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Buckwheat can be a helpful cover crop for farmers — and pretty as a flowering field to boot. (Photo: Courtesy Hudson Valley Seed Co.)

The Modern Comeback of Ancient Buckwheat

This gluten-free superfood is working overtime: transforming diets and saving the earth.

by Olivia Abel

In 2023, Travel + Leisure named Ulster County’s Phoenicia Diner as one of the best places in the entire country to enjoy breakfast. Why? Its legendary pancakes — buttermilk and buckwheat — played a major role. And while the diner has sold the buttermilk pancake mix on its website for a while now, in June 2024 it started offering the beloved buckwheat mix, too. As its owners said in their announcement: “You asked, we delivered.”

Buckwheat pancakes are a popular feature on the menu at Phoenicia Diner, whose breakfast was last year named one of the country’s best. (Photo: Courtesy Phoenicia Diner)

Buckwheat is enjoying a definite day in the sun. Both Martha Stewart and Whole Foods named buckwheat’s resurgence as one of the biggest food trends of 2024. That’s partly because, despite the name, it’s not a wheat or grain at all — it’s actually a seed that happens to be a gluten-free superfood. Plus, it’s a pretty cover crop that builds soil health.

And it’s versatile, going far beyond pancakes. Many people have experienced buckwheat in the form of soba noodles or kasha, but these days the seed is showing up in everything from a wider variety of breads and cakes (buckwheat cheesecake, anyone?) to granola, salads, buckwheat milk, and even select beers.

At a recent event at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, visitors got to see, smell, and taste buckwheat, including in the foodie operation’s new bread. (Photo: Courtesy Blue Hill at Stone Barns)

Native to China, buckwheat is harvested from a flowering plant most closely related to rhubarb. It was first brought to the U.S. in the 1600s by the Dutch, who settled in the region and planted it along the Hudson River. For years, even centuries, buckwheat was mainly used for livestock and poultry.

Homegrown goodness

Today’s uses are much different. It is mostly produced for food and as a cover crop — something grown in between plantings to help keep weeds and soil erosion down. “Buckwheat is now one of our number-one cover crops for the home gardener, for a wide variety of reasons,” says Crimson Krier-Glading, sales and customer service manager at the Hudson Valley Seed Co.

Famously easy to grow, buckwheat has become an increasingly popular cover crop. (Photo: Courtesy Birkett Mills)

Buckwheat is beloved in part because it is easy to grow. Not only can it thrive in poor quality soil, but also its medium-sized seed makes it simple to plant. “You don’t have to till it,” Krier-Glading says. “Just sow it, give it a rake, and that’s it. You can really grow buckwheat anywhere — a raised bed, a garden, a little plot in your backyard.” 

Another bonus to using buckwheat as a cover crop is that it matures within about 30 days, so it can be used as a late plant alternative if regular crops have failed. When buckwheat matures, the pretty white flowers will attract a wide variety of pollinators, particularly bees.

Buckwheat’s pretty white flowers attract a variety of pollinators. (Photo: Mateusz Atroszko / iStock)

For the home gardener just getting started with buckwheat as a cover crop, Krier-Glading recommends focusing on the end of the season, after summer veggies like tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers are done. “When you have empty beds, put some buckwheat seeds in,” Krier-Glading says. “It will grow. It will kill weeds. And you’re really recharging the soil for a better harvest next year.”

Grain-style growth and milling

Organic farmers throughout New York State and the Northeast often choose buckwheat as a cover crop, too. Buckwheat, with dense, fibrous roots that cluster in the top of the soil, takes up phosphorus that is otherwise unavailable to crops, then releases these nutrients to the next round of crops.

Stuart Farrar of Hudson Valley Hops & Grains in Ancramdale is one of the few farmers in the region growing buckwheat as a grain crop. He plants about 400 acres of the seed annually; almost his entire crop gets sent to a specialty miller in the Finger Lakes. Birkett Mills, in Penn Yang, N.Y., has been in operation since 1797 and is one of the largest buckwheat manufacturers in the world. All of its buckwheat products are made using traditional stone-grinding techniques dating back millennia. 

While Farrar says “nobody is going to get rich growing buckwheat,” he loves the seed’s ability to help his other main crops — like red wheat, rye, oats, sunflowers and hops — thrive. “I use it as a rotational crop. Anything I plant following the buckwheat is always good,” he says. “Everything is organic here, and buckwheat allows the soil and the sunlight to provide nutrition to the crops so we don’t have to use chemicals.”

Buckwheat in its various states, from flowering to milled. (Photo: Courtesy Blue Hill at Stone Barns)

Getting in on the trend

The rise in gluten-free choices has helped buckwheat take center stage, baker and food writer Amy Halloran believes. “Compared to other gluten-free options, it has great flavor, and it also performs well in baking,” she says. “Many people are not that familiar with it, but a lot of people are curious. There’s lots of ways to work with buckwheat.”

Halloran writes a weekly newsletter, “Dear Bread,” which focuses on the history of bread in the U.S. She is constantly experimenting with buckwheat in her breads and pastries. “I really like to combine buckwheat and cornmeal for crepes, pancakes, and quick breads. But even if I’m making something that is not gluten-free, I’ve started to add a bit of buckwheat flour — say 10-25% — to my regular sourdough. It adds nutrition and it also adds another layer of complexity to the flavor.”

Most people describe buckwheat’s flavor as nutty and slightly bitter; others refer to it as earthy. Many agree: the flavor of buckwheat can be intense. When making her buckwheat espresso cookies, Martha Stewart notes that “the buckwheat flour heightens the pleasantly bitter flavor of coffee and cocoa nibs, making them a deliciously grown-up treat.” Halloran suggests mixing buckwheat flours with other flours until you find a blend that appeals to you.

Buckwheat pullman bread loaves are a popular offering at Hudson Valley bakery Bread Alone. (Photo: James Cororos / Bread Alone)

The popular buckwheat pullman bread loaves at the bakery Bread Alone are “tasty and good for the climate and the community,” says Blessing Schuman-Strange, director of production operations. “We mix buckwheat with a blend of regional organic wheat flour to create a loaf that has the nutrition benefits and rich taste of buckwheat, but is less dense and softer than 100% buckwheat products tend to be. We work to put bread on our shelves that both appeals to our regulars and creates demand for regenerative local agriculture.”

Buckwheat can be eaten as a pseudo-cereal — because although it’s grown for its starchy seeds, it’s not technically a member of the grass family. (Photo: Courtesy Blue Hill at Stone Barns)

Going way beyond bread

Buckwheat is versatile and fairly easy to incorporate into a healthy diet. It can be cooked and enjoyed in forms like groats (whole grains), noodles, as a tea, or in stir-fries and salads. While buckwheat groats can be eaten raw after soaking, it is more common to boil them. In many traditional European and Asian dishes, groats are used in place of rice.

Like quinoa and amaranth, buckwheat is a pseudo-cereal, meaning that although it is grown for its edible starchy seeds, it is not technically a member of the grass family. Eaten as a cereal, buckwheat contains more fiber, and less fat than oatmeal. Its health benefits don’t stop there. While not particularly high in vitamins, buckwheat is richer in minerals like magnesium, copper, and iron than many common cereals like rice, wheat, and corn are. In addition, compared to other grains, the minerals in cooked buckwheat groats get especially well absorbed.

Another benefit of having a beautiful field of flowering buckwheat: bees are always swarming around, Farrar says. The resulting honey is “incredible,” he says.

Halloran agrees. “It’s got a very dense, almost tannic flavor,” she says. “Buckwheat is good in so many things. I’m going to keep experimenting.”

Olivia Abel is a staff copywriter at Scenic Hudson. A former editor-in-chief of Hudson Valley Magazine, she also teaches journalism and communications at Marist College. An avid hiker and biker (and new pickleball junkie), she starts almost every morning at either Long Dock or Madam Brett Park.

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