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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.
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 partially hulled wheat grain in the other and whether the cracking took place in a raw stage (cracked wheat) or after cooking then drying (bulghur).
Partially hulled whole wheat kernels that are soaked, then 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. Confusingly, some sources use wheat berries to make bulghur. What differentiates the two is that bulghur is soaked, steamed/cooked BEFORE the cracking. This difference gives bulghur a far longer storage life than cracked wheat.
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?
'Vive la difference' (lit. 'long live the difference')! Even better 'long live knowing the difference'! - PAC
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Patricia Conant, columnist and food writer
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