil, can be part of the solution.

From crop to cookie 

So let’s make these Buckwheat-Cardamom Chocolate Chunk Cookies. First stop, find some flour.  

Between Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, the land is well-suited for agriculture. Years ago, “buckwheat mills and flour mills and gristmills and more” lined the Keuka Lake Outlet, according to Jonathan Monfiletto of the Yates County History Center. But these days, a single icon remains.  

The Birkett Mills, established in 1797.

The Birkett Mills, founded in Penn Yan in 1797, has milled continuously in the same location since 1824 (the previous structure burned down in 1823). A family-owned business, Birkett produces a variety of milled and whole grains, specializing in buckwheat — a traditional Finger Lakes crop — and producing whole, dark, and light buckwheat flour as well as groat and kasha products.

Receiving buckwheat at The Birkett Mills, Penn Yan.

“We need more farmers to grow buckwheat,” says Kyle Gifford, the president and COO of The Birkett Mills, explaining that demand — whether from the old-timers around Penn Yan who still enjoy their buckwheat pancakes to restaurants in New York City making fresh soba noodles — is on the rise. 

Birkett Mill's Pocono brand of organic light buckwheat flour.

For my cookie, I’ve chosen their organic light buckwheat. It’s stone-milled and milder than the dark or whole flour grades. In addition to the floral earthiness of the buckwheat, the flour makes for an incredibly tender cookie because it lacks gluten.  

Layered over the buckwheat aroma is a rich toasty hit from the browned butter. The best way to describe the butter is to say that it smells like hot buttered popcorn. Yes, it’s that good. Chocolate chunks (a mixture of semisweet and bittersweet) balance the richness with depth and, for one small element of surprise, I use a little cardamom to accentuate the floral notes of the cookie.  

What emerges from the oven is a cookie with a crispy, deeply colored, slightly wrinkled edge. (Dark brown sugar is my sweetener of choice here, for deeper flavor to complement the dark chocolate.)

Buckwheat-Cardamom Chocolate Chunk Cookies
are made with buckwheat flour, feature rich, nutty browned butter, and the signature flavor of ground cardamom.

Moving in from the crispy edge is a middle that takes a few minutes to set but remains pliable once fully cooled. Throughout the cookie are pools of bittersweet chocolate that, due to higher cocoa solids, hold their shape better than milk or semisweet, which more fully melt into the dough during baking. The coarse salt (I’m using Maldon) on top heightens everything and the cardamom brings its own aromatic contribution to the party.

Yes, I will brake for this cookie, and you should, too. It’s not every day that you pass by something so good for the soul and great for the soil.

To bake your own difference with delicious cookies, pancakes, or savory crêpes, be sure to snag some of The Birkett Mills' organic light buckwheat flour. 

Martin Philip

Martin Philip is a baker and award-winning author. His book, "Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes," is a Wall Street Journal bestseller and was awarded the 2018 Vermont Book Award as well as the best cookbook of 2018 by the New York Book Industry Guild. He is a MacDowell Fellow and a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory. 

Article and images reprinted with permission of King Arthur Baking Co., and originally appeared on their blog at: https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/blog

Buckwheat-Cardamom Chocolate Chunk Cookies

These oversized chocolate chunk cookies, made with buckwheat flour, feature rich, nutty browned butter and the signature flavor of ground cardamom. Crispy on the edges and softer toward the center, they’re a chocolate chip cookie lover’s dream come true. Special thanks to baker-blogger Joy Wilson (Joy the Baker), whose Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies with Pecans are the inspiration for these. 

PREP -- 20 mins. BAKE -- 10 to 12 mins. TOTAL -- 4 hrs. 50 mins. YIELD -- 12 large cookies.

Ingredients

  • 16 tablespoons (227g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup (213g) dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup (99g) granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/4 cups (270g) buckwheat flour*
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, to taste*
  • 2/3 cup (113g) semisweet chocolate, wafers or chopped from a bar
  • 2/3 cup (113) bittersweet chocolate, wafers or chopped from a bar
  • coarse salt, to sprinkle on top

Instructions

  1. To brown the butter: Place half the butter (113g) in a medium skillet and melt it over medium heat, swirling the pan occasionally. The butter will foam and froth as it cooks and start to crackle and pop. Once the crackling stops, keep a close eye on the melted butter, continuing to swirl the pan at intervals. The butter will become fragrant, and brown bits will form on the bottom. Once the bits are amber brown (about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes or so after the sizzling stops), remove the butter from the burner and pour it into a small bowl, brown bits and all. Allow it to cool for 20 minutes. 
  2. To make the dough: In a large bowl, beat the remaining 114g of butter with the brown sugar for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture is very smooth. Beat in the vanilla. 
  3. Pour the cooled brown butter into the bowl along with the granulated sugar. Beat for 2 minutes, until smooth; the mixture will lighten in color and become fluffy. 
  4. Add the eggs and beat for another minute.
  5. Add the flour, salt, baking soda, and cardamom, beating on low speed just until everything is thoroughly combined. 
  6. Use a spatula to fold in the chopped chocolate.
  7. Scoop the dough into 12 equal pieces (about 90g each); a muffin scoop works well here. Place onto a piece of parchment paper, waxed paper, or plastic wrap, cover, and refrigerate for at least four hours, or up to two days. 
  8. To bake the cookies: About 15 minutes before you're ready to begin baking, preheat your oven to 375°F with racks in the center and upper third. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) three baking sheets. If you don’t have three pans, plan to bake in batches.
  9. Arrange four cookies on each pan, leaving as much room as possible between them. Sprinkle the cookies with coarse salt
  10. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are just starting to turn golden brown. Remove them from the oven and allow them to rest on the pans for at least 5 minutes before moving them. They can cool completely right on the pans, or transfer them to a rack to cool more quickly. 
  11. Storage information: Store cookies, well wrapped, at room temperature for several days; freeze for longer storage. (See "tips," below, for details on freezing.)

Tips from our Bakers

  • Our preferred buckwheat flour comes from The Birkett Mills in upstate New York. Ground from whole buckwheat, it’s sifted to yield a lighter-textured, milder-flavored flour. 
  • For best results, we recommend using freshly ground cardamom in these cookies. We recognize that cardamom is one of those potentially “controversial” flavors, enjoyed by many but also disliked by some. If you don’t enjoy cardamom, leave it out; though honestly, the entire character of the cookie will change. If you do like cardamom and feel you might like to add more, mix the dough as directed and bake a test cookie. If it’s not as cardamom-forward as you like, add more spice to the remainder of the dough.  
  • Use your favorite flavors of chocolate; we prefer a 1:1 blend of semisweet and bittersweet chocolate here, but choose any chocolate (or combination of chocolates) you like. Note that milk chocolate will melt more readily, creating soft pockets of melted chocolate (rather than discrete chocolate chunks) in the cookies.  
  • The dough for these cookies freezes well. Place the scooped balls of dough onto a baking sheet and place the baking sheet in the freezer, lightly covered. Once frozen, place the dough balls in an airtight container or plastic bag and return to the freezer for up to two months. To bake, place frozen dough balls on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet and let them thaw while you preheat your oven. Bake as directed above, adding time as necessary to account for the coldness of the dough.