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Whole Grains: What Are They and How to Cook and Use Them

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


You Can Thank Eric For This Topic

Several weeks ago, my dear HubPages friend Eric (Dierker) asked me about cooking with whole grains. (Actually, he was looking for advice on cooking anything other than white rice.) I replied that his question had inspired me to devote an entire article to that topic ... and here it is.

What Are Whole Grains, and Why Does Eric Want Them?

Eric's a pretty smart guy. He knows that white rice will fill your stomach, but nutritionally it's a dud.

Whole grains are the kernels or seeds of grasses and other plants. They are “whole” because they haven't been refined to remove their outer layer, the bran. It’s that outer layer, the bran that protects the seed, shielding it from pests, disease, and even the weather. And that bran is our protection as well; it stores important antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber.

You see, once upon a time, that white rice you love to turn into an Asian stir fry, to use as a side dish instead of mashed potatoes, or topped with your mom’s world-famous jambalaya, was once a whole grain. It was beautiful and wholesome until the bran and germ were stripped away, leaving a (figurative) empty shell.


I’ve explained what the bran is; allow me to explain the other parts. See that little yellow spot, the germ? That is the plant embryo, the part that will develop into a full grown plant someday. And the endosperm? That’s the food source for the germ, giving it the energy to send down roots and push out leaves.

According to the Whole Grains Council

Since the late 1800s, when new milling technology allowed the bran and germ to be easily and cheaply separated from the endosperm, most of the grains around the world have been eaten as refined grains. This quickly led to disastrous and widespread nutrition problems, like the deficiency diseases pellagra and beriberi. In response, many governments recommended or required that refined grains be “enriched.” Enrichment only adds back a small handful of the many missing nutrients, and does so in proportions different than they originally existed. The better solution is simply to eat whole grains, now that we more fully understand their huge health advantages.

Here’s a list of foods that are considered whole grains:

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Bulgur wheat
  • Corn
  • Durum wheat
  • Einkorn
  • Emmer
  • Farro
  • Fonio
  • Kamut
  • Kasha
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Semolina wheat
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Wheat berries
  • Wild rice

I’ve not cooked with all of these; admittedly some of them I’d not heard of until now. But, to me, that’s the fun in all of this. Even though I’m in my seventh decade on this planet, I still enjoy exploring (and I will take a giant leap of faith and assume that you feel the same. If not, you would have stopped reading two minutes ago).

Let’s examine a few of these grains today—the ones that are easiest to find (and I’ve used them at least once or twice). I promise a little bit of learning and a whole lot of cooking and recipe-sharing.



Barley, a grain that is more adaptable to climate changes than wheat or rice, is one of the oldest cultivated crops. Archeologists have found traces of barley, dating back as much as 10,000 years in the Syrian Desert, the plateau of Tibet, and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). In China evidence has been found that barley was used in the brewing of beer at least 5,000 years ago. Today barley is the fourth most important world crop after wheat, rice, and maize.

How to Cook

If your desire is to eat whole grains, don't purchase pearled barley. The process of creating those "pearls" removes the bran and totally defeats the purpose. Choose hulled barley.

Instructions (for cooking 1 cup of raw barley)

  1. It is best to pre-soak your barley. This will shorten the cooking time and make the cereal easier to digest. One cup of barley should be covered with at least 3 cups of water. Soak for several hours or overnight.
  2. Drain the barley and set aside.
  3. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil.
  4. Stir in the pre-soaked, drained barley.
  5. Reduce the heat to low and allow the barley to simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
  6. Drain the barley and use immediately, or spread on a rimmed baking sheet to cool, package, and store in the refrigerator.

One cup of raw barley = 3 1/2 cups cooked


Brown Rice

Rice has had a major impact on the population of our planet. Did you know that...

  • One-half of the world’s population of 7 billion eats rice on a daily basis.
  • 90 percent of those people live in Asia.
  • 20 percent of the world’s total calorie intake comes from rice.
  • Rice is grown on every continent except Antarctica.
  • The oldest evidence of rice used as food is grains found in a rock shelter in the Hunan Province of China—according to radio-carbon dating, they are at least 10,000 years old.

How to Cook

Instructions (for cooking 1 cup of raw brown rice)

  1. It is best to pre-soak your brown rice. This will shorten the cooking time and make the cereal easier to digest. One cup of brown rice should be covered with at least 2 cups of water. Soak for 8 hours or (up to) 24 hours.
  2. Drain the brown rice, then rinse and drain again.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (I would use at least 8 cups of water) because we're cooking this like pasta.
  4. Stir in the pre-soaked, drained brown rice.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-high and allow to boil, uncovered, for 35 to 45 minutes.
  6. Drain and use immediately, or spread on a rimmed baking sheet to cool, package, and store in the refrigerator.

One cup of raw brown rice = 3 cups of cooked

Bulgur Wheat

Bulgur wheat is different from other whole grains. Although the bran and germ are still intact, it is processed. Whole wheat grains are cleaned, precooked, dried, and then ground into coarse particles. One might assume that this is a relatively new process, but bulgur wheat has been produced for almost 4,000 years. Bulgur has many names and spellings—cerealis (Romans), dagan (Israelites), arisah (the Bible), bulghur (Turkey), and cracked wheat (the United States).

How to Cook

Instructions (for cooking 1 cup of raw bulgur wheat)

  1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil.
  2. Stir in 1 cup of bulgur wheat.
  3. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 12 minutes.
  4. Remove from the heat and allow to sit, covered, and undisturbed for about 5 minutes.

One cup of raw bulgur wheat = 3 cups of cooked

pot of cooked quinoa

pot of cooked quinoa


Quinoa (keen-wah) has been called the most perfect grain. It is gluten-free, high in protein and calcium, and has an incredible cooked texture, and mixes well with any flavor profile. But quinoa isn't a grain; it's actually a seed related to spinach, chard, and sugar beet. The plant itself is a broad-leaf annual, and it really quite stunning. A mature one can reach up to 9 feet in height, with pink-, purple-, and red-hued seed heads on dark red stalks.

This ancient plant originated in South America and all but disappeared from existence in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro sought to claim the Inca Empire for the flag of Spain. Pizarro ordered that the quinoa fields, the Inca's sacred "mother of all grains," be purged as a means of destroying the Inca people. However, a few plants, high in the mountains, escaped Pizarro's wrath. Quinoa remained in quiet obscurity, raised by the Quechua and Aymara people (Inca descendants) until the 1970's when pair of Americans (Stephen Gorad and Don McKinley) "rediscovered" it in their study of Bolivian spirituality. How lucky for us!

By the way, in a resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, 2013 was designated as the Year of Quinoa because of its nutritional value and the role it can play in providing nutritional balance and food security in poverty-stricken areas.

How to Cook

Instructions (for cooking 1 cup of raw quinoa)

  1. You must rinse your quinoa before cooking. I cannot stress this enough. Obviously, this means that you need to have a fine mesh strainer (quinoa grains are small and will whoosh through your pasta colander). But, eating quinoa is worth the small investment in adding just one more utensil to your repertoire.
  2. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil.
  3. Stir in the rinsed quinoa.
  4. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 12 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and allow to sit, covered, and undisturbed for about 5 minutes.

One cup of raw quinoa = 3 cups of cooked


Wild Rice

Wild rice is actually not rice; this wild grass originated in the marshy areas of the Dakotas and upper Great Lakes areas of North America. Manomin (meaning “good berry” in the language of the Chippewa and Sioux tribes) was prized for its long shelf life and high nutritional value. Commercial harvesting of wild rice began in the 1600s when the area was discovered by fur traders and explorers from Europe. Today most of the fields in Wisconsin are protected by the Federal government.

How to Cook

Instructions (for cooking 1 cup of raw wild rice)

  1. Place your wild rice in a fine mesh strainer and rinse under cool running water to remove any dust or grit.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water or broth (for added flavor) to a boil.
  3. Stir in the rinsed wild rice.
  4. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cooked, covered, for 45 to 50 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and allow to sit, covered, and undisturbed for about 5 minutes.

One cup of raw wild rice = 3 1/2 cups of cooked

Tips on Cooking With Whole Grains

Most grains (bulgur wheat, cornmeal, kasha, oats, and flour are obvious exceptions) will benefit from being rinsed prior to cooking to remove dirt and dust. Quinoa must be rinsed to remove a residue called saponin which, if cooked with the quinoa, makes your dish bitter-tasting.

A pre-soak can reduce the amount of time required to cook whole grains. Note, don’t soak quinoa; doing so will make the grains absorb the saponin. A quick rinse only.

Unless specifically stated in the cooking instructions, do not remove the lid when cooking whole grains.

Store whole grains in a sealed container in a cool, dark place.

One Cup (Cooked) of These Whole Grains Contains...

Data obtained from

 BarleyBrown RiceBulgarQuinoaWild Rice







Total Fat

4.23g - 7%

174g - 3%

0.44g - 1%

9.86g - 15%

0.56g - 1%


22mg - 1%

587mg - 24%

9mg - 0%

36mg - 2%

5mg - 0%







Total Carb.

135.2 g - 45%

44.42g - 15%

33.82g - 11%

117.13g - 39%

35g - 12%

Dietary Fiber

31.8g - 127%

3.5g - 14%

8.2g - 33%

10g - 40%

3g - 12%








6% RDA






37% RDA







There is an unfortunate trend in the United States. We love meat, and we love starches (primarily white potatoes, white rice, and wheat pasta). We plop a leaf of lettuce on our plate and call it a salad, which stands in for a vegetable, and convince ourselves that we are eating “healthy.”

My friends, this dietary custom is doing us no favors. We know intellectually and in our heart of hearts that we need to change our focus from ‘meat and potatoes’ to fresh vegetables and whole grains. But that just sounds so boring! That's where the meal in a bowl comes in.

The "meal in a bowl" has several names—Buddha Bowl, and Hippy Bowl. I just call it a 'Good and Easy" Bowl. Here are the basic layers:


A layer of vegetables that serves as the platform or foundation. Start with one of these in the bottom of the bowl:

  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Baby kale
  • Mixed greens


This should be about one-fourth of the food that you place in the bowl. Not only are whole grains good, and good for you, but they will make you feel full longer. Pick one of the five I described above, or, if you're feeling bold, go with one of the almost two dozen shown in the list of whole grains.


A little bit goes a long way. Think of this as a garnish, not the focus of your meal.

  • Cooked ground beef or turkey
  • Cooked shredded chicken (this is a great place for leftovers from that rotisserie chicken)
  • Cooked flaked salmon
  • Cooked lentils (if you don't want to make your own, they can be found in the freezer section at the grocery store next to the vegetables)
  • Canned chickpeas rinsed and drained and then sauteed in 1 tablespoon olive oil and seasoned with 1 tsp. cumin, 1/2 tsp. chili powder, and 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • Leftover steak
  • Cooked peeled shrimp or cooked crab
  • Firm or extra-firm tofu, cut into cubes and saute in a dry nonstick pan until golden and beginning to crisp on the edges (about 8 minutes total)
  • Cooked egg, either hard-cooked and halved or a sunnyside-up egg
  • As a bonus, quinoa is a whole grain and a complete protein.

Veggie Bonus

Here's where you add another layer of the veggies you love. As much as you want!

  • Avocado
  • Broccoli florets
  • Cauliflower florets
  • Cooked diced butternut squash (I roast mine in the oven for extra flavor)
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Diced sweet onion
  • Edamame (and this is also a protein!)
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Red onion, sliced in wedges
  • Shredded carrot
  • Shredded red cabbage
  • Sliced fresh mushrooms
  • Sweet red bell pepper
  • Zucchini

Fun Extras

Of course, we're having fun! Here is where the crunchy bits go. Just a little bit on top of the veggies:

  • Nuts (walnuts, peanuts, pecans, almonds)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Chopped green onion
  • Shredded Parmesan cheese
  • Feta cheese, crumbled
  • Blue cheese, crumbled
  • Kalamata olives

A Drizzle on Top

What's life (or a Buddha bowl) without being a little bit saucy?

  • Sour cream (low-fat or non-fat for me please)
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Sriracha
  • Crema with minced cilantro
  • Hummus thinned with water or olive oil
  • Peanut sauce
  • Pesto
  • Salsa
  • Tahini (1/4 cup mixed with 1 tablespoon each maple syrup and fresh lemon juice)
  • Tzatziki sauce


PopSugar is a multi-media company that explores a wide range of topics such as beauty, entertainment, fashion, fitness, parenting, and food. Nicole Perry is one of their contributors, and she has compiled 50 whole-grain salads from popular food blogs. I'm sharing that link here (hold down your control key and then click on the link to open in a new window) because I honestly could not pick one favorite. All of them are imaginative, colorful, and (I'm sure) full of flavor.

And, if you see a recipe that looks interesting, but you don't like the whole grain that is featured, you can swap it out for one that you prefer. That's the beauty of this—with 50 salad ideas and almost two dozen whole grains to choose from, the combinations are limited only by your imagination.

Have I Convinced You?

© 2019 Linda Lum