All About Grains

Don't know barley from bulgur? Here's a guide to versatile grains.
By Deborah Madison

Most of us know that grains are good for us but have difficulty naming more than two or three. And if the most common side dishes you serve with chicken are pasta and potatoes, maybe a lesson in grains is in order. Here, we offer some simple recipes and tips on where to find and how to cook grains, and explore a few of the most versatile -- from the everyday (wheat) to the exotic (quinoa).

Buying and Storing Grains

In the past, you would have had to go to a health or natural foods store to buy these grains, but now you can find many of them at the supermarket. Arrowhead Mills and Bob's Red Mill are two commonly available brands. Grains -- especially whole ones -- have oils that eventually turn rancid. Shop at stores where the turnover seems high, and buy only what you plan to use within a few months. If you have space, it's best to refrigerate grains, but you still can't keep them forever. You can tell if they've lost their freshness by their smell -- old grains, including flours, will have a stale odor.

Processing Grains

When we refer to grains, we mean grains in their most natural form -- chewy, hearty, and high in fiber and nutrients. To put this into perspective, it helps to know how grains are processed.

Whole grains and groats are interchangeable terms for unrefined grains. Because the bran, endosperm, and germ are intact, they are higher in fiber and minerals than other forms. As you might expect, whole grains take longer to cook than refined forms. Examples of whole grains include wheat berries, whole grain rye, and buckwheat groats.

Polished grains include pearled barley and brown rice. These grains have been refined to remove the tough exterior husk and most (or all) of the bran. This makes them less chewy and quicker to cook than whole grains.

Cracked grains, such as bulgur and steel-cut oats, result when grains are ground into smaller pieces. Some cracked grains are derived from whole grains, others from refined grains.

Flakes are sliced whole grains or cracked grains that have been steamed and rolled. Rolled oats are probably the most familiar, but you'll also find rolled barley, wheat, and rye.

Flour is grain that has been milled to a powder. Whole wheat flour is the product of processing whole wheat berries.