In the minds of many English speakers the word kasha or “kashi” is associated with buckwheat although the true meaning of the word is much broader. The Russian word “kasha” (каша) refers to a number of usually simple dishes made by cooking whole or crushed grains: buckwheat, oats, millets, barley, rice, wheat, and a few others. Many consider cooking grains too simple to require any special skill or a recipe. Just follow instructions on the package, and you are done in 15 minutes! With the advent of automatic rice cookers, the entire process is reduced to measuring a few ingredients and pressing the start button. But if the process of making kasha is so simple, why was kasha maker, kashevar (кашевар) a completely separate kitchen specialty for many years in Russian restaurants and even in the army? Probably not for the lack of package instructions or rice cookers. And speaking of automated cookers, does another type of kitchen machine, a bread maker, produce real bread or just bread-shaped objects?
A Russian culinary expert William Pokhlyobkin wrote that an experienced kasha maker would develop an extensive and usually empirical knowledge of different grains and their properties as well as other key ingredients such as water. The ability to recognize variations in the grain quality and to adjust the ingredient ratios and cooking process accordingly would then ensure consistent results. Pokhlyobkin also noted the importance of the quality of water and other liquids used in kasha making. Unlike many other dishes in which water mainly serves as a medium to transfer heat to ingredients, most of it is absorbed by the grain in the kasha preparation process. As such, water and more importantly, the minerals dissolved in it become an integral part of the final product affecting its taste. As a rule, high mineral content of hard water causes the flavor of kasha to deteriorate. An experienced kasha maker should be able to evaluate the quality of water by simply tasting it and if necessary, to take corrective action. Alternatively, water can be tested by cooking a small batch of kasha.
The simplest water softening procedure is boiling. Boiling removes some of the minerals from hard water at the expense of leaving mineral deposit on the walls of the cooking pot. Another option is to replace water with milk during the second half of the cooking process when most of the liquid absorption into the grains takes place, or just mixing water with milk from the start.
Another “secret” of kasha-making success is using the correct ratios of the ingredients. It may come as a surprise that closely following a recipe is more important in making kasha than in preparing more complex dishes or baking. Closely following a recipe is a good starting point but it is not the whole story since no two batches of grain are the same and water properties vary from locale to locale due to differences in mineral content. These natural variations require fine tuning a recipe but that only comes with experience.
Fat or oil is the third key ingredient of a good kasha. The type of fat, its amount, and even the point at which it is introduced all affect the results and vary from recipe to recipe. Also important is that many types of kasha do not want to be disturbed during the cooking process. Once the lid is closed, it should not be reopened until the dish is ready to be served.
Finally, the size, shape, material, and properties such as wall thickness and the weight of the lid of the cooking container influence the quality of kasha. The amount of heat and the temperature are important, too.
In modern times cooked grains such as kasha have been mostly reduced to a secondary role being served as side dish. It has not always been the case. Buckwheat, for example, is very nutritious on its own thanks to its high protein and mineral content in addition to carbohydrates. For centuries it has been served for breakfast or even as a main course for dinner. According to Pokhlyobkin, pearl barley was a favorite meal of Peter the Great, a famous Russian tsar who modernized Russia and founded St. Petersburg. Making pearl barley palatable requires a number of specific steps. If you just tried boiling it in water and serving to the Russian tsar, your own head would end up served on a plate. Luckily, Peter the Great is long gone along with his disciplinary methods, and to avoid any such drama, we are posting several kasha recipes based on the recommendations of William Pokhlyobkin.