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Go With the Grain: How to Cook Every Whole Grain Plus Yummy Recipes

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

Let's learn about eight different types of whole grains.

Let's learn about eight different types of whole grains.

Why Are Whole Grains so Great?

There is a mantra that all of us have heard to improve our general health: “Drink more water, exercise every day, get eight hours of sleep, and eat whole grains.” Water, exercise, and sleep all make sense, but why are whole grains so important?

One of the most obvious benefits is that they are high in fiber—a vital part of the daily diet for digestive health. They also help you to feel fuller for a longer period of time. That plus the exercise (you’re doing that too, right?) will help you shed those excess pounds.

But there's more. As we examine each of the whole grains, you'll learn that many of them are a complete nutritional package—an important part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Let’s look at each one and find some recipes too.

Amaranth

This first grain isn’t really a grain at all; it’s a close cousin of spinach and chard and so is classified as a pseudo-grain. It grows tall and has beautiful multi-hued foliage and flower heads. Even after being harvested the leaves of the amaranth retain their gold-red-purple brilliance, which is why it bears the name that in Greek means “never-fading” or “the one that does not wither.” It prefers higher elevations, so found its home with the pre-Columbian Aztecs some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Food historians estimate that amaranth may have provided as much as 80 percent of the Aztec’s diet. But the Aztecs used it not only for food but as a part of their worship. The statues they erected in honor of their gods included images of honey and the amaranth plant. Unfortunately, it was that practice that led to its near extinction. In 1521, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés discovered the Aztec nation, he believed it his duty to introduce Christianity to these "pagans". Because amaranth was an obvious part of the Aztec religion, it was deemed evil and the fields were burned. Luckily a few patches in remote areas survived.

Amaranth is certainly a versatile food—the seeds can be ground into a flour-like substance, they can be popped (like popcorn), the leaves can be eaten like spinach, and the seeds can also be sprouted. When cooked, amaranth seeds are similar to quinoa but even smaller.

Amaranth Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Barley

Barley is part of the grass family and has the distinction of being the most adaptable of grains. It can resist the dry heat of North African deserts, flourishes in the cool-moist areas of Europe and North America, and can even produce a small (but reliable) crop on the Himalayan slopes. Barley contains very little gluten so is not suitable for risen yeast loaves, but it furnishes the daily (flat) bread or porridge in much of Northern Africa.

This ancient grain (food historians think it’s been around for 10,000 years) is the fourth most-produced grain crop in the world (wheat, rice, and corn take first, second, and third places, respectively). In the 2017–18 growing season, global production was over 142 million metric tons. However, most of the annual harvest is used as animal fodder and for the production of beer.

In the United States, two forms of barley are sold for consumption as food. Hulled barley is barely processed; the bran and germ are intact. Pearled barley is a polished grain with the hull and bran removed.

Barley Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Buckwheat

“Old world, sustainable, on the list of plain grains commonly noted for keeping humans from starving through time. No glamor, kingly glitz, or classic poetry. Of course? Feeding humanity is an art unto itself. Buckwheat does just that.”

—Food Timeline.com

Buckwheat is the fabulous grain with the unfortunate name. The “wheat” part puts off many potential followers because they assume it is a gluten-laden wheat spin-off. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plant is actually a close relative of rhubarb and sorrel, and the name “buckwheat” or “beech wheat” stems from its similarity to the nut from the beech tree. Food historians believe that it was cultivated at least 6,000 years ago in the Tibetan Plateau. An easy-to-grow plant, it quickly spread throughout Asia, then to Europe. It was introduced to North America by the Dutch.

Buckwheat Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Farro/Emmer

Farro is another of the ancients; it’s thought that it could be the progenitor of all other grains, beginning in the Fertile Crescent perhaps 10,000 years ago. This chewy, nutty-tasting wheat grain has been a staple of Mediterranean cooking for centuries. In fact, it fed an army. The axiom “an army marches on its stomach” could certainly apply to the Roman legions. It’s estimated that each member consumed 1/3 of a ton of grain per year, and that grain was farro. And why not? It's a nutritional powerhouse, packed with fiber, protein, Vitamin B3, zinc, and magnesium.

Good news—thanks to Italian trattorias it has now become popular in the United States where it goes by the name Emmer. Here is a video that a dear friend who lives in upstate New York took of his Amish (of the Swartzentruber Amish) friends and neighbors harvesting their emmer.

Farro/Emmer Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Freekeh

The name for this wheat grain is derived from how it is harvested. The grains are gathered when they immature—still soft and creamy. The bundles are dried in the sun for one day then burned to remove the chaff. The grains survive the flame and then are rubbed to release their kernels. The Arabic word for “to rub” is farak.

Freekeh Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Millet

For thousands of years, this grass seed has nourished countless souls. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of it, Marco Polo described it in Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo). And in 2005, archeologists found a perfectly preserved bowl. In this bowl were strands of noodles made from foxtail millet. This relic, in northwestern China, was 4,000 years old.

This grass seed is still an important staple in China, India, and Niger—it feeds one-third of the world’s population.

The characteristics which once made millet an appropriate food for primitive times have kept it in our day... It is one of the hardiest of cereals, capable of fending for itself in the wild state; but when it is cultivated it responds gratifyingly to even the most rudimentary care. Its very small seeds facilitate its spread, with the aid of birds, for instance, or even of the wind. It keeps well in storage...millet is often stocked as a reserve good in case of famine.

— Waverly Root, “Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World.”

Unfortunately, millet is under-appreciated in other parts of the world. In the United States, it is most commonly associated with bird feeders. How unfortunate; when cooked this grain is fluffy, not chewy, and has a sweet almost corn-like flavor. It makes a great hot breakfast cereal and is a common ingredient in homemade vegetarian meat patties.

Millet Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Quinoa

To begin this story, we need to take a look back in time, over 5,000 years ago—long before Pizarro; before Cortés, Vespucci, Columbus, Cabral; and even before Leif Eriksson explored the "New World." Before Christ was born. Before Solomon was anointed King of Israel. Before the Third Dynasty of Egypt . . . the Inca people lived in the highlands of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.

They lacked many of what the "modern world" deemed as the necessary elements of civilization; they had no wheel, no beasts of burden, no iron or steel. They did not even utilize a system of writing, yet they had one of the greatest empires in the history of man.

And here they were cultivating quinoa.

Quinoa (keen-wah) has been called the most perfect grain, but it's actually not a grain at all. Like amaranth, it's a seed related to spinach, chard, and the sugar beet. And, like amaranth it was nearly obliterated when Francisco Pizarro sought to claim the Inca Empire for the flag of Spain; he ordered that the quinoa fields, the Inca's sacred "mother of all grains," be purged as a method of destroying the Inca people.

Quinoa is a superfood of the highest order. How do I love quinoa, let me tell you the ways:

  • It is not a wheat product, so it's attractive to those who have wheat and/or gluten allergies.
  • The carbohydrate content is low-glycemic, making it an ideal food for diabetics and anyone trying to stay away from high-glycemic white carbohydrates.
  • It's high in fiber.
  • Eight grams of protein! It's not often that you find a complete protein in a plant-based food.
  • It provides over twice the amount of calcium as is found in whole wheat.

Quinoa Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

Spelt

Spelt is yet another ancient grain, one of three wheat plants from which the bread wheats of today originated. According to Greek mythology, it was a gift from Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. It contains gluten but is more easily digested that other forms.

Spelt Recipes

(Veg) = Vegetarian; (V) = Vegan; (GF) = Gluten-free

How to Cook Whole Grains

 SoakRinseProportion of Water to GrainCooking Method

Amaranth

8 hours

Required

2:1

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit 10-15 minutes

Barley

4-8 hours

Required

2 1/2:1

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 30-45 minutes for pearl barley and 75+ minutes for hulled barley

Buckwheat

No

Not needed

2:1

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 10-15 minutes. Drain.

Farro

Not necessary but will reduce cooking time

Required

Use enough water to cover by at least 1 inch

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 10-50 minutes (according to package directions). Drain

Freekeh

No

Required

2:1

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 25 minutes for cracked grains, 45 minutes for whole grains

Millet

No

Required

Use enough water to cover by several inches

Bring to boil in large saucepan; simmer 10 minutes

Quinoa

No

Required

2:1

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit 7 minutes.

Spelt

Not necessary for pearl spelt; whole grain needs 8-16 hours

Required

Use enough water to cover by at least 1 inch

Bring to a boil; cover and simmer 10-50 minutes depending on type of grain and how chewy you want the end-product to be

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 26, 2020:

Mary, I hope you can find quinoa. It's so easy to cook and I've only skimmed the surface here (just 3 recipes) of what you can do with it. I purposely cook extra to make quinoa patties (crispy pan-fried cakes that are great with marinara sauce or as a crunchy topping on a (more healthy) green salad.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on August 26, 2020:

Out of your list, I think I have only had barley and that was years ago. I need to rectify this.

I will see what is available here. Thanks for the list and the recipes.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 25, 2020:

Abby, I'm so happy to see you here again. Yes, the barley soup is wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I always appreciate that.

Abby Slutsky from LAFAYETTE HL on August 25, 2020:

I was familiar with most of these grains but not all of them. I liked the at-a-glance cooking chart, and I will probably try the mushroom barley soup. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 25, 2020:

Denise, I hope you'll give the mushroom barley soup a try. It's comfort in a bowl (although you might want to wait until the weather cools down a bit).

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 25, 2020:

This is awesome information. I've purchased Millet and Barley and wasn't sure how to cook it. I think I overcooked the barley. Now I know. Thanks.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 25, 2020:

Bill, yes unfortunately I do remember Wonder Bread. I "wonder" what it was? I'm convinced that one could compress the entire loaf into a the size of a Rubic's Cube.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 25, 2020:

Shauna, although I wrote about all of them, there are a couple that I haven't tried. As soon as I can do "real" shopping again, I'll remedy that. Thanks for your kind words.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 25, 2020:

Umesh, thank you for your kind words.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 25, 2020:

Pamela, I don't know about you, but I find that I tend to fall into a cooking "rut", using the same ingredients over and over. I hope this one will encourage my readers to try some new things. As you know, whole grains are really important.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 25, 2020:

Remember Wonder Bread? I don't know why, but this article reminded me of that stuff. I don't think that bread ever molded. What the heck was that made of? lol No way was it healthy for us.

Anyway, loved the information. As always, your article is oozing with cool facts.

Have a great Tuesday!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 25, 2020:

Linda, you did a wonderful job of presenting the history and benefits of these grains. I hadn't heard of a few of them. That quinoa chocolate cake looks absolutely delicious!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 25, 2020:

Excellent resource. Well presented. Thanks.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 25, 2020:

This article is excellent with your terrific pictures and a wealth of informations about grains, nust and seeds. I learned several things for which I thank you, Linda. I think you really outdid yourself with this well-written article.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 24, 2020:

Flourish, I love quinoa. It's so healthy, easy to cook, and can go in so many directions with flavor. I hope you'll find something new here for you and your family

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 24, 2020:

I think those quinoa recipes have my name on them. Thank you for sharing these! Adding it to my shopping list.