All About Whole Grains
Dietary guidelines say you need at least 3 servings of whole grains each day. But if you don’t know barley from bulgur, here’s a guide to versatile grains, from amaranth to wheat berries.
Whole grains can be a great way to fill your plate and your belly in a healthy fashion. If your starch IQ is lacking and you find yourself serving pasta and potatoes far too often, 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).
Amaranth [AM-ah-ranth] was a principle food of the Aztecs. It has a slightly peppery, molasses-like flavor with a faint nuttiness. The grains (or seeds) are tiny, shiny, and can be yellow and black. They’re so small that they seem almost lost when served alone as a side dish. But amaranth is good as a thickener in soups because, when cooked, it has a slightly gummy texture, like okra. Try amaranth flour, along with wheat berries, in Wheat Berry Bread.
Barley is best known as an ingredient in beer and soup. Creamy and possessing a fairly neutral flavor when cooked, pearl barley is easy to serve in place of rice; because it’s so starchy, pearl barley can be treated just like Arborio rice for risotto. Whole barley, with its protective layer of bran intact, plumps nicely when cooked. Barley flour, when toasted, has a strong nutty flavor; try adding it to breads. A great source of fiber, 1/2 cup of pearl barley offers more than 12 grams.
You can use barley groats rather than pearl barley in this stew to give the dish a little more texture. Substitute rutabagas, parsnips, or other root vegetables of your choice for the carrots and turnips.
Bulgur is familiar to many of us through the Middle Eastern dishes tabbouleh and kibbeh. Bulgur is wheat that has been steamed whole, dried, then cracked. So bulgur is essentially precooked and quick to prepare. It comes in three grinds—fine (#1), medium (#2), and coarse (#3). Fine and medium bulgurs are used for tabbouleh, and the coarse is good in pilafs. Bulgur, especially fine bulgur, needs only to be soaked to become tender, but it can also be cooked pilaf-style. You can find bulgur in Middle Eastern markets as well as natural foods stores.
Refrigerating the meat mixture makes it easier to handle and helps the meatballs hold their shape. You can use fine or medium bulgur in this recipe. Serve with rice.
Grano [gra-NO] is probably unfamiliar to most Americans, since it’s a new product in the United States. Grano (Italian for “grain”) is essentially polished durum wheat (a variety of wheat used to make pasta), and most reminiscent of barley. It has a golden hue and an appealing chewiness when cooked. Because the bran has been removed, the starch is more accessible, which means you can cook grano as you would Arborio rice for risotto. Or you can simmer it without stirring, which leaves the grains intact. It provides a nice combination of texture and neutral flavor. Use grano in soups, stews, salads, and other dishes in which you might use a small pasta such as orzo. Grano has yet to appear on major supermarket shelves, but you may be able to find it at health-food stores or Italian markets.
Kamut [kah-MOOT] is a primitive high-protein variety of wheat and takes its name from the ancient Egyptian word for wheat. Kamut berries are about twice the size of, but similar in flavor and texture to, wheat berries. Substitute kamut for wheat berries, and buy kamut flour to use in place of or alongside wheat flour. Spelt, another primitive form of wheat similar to kamut, has become fashionable among restaurant chefs. Both kamut and spelt contain a more digestible form of gluten than that found in wheat, so people with an intolerance to wheat are often able to eat these grains.
Oats are most widely available in rolled form. Steel-cut oats are cracked whole grain oats; when cooked, they are chewy. They’re also called Irish oatmeal. A good source of fiber, 1/2 cup of steel-cut oats has 7.5 grams. You may also see oat groats or whole grain oats.
Quinoa [KEEN-wah] tastes wonderful and has a nice crunch. It’s a good alternative to rice because of its lightness. Make more than enough because the leftovers are so useful. (Try it for breakfast with maple syrup and milk, add it to pancake and muffin batter, or mix it with potatoes for croquettes.) The tiny beige-colored seeds, about the size of pellets of couscous, cook in about 20 minutes. The only special handling required with quinoa is to give it a good rinse before cooking; otherwise, the grains can be bitter. A good source of protein and fiber, 1/2 cup of quinoa has 14 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber.
Rye is most commonly seen as flour. Also available are whole rye berries, which are green and work nicely in salads. Rye berries are a lot like wheat berries, kamut berries, and other whole grains—chewy and neutral in flavor, they hold their shape when cooked. Like wheat berries, they can be added to breads. Rye is now often available rolled as well. Rolled rye cooks quickly and makes tasty breakfast cereals. Rye ferments easily, so it’s not surprising that it’s used to make whiskey.
Make this salad with any whole grain, including wheat berries or barley. Vary the chopped vegetables too, if you like. But don't change one iota of the simply luscious vinaigrette made with orange juice and champagne vinegar; it makes this salad burst with flavor.
Wheat is the world’s largest cereal grass crop, with its thousands of varieties. Wheat berries are simply whole grain wheat. They are big, chewy, and take about an hour to cook. Once cooked, they can go in salads, soups, and in mixed-grain dishes. They are also great kneaded into bread, providing welcome texture. Wheat bran, the exterior layer of the grain, is rich in fiber.
This Wheat Berry Bread makes a hearty sandwich bread. Cooked wheat berries add texture, and the wheat bran gives the surface a nice rustic finish. The recipe makes two loaves, so you can freeze one for later.
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.