Amaranth At Last, Week Ending 2/7/2021

At last, I have amaranth!

…sorta…

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may already be familiar with my ongoing challenges harvesting the seeds of amaranth (Amaranthus spp.). (If you’re a newer reader, welcome!)

My biggest problem with amaranth is separating the edible seeds from the inedible chaff. The seeds are so tiny, every method I have tried loses a significant amount of seed! I have struggled over the years to winnow enough amaranth grain to use meaningfully as a source of food and 2020 was no exception. Pouring from one large container into another during a light breeze blows away a lot of chaff… and a lot of seed. Using an electric fan was only slightly better. I poured the mixture down an inclined surface hoping the seeds would role and the chaff stick. No such luck. I have also tried: moisture (would either stick better to a damp towel?), floating in water (does one float and the other sink?) and even static electricity (does one attract and the other repel?). Absolutely nothing seemed effective.

Also, if you try any of these techniques indoors, you will make a mess. Plan on finding amaranth seeds in corners and crevices and under cabinets and on your clothes for weeks.

I finally settled on a very tedious, but slightly less messy, method for separating seed from chaff. I noticed that whatever container I put the amaranth mixture in, the chaff seemed to rise to the top. I poured it into a two cup measuring glass and swirled it around until the top appeared to be mostly chaff, then skimmed off the chaff (and quite a bit of seed, honestly) with a spoon. Swirl, skim. Swirl, skim. Swirl, skim. This method seemed to have the highest success rate, although I still couldn’t remove all the chaff. Consider it “insoluble fiber”, which is good for gut health… right?

You can see my three varieties of amaranth in this photo. The black seeds are wild amaranth, Amaranthus retroflexus, from volunteers that grow around my property (and occasionally in the garden). Larger white seeds are Golden Amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus), and if you look closely you can just make out the smaller, reddish-purple seeds of another cultivated variety, Mayo Indian (Amaranthus cruentus) (both from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, one of my preferred seed sources).

A mixture of wild and cultivated amaranth seed ... and chaff!
A mixture of wild and cultivated amaranth seed … and chaff!

You can also see the chaff I gave up on removing – all the bits which aren’t round!

But winnowing woes are not the point of today’s post. I am here to share my biggest takeaway: recipes and methods for cultivated, store-bought amaranth do NOT automagically work for its wild cousin. I spent hours laboring over these tiny shiny black seeds, only to be horribly disappointed by the recipes I tried.

First and foremost: wild amaranth does not pop. Or if you know how to make it pop, PLEASE let me know. I presume because the smaller size means less interior moisture, so heating them in a dry skillet or pot gives you a few that pop, but mostly they burn. I followed the method described here, which worked great for my supply of store-bought seeds, but barely at all for the wild ones.

Results of popping wild amaranth (above) with cultivated, commercial amaranth (below)
Results of popping wild amaranth (above) with cultivated, commercial amaranth (below)

Second lesson: cooking wild amaranth by boiling it in liquid – the most common method – needs more liquid and more time than cultivated amaranth. Like, a lot more.

Pro tip! Always prep more wild amaranth than you expect to use, and cook hungry, because you need to keep sampling nibbles until it finally reaches your preferred texture. My first batch of cooked amaranth used 1/2 cup of amaranth seeds (and chaff) to 1 cup of water and simmered for about 25 minutes. Despite the length of cooking time, the amaranth continued to have the texture of wet sand.

(Also, with the benefit of hindsight I can tell you in overly delicate terms that many of the seeds were not cooked at all because they passed intact through my GI tract. Remember that wet sand consistency I just mentioned? Unpleasant the morning after!)

Next time, I will use a 3-to-1 ratio of liquid to seeds (1 1/2 cup water to 1/2 cup amaranth) and simmer at least 30 – 45 minutes. The liquid gets absorbed in addition to cooking off as steam, even if the pot is covered, so extra time needs extra liquid. I found one resource online that suggested soaking amaranth seeds for several days before using – presprouting them, basically – which I will definitely try as well to make the seeds more easily, um, digestible.

Lesson three from this week’s blog post: no one has nutritional info for wild amaranth rather than cultivated amaranth. If you know of some website or book that distinguishes between the two, please let me know! Many wild edibles have different phytochemicals from their garden-grown counterparts, with different colors, more bitter or otherwise more intense flavors, and I figure the same may hold true for amaranth.

Oh and one more lesson learned from this experience. Wild amaranth is nowhere near as photogenic as its domesticated cousin! Of course, this proves I really harvested wild amaranth, rather than using store-bought and passing it off as foraging!

Amaranth hot cereal with dried apricots and black walnuts
Wild amaranth hot cereal with dried apricots and black walnuts

This picture shows the (undercooked) hot cereal I enjoyed to celebrate my amaranth success! Tasty? Yes! Too crunchy because I didn’t realize how much longer it need to cook? Absolutely. Photogenic? Not in the slightest!

If you’ve had any luck with wild amaranth seeds – harvesting or eating! – please let me know in the comments below. I clearly still have much to learn!

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