A Quick Guide to Grains

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Carol Blonder
grains and seeds

One of our tips for cooking meatless is to prepare a pot of grain over the weekend, mostly brown rice, and have it on hand to add to soups, stocks, and casseroles or to make a fresh grain and vegetable salad during the week. Going meatless one day a week is motivation to get out of our brown rice rut, and explore other grains and seeds.

There are a wide variety of grains spanning the globe. Ancient cultures placed a high value on their respective staff of life, elevating grain crops to represent creation, fertility, and spiritual power. Today we associate grains with ethnic cooking- farro in rustic Italian dishes, steel cut Irish oats, buckwheat blinis from Russia, and bulgur based Middle Eastern dishes.

Chefs continue to present a variety of grain dishes as a way to diversify their menus. With the current cultural emphasis on eating for health, grains and seeds take center stage. Here is a quick guide to help you get your grain on.

quick grain guide


Amaranth: a seed and a main source of protein for Aztec, Inca and Mayan cultures. High in iron, calcium and fiber. Gluten free. Use amaranth flour as a substitute for wheat in baked goods to add crunch and flavor (substitute ¼ wheat flour with amaranth flour.). Gelatinous when cooked, it is a good thickening agent for soups and puddings. Preparation: Rinse seeds, drain, and bring 3 cups water and 1-cup amaranth to boil, cover and simmer 20-30 minutes.

Barley: most commonly used in soups and stews. Removing the husk, bran and germ creates refined pearled barley. Mild in flavor, and soft when cooked, it picks up flavor from being cooked with aromatics like onions and mushrooms. Combine with oats for breakfast and mix with cinnamon, almonds slivers and dried fruit.

Buckwheat: a fruit from the rhubarb family that is prepared like a grain.
The groats (unrefined: contain bran, germ and endosperm) are known as kasha widely used in eastern European dishes. A quick cooking grain it is often combined with egg whites to hold together. Buckwheat flour is used in Russian blini (pancakes) and to prepare Japanese soba noodles.

Bulgur: partially cooked cracked wheat with a nutty flavor. Makes a nice replacement for rice in any dish. Quick to prepare, does not need to cook-just add boiling water to soften and plump. It is the main ingredient in Middle Eastern recipes like tabbouleh and kibbeh. Combines well with legumes, rice and beans.

Farro: high in fiber and with more protein than wheat, often confused with spelt. Found in Mediterranean preparations, particularly Italian dishes. Cooks like pasta and is used in the same way. Find faro in Italian specialty markets.


Millet: a seed grown all over the world. Gluten free. The slightly crunchy texture of cooked millet is similar to brown rice. Can be used in place of rice to prepare risotto and pilafs. Preparation: Rinse seeds, drain, and bring 3 cups water and 1-cup millet to boil, cover and simmer 20-30 minutes.

Kamut: trade name for this grain from the wheat family. Originally found in Egypt and Asia. High in protein. It has a chewy texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. Preparation: Soak Kamut overnight in water. Drain, rinse, bring 2 cups water and 1 cup Kamut to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Teff: high in calcium and protein. Gluten free. Its sweet, malt flavor makes teff flour a good substitution for a portion of wheat flour in baked goods. On its own, best used for hot cereal. Most widely known as the flour used to prepare injera, Ethiopian flatbread.

Wheat berries: whole wheat kernels with a nutty, earthy flavor. A versatile grain; eat as a hot cereal with added cinnamon, raisins and nuts, add to chopped fruits or vegetables for a grain based salad, serve warm with wilted greens, or add into soups and stews. Preparation: Rinse seeds, drain, and bring 3 cups water and 1-cup wheat berries to boil, cover and simmer 20-30 minutes.


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