What is spelt? It keeps turning up in all kinds of breads and pastas.
It looks like wheat, smells like wheat, and tastes similar – because it is. Spelt is officially known as triticum spelta, very closely related to bread wheat (triticum aestivium) and sometimes considered to be a subspecies. The earliest archeological evidence dates from about 5,000 BC, and it was a popular wheat crop through Europe as early as 1,000 BC. It fell out of favor during the Industrial Revolution because it couldn’t be harvested with the new mechanical harvester/thresher combines; spelt’s tough outer hull requires individual, grain-by-grain removal before it can be milled. However, that same tough hull protects the grain from insects, pests, and some diseases, minimizing the need for pesticides. Between this hardy nature and its lower need for fertilizers, it became popular with the natural/organic movement in the ‘80s, when it was introduced to the U.S.
Spelt has its bran and germ deep inside the kernel, where they aren’t removed by milling, resulting in a higher-protein flour. However, it still bakes up into light, soft-textured bread that looks a lot like light rye bread and has a more nutty taste than wheat bread.
Less liquid is needed when baking with spelt, as it is more water-soluble than traditional wheat, and this also makes it more easily digestible. Occasionally, people with wheat sensitivities can still eat spelt; however, it is still a wheat variety and does contain gluten. This makes it unsuited for anyone on a gluten-free diet.
In Short … Really, really, really old-school wheat. It’s been around forever, is hardy, and doesn’t need as much in the way of fertilizers. In food, it can be used more or less like wheat, tastes a little nuttier and has a higher protein content, and does still contain gluten.