Spelt grain is a type of wheat closely related to modern bread wheat. Evidence of its use as long ago as possibly 6,000 BC has been found in the Near East as well as the Balkan region. It spread across Europe during the Bronze age and is still grown in several parts of the world. Spelt closely resembles bread wheat in flavor, but its flavor is usually described as nuttier and sweeter. It also has a slightly different balance of proteins, which affects its performance when used as flour in baking.
The genetic makeup of spelt grain may be accounted for in two possible ways. Some experts see it as a possible cross between emmer, another wheat relative, and goat grass. Alternately, some describe this grain as a cross between emmer and bread wheat. These genetic combinations may have occurred in several different times and locations.
Regardless of origin, spelt was a popular grain in Europe for many centuries. It was brought to the US in the late 1800s by European immigrants and widely used, especially among immigrant communities, until the 1920s. Although its popularity waned in later years, it continued to be grown and harvested both in North America and Europe. In the early 21st century its popularity increased, especially as a wheat alternative for those sensitive to regular wheat. Commercially, spelt grain is usually sold as flour, pasta, or as whole grains used for cooking and sprouting.
Spelt grain fell out of favor in modern agriculture because it has a tougher, thicker husk surrounding the grain than that of bread wheat. This makes the husk harder to remove from the kernel than that of modern varieties of wheat. It also has a lower yield per acre than the newer varieties. Spelt does have agricultural advantages, however, as it can be grown on poor soil with bad drainage or on sandy soils, and usually requires less fertilizer than other wheat types.
Flour made from spelt grain is very like standard wheat flour but baking with it requires greater care. It is more soluble in liquids so spelt dough works best if given a resting period for the flour and liquid to stabilize. The gluten structure is also different, making spelt dough and batter stickier and less likely to rise well. Baked goods made with spelt flour have a denser, heavier texture then those made with standard wheat flour.