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Also known as burghul, bulger, bulgar, wheat groats (Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, British) bulghur is known by other iterations such as bourgouri or balgour. Kernels of whole wheat are steamed, dried and then crushed to make bulghur. The process involved to make bulghur is what gives it a fine, nutty flavour. It requires no or little cooking. Though modern processes involve oven drying or roasting some villages still sun dry bulghur on their rooftops.
Prepared by such ancient civilizations as the Babylonians, Hittites and Hebrews, bulghur has been a staple since at least 4,000 BC with some sources suggesting 6,000 BC. Romans, Arabs and Egyptians have recorded its use as early as 1,000 BC. Common in the more easternly Mediterranean regions, it is also has a long history in the Ukarainian and Central Asian cuisines where both bulghur and cracked wheat are used along with kasha, or braised buckwheat groats.
Ancient Romans called bulghur cerealis, Israelites degan and in some Middle Eastern regions it is still called arisah, translated by Biblical scholars as 'the first of the coarse meal' and was originally prepared as a porridge.
Bulghur resists mold and insects giving it an exceptionally long storage life. Unfortunately, both cracked wheat and burghul are often called the same. A trip to a Middle Eastern food shop will educate you as to the differences. (Note: you may find fireek, which is the green kernel often found in Egyptian cooking and requires a long cooking time.)
In general, fine grade bulghur is used in recipes requiring a short soaking time in broth or water such as salads and tabooli. Medium grade is used with such dishes as the Lebanese Kibbeh and baked or cooked meat dishes, though some cooks prefer the course grade. The course grade tolerates a longer cooking time without turning soggy and so is ideal for baked casseroles.
Both bulghur and cracked wheat are excellent sources of fiber, minerals and vitamins for your diet.
What is the difference between bulghur and cracked wheat? It is a matter of splitting hairs, or rather the wheat berry in one or the wheat grain in the other and whether the cracking took place in a raw stage or after cooking then drying.
Raw whole wheat berries that are crushed to varying qualities of texture are called “cracked wheat” and require cooking. These are also found in 3 grades of coarseness: fine, medium and coarse, the choice of which depends on use and preference. Whole wheat kernels that are steamed (hence pre-cooked if you will), dried and then crushed are called bulghur. Because the processes is more involved, bulghur is the more expensive product and is more tender than cracked wheat. It has a pleasant chewy texture, is easier to digest and for most of us, is tastier.
Are they interchangeable? This depends on whether the recipe requires cooking or not and your own degree of purism. A salad recipe such as tabooli is uncooked, and so requires true bulghur as do recipes where bulghur is brought to the boil, cooked for a moment then left to rest off heat to swell as in a pilaf. Recipes requiring longer cooking times or coarse grain bulghur can be replaced with cracked wheat, but will need more cooking time.
Suppliers in Northern America are inconsistent in their product descriptions but most bulghur found there is actually cracked wheat. Visit a Middle Eastern food shop for the real thing! Just mention you want to make tabooli and you will surely be handed bulghur.
By the way, being of Near/Middle Eastern heritage does not make one an expert on the differences either. Many are not aware of a difference in the first place having spent their lives outside of the country of origin, are generations removed or, living in it still, only know what is locally used.
Now you know. Bulghur and cracked wheat - both are forms of processed wheat, yet the twain does not meet, or just barely?
The Epicurean Table http://www.epicureantable.com © 2003
Patricia Conant, columnist and food writer
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