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! Here’s a guide to 13 types of grains, and some of our favorite ways to use them.
Types of Grains
An ancient grain that’s full of protein (it contains 30 percent more protein than rice, sorghum, and rye). It’s gluten-free, so it’s also a good grain for those with an intolerance. Amaranth is considered a native crop of Peru, an 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 in about 20 to 25 minutes. Beyond boiling it, you can also pop amaranth-like popcorn in a dry skillet. Try eating these popped grains with milk and some fruit for breakfast, or use them as topping on salads. We also like to mix it with ricotta to form delightful little savory pancakes.
This high-fiber, high-protein grain has a chewy texture similar to brown rice. Just like rice it can work in a variety of dishes. Try it in everything from risotto to hearty lamb soup. 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. These days, farro is popular all over the world. 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. Try farro in savory grain bowls, or as a nutritious twist on fried rice.
Freekeh has been enjoyed for centuries in countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. 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. Millet can be 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.
Wild rice is North America, specifically the Great Lakes region. Wild rice was a staple part of the indigenous peoples of that region. 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. Quinoa is the base of a popular warm breakfast drink in South America. 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 one fo the most well known types of grains, rice is a staple for much of the world’s population. It’s particularly popular 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 incredibly 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. Historically, it 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. This tiny grain was once 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. 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 these types of 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.