Spelt is a grain in the wheat family that has been in cultivation for thousands of years. Some debate has occurred over its classification, with some botanists considering it a subspecies of common wheat and others saying that it is an entirely different species. Spelt fell out of popularity among grain cultivators due to the hardness of its outer shell, but with the advent of the health foods movement in the 1980s, it began to enter the popular diet again.
People who eat spelt often feel that the grain has more nutritional value and flavor than wheat, because the hard outer casing protects the kernels. Spelt can also be eaten by some individuals with gluten intolerance, although breads made from this grain require special preparation because of the lack of gluten. It has a delicious and characteristic nutty taste that is unlike the more mild flavor of wheat, although it seems unlikely to revolutionize human health, as proponents claim. The grain is richer in protein and many vitamins than wheat, and it requires less enrichment than conventional flour does.
In appearance, spelt looks much like wheat, with a dense cluster of kernels growing on an elongated stalk. When it is ready to harvest, the stalks turn golden and begin to bend under the weight of the heavy kernels. Spelt is also harvested much like wheat, and the grain is separated from the chaff. The chaff can be plowed back into the field for mulch, used for construction projects, or used to provide animal bedding.
Because spelt has a much harder outer kernel or hull than wheat, however, it requires more work to get the inner kernel out. The hull can be removed using special threshing equipment to access the kernel inside. It is believed that this hull acts to protect the kernel during shipping, making it fresh and more flavorful when it is threshed and ground into flour. More importantly, the hull protects the kernel from many insect pests and infestations, making the grain easier to grow without the use of pesticides.
Much like wheat, spelt is ground into flour, with both white and whole grain incarnations available. Many bakers use whole grain spelt flour so that they can take full advantage of the nutrition that the grain offers. The flour can be used like conventional flour in most recipes, although some adjustments may be necessary. For bakers who want to avoid the characteristic nutty flavor, white flour is advised.