Grains are an essential element of our kitchen repertoire–we cook with them basically every week. That’s because they do everything: act as the base of a salad, sop up some delicious sauce, or get mixed up and fried into grain patties. If you’re stuck eating rice and maybe the occasional bowl of quinoa, you might be overwhelmed by the selection! So, here’s a guide to 13 of the most common grains and how to use them.
**The 13 Grains You Need to Know**
An ancient grain that’s full of protein (it contains 30 percent more protein than rice, sorghum, and rye), amaranth has recently become popular with the health-savvy crowd. Gluten-free, it’s also a good grain for those with an intolerance. Amaranth is considered a native crop of Peru, and the grain also has a long history in Mexico, where it was a major food crop of the Aztecs. With an earthy, nutty flavor, amaranth cooks up quickly, about 20 to 25 minutes. Beyond boiling it, you can also pop amaranth-like popcorn in a dry skillet, which can then be eaten with milk and some fruit for breakfast or as a topping on salads. We also mix it with ricotta to form delightful little savory pancakes.
This high-fiber, high-protein grain has a chewy texture similar to brown rice, and just like rice it can work in a variety of dishes from risotto to making a soup a little heartier. Cooking barley is similar to cooking rice; cover one cup of barley with two cups water or broth and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Our orange-glazed tofu and barley salad is incredible, too.
A staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking (you may know it as the grain in tabbouleh) bulgur is made from cracked wheat that is parboiled, then dried for quick cooking. To cook, use a 1:2 grain-to-water ratio. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, remove from heat, add in the 1 cup of bulgur, cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Since it’s easy to prepare it makes for a quick dinner staple, like in this Saffron Bulgur Pilaf.
Farro, a nutty grain with a chewy texture, comes from a wheat strain called emmer, one of the first cereals ever to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. But when durum and other higher-yielding wheat strains won out over emmer, most of the world forgot about it. These days, farro is having a comeback, and it’s especially popular in Italy, the source of most US farro imports. Farro can be associated with two other wheat strains besides emmer (known as farro medio): einkorn (which goes by farro piccolo) and spelt (which goes by farro grande). The trick to farro is buying the right kind. The imported Italian farro you can get is often semi-perlato, or semi-pearled; if you buy farro that is not semi-pearled, it just needs to be soaked overnight before cooking it. Farro is great as a hot breakfast cereal – eat it like you would oatmeal, with some fresh fruit or brown sugar – in a hearty stew, or even as a warm salad.
Enjoyed for centuries in countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, the ancient grain freekeh, is a stranger for many when it comes to grains. It’s made from young wheat that is harvested while it’s still green. It’s roasted during production which gives it a slightly smoky flavor. High in fiber, it cooks up in twenty minutes, so it’s a good option when you need a healthy, quick-cooking grain. We love it with tahini long beans!
Rarely consumed in its whole-grain form, buckwheat, which is derived from seeds known as buckwheat groats, is often turned into a flour, and is a popular replacement for anyone looking for gluten-free flour options. It’s also what French galettes (savory crepes) and soba noodles are made from. When buckwheat is toasted, it’s referred to as kasha, which takes only about 15-20 minutes to cook up.
Yes, it’s the main ingredient in bird seed, but millet is just as good for you as it is for your feathered friends. Millet is an ancient seed originally cultivated in Africa and China. As a grain it’s very versatile, ground into flours for flatbreads and even, in East Africa, fermented to make beer. While there are many kinds of millet, the one most often found in US groceries stores is yellow proso. And don’t consider eating the same millet you give to the birds! That variety isn’t hulled, so it’s difficult for your human stomach to digest. An easy trick with millet is to toast it in a dry skillet for about 3 minutes before cooking; this gives it a delicious nutty flavor. Depending on what consistency you want your millet, you can vary the amount of water and cooking time, allowing you to either have a coarser, crunchier consistency, or one that is more porridge-like. We love it as a way to stuff roasted vegetables, like these squash.
With one of its varieties native to North America–the Great Lakes region–wild rice was eaten by the first inhabitants of the US. Since it grew in wetlands, it was originally harvested from canoes. Cooking wild rice requires a 1:3 wild rice-to-water ratio. Bring the water and wild rice to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 35-50 minutes. You know it’s done when the grains are cracked open.
Originating in the Andean region, quinoa has been a culinary staple of countries like Bolivia and Peru for thousands of years. In fact, a popular warm breakfast drink in South America is made from quinoa. You can get red and black quinoa, but the white version tends to be the most common in the US. Packed with protein, it’s popular with vegetarians, and the fact that it cooks up in 15 minutes has made it a favorite of whole grain cooks. At health food stores you’ll find everything from quinoa pasta to quinoa flour to flakes, godsends if you don’t eat gluten. Use quinoa as a replacement for rice, as an addition to a salad or even in veggie enchiladas.
Potentially the most well known grain, rice is a staple grain for much of the world’s population, particularly in Asia where it is believed to have been domesticated almost 10,000 years ago. Of course there are all kinds of rice, from brown to Jasmine, and different varieties are used in different dishes. As a grain it’s incredible versatile and makes its way into all kinds of world cuisines, from Mexican to Indian.
Spelt, also known as dinkel wheat, is an ancient species of wheat, one that was a staple grain in Europe from the Bronze age onwards. Nowadays it’s commonly found marketed as a health food, particularly as a flour for breads. But you can also use the whole grain in salads or as a replacement for pasta.
Teff is a tiny grain, about as small as a poppy seed, which made it popular with nomadic cultures in Ethiopia and Eritrea where it has grown for centuries. In Ethiopia it’s ground into flour and makes the spongy bread injera that is a base of Ethiopian cuisine. You can buy teff as a grain and as a flour. Pop it in a chili or use the flour to make wholesome pancakes.
Often used in salads, wheatberry is the entire kernel of wheat, except for the hull, and since the kernel is left intact, that means so are most of the nutrients. The result is a tan-colored whole grain that looks a bit like brown rice. When cooked, wheatberries have a chewy bite and a slightly nutty taste, which pairs well with dried fruit. You can even use them to grow your own wheat sprouts.
Now that you’ve met all the grains, we dare you to quiz yourself! Can you name these individual grains?
This post was written by Anna Brones, a food and travel writer based in Paris, France who has a love for bikes, coffee and all things organic.