Flour from Other Grains

Rye Buckwheat
Barley Potatoes
Corn (Maize) Durum

For most Eastern European Jews - and for most of their Christian neighbors, for that matter - wheat was a near unobtainable luxury, largely because the short, cold growing season and poor soil made wheat cultivation all but impossible throughout the Yiddish homeland outside of southern Ukraine. Rye was the most common food grain, supplemented by buckwheat and barley.


Besides wheat, rye is the only grain with gluten-forming protein content, and although rich in amino acids, it is weaker and poorer in quality than wheat gluten. In addition to protein, rye is also a very good source of manganese, selenium, thiamine, magnesium and phosphorus, as well as dietary fiber and, ounce-for-ounce, has about 75% the calories of wheat patent flour.

The small amount of gluten in rye dough, as well as its low quality, don't do a very good job of holding CO2. Instead, rye's leavening power comes from viscous gels consisting of complex sugars (disaccharides) called pentosans that will form and hold steam bubbles, albeit with weaker walls than gluten, and which are also easily broken down by the yeast and enzymes present in the dough. As a result, breads containing more than 60% rye flour almost always heavy and dense.

Rye is milled very much like wheat, using rollers to crush the grain and a series of screens and blowers to separate out the component parts. The most common types of rye flour are:

Return to Top


Not a true grain but the seed of a fruit related to rhubarb and sorrel, buckwheat first appeared as a food grain in Southeast Asia about 6,000 years ago and gradually worked its way westward, becoming a mainstay crop in the cold climate and acidic, nutrient-poor soils of Eastern Europe: at the end of the 19th century, Russia was the world's leading buckwheat producer, with about 6.5 million acres under cultivation.

In the U.S., buckwheat was a significant crop throughout the Northeast, until the introduction of nitrogen fertilizers allowed farmers to plant wheat and corn where only hardier crops, like buckwheat, could grow.

Although not gluten-forming, buckwheat's protein content is among the most complete of any food cereal, supplying every one of the essential amino acids. In addition, it also supplies significant quantities of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, zinc, B vitamins, niacin, and thiamine, as well as plenty of dietary fiber.

In Jewish Eastern Europe, buckwheat was a major part of the daily diet, either cracked and boiled or steamed as kasha, or ground into flour for breads and the griddle cakes called blini in Russian and griskelech in Yiddish. Often shunned because of its deep color and challenging to work with because it contains no gluten, buckwheat's high nutritional value, along with its sweet and earthy flavor, make its obscurity undeserved.

Return to Top


Humans have been eating barley in one form or another for at least 10,000 years, and it figures prominently in the Bible's listing of the five noble grains.

Like rye, barley flourishes in marginal agricultural areas that abound throughout northern and eastern Europe. Although it contains no gluten, it provides almost all of the essential amino acids and is a good source of manganese, selenium, and dietary fiber.

Barley's distinctive flavor, texture and water absorbing properties - it's about 2.5 times more absorbent than wheat - barley-wheat breads offer a flavorful and delicate-textured change from wheat and rye.


Potatoes were a latecomer to Eastern Europe. First introduced in 16th century Spain by the conquistadores who discovered them in the Andes, they didn't really become a significant part of the European diet in general until the early 19th century.

In Russia and Eastern Europe, it wasn't until Russia around 1850 that potatoes came under general cultivation in the wake of widespread crop failures, when Czar Nicholas I finally enforced an order to grow potatoes issued by Catherine the Great over a half-century earlier.

Potatoes were easier to grow, yielded more per acre than rye, and highly nutritious, providing complete protein, and ample amounts of Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, potassium and manganese. As a result, potatoes soon became an important source of nourishment, even to the point of displacing bread as the dietary foundation of the peasants and urban poor.

Potatoes are used in breads and rolls, both in their boiled and mashed form, and as potato flour, which is uncooked whole potato, including the skin, that has been ground and dried.

Return to Top


Corn (maize) was rarely, if ever, used in Eastern European Jewish cooking except in mamaliga, the Romanian version of polenta made famous by Aaron Lebedeff in his klezmer classic, Rumenye, Rumenye.

In America, Jewish bakers used cornmeal exclusively on the bottoms -- and sometimes the sides and tops -- of rye breads and pumpernickels to prevent sticking, replacing the leaves and reeds used by bakers in the Yiddish heartland.


Durum, a hard yellow wheat variety that was not grown in Jewish Eastern Europe, is generally milled into two types of flour - durum patent flour, a finely milled flour used extensively in pasta-making and the breads of Southern Italy, and the coarser-grind semolina. In America, the Jewish bakers used semolina like cornmeal, lightly sprinkled on peels and proofing boards to prevent rolls and rye breads from sticking.

Return to Top