Whole grains have gone from hippy food to mainstream food media darling, and we’re all for it. If “they’re good for you” doesn’t get you motivated, what about just “they’re good”? Grains are tasty, protein-rich, and easy to cook. Here’s a primer on 10 of our favorites, along with an assortment of recipes that will have you pushing aside potatoes for barley or bulgur.
Why Eat Whole Grains?
Whole grains are generally packed with nutrients, dietary fiber, and antioxidants, and many whole grains (including amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, and rice) are naturally gluten free. Studies show that eating whole grains can help prevent heart disease. The prebiotic fiber in whole grains may be good for your gastrointestinal health, and whole grains can even help prevent type 2 diabetes as part of a diet rich in whole foods.
When buying processed foods like breakfast cereals and bread, whole grain products are healthier than those made from refined grains, but eating intact whole grains as in the recipes below is even better for you.
USDA dietary guidelines recommend between 3 and 8 ounces of grain foods daily, at least half of which should be whole grains.
How to Buy & Store Whole Grains
Many grains are widely available and sold boxed. Some, like the bird-seed-looking teff, you’ll have to seek out at your local health food store, gourmet market, or online from the purveyor of nearly every whole grain and flour in existence, Bob’s Red Mill.
Grains will go rancid within three to six months, so only buy what you need. If you’re going to use them within a few weeks, store them at room temperature; otherwise, seal them tightly and refrigerate or freeze.
OXO Good Grips Small POP Container, $11.95 at Sur La Table
Make sure your container is airtight too.
For a deep dive into the greatness of grains, be sure to check out our Table Talk podcast with Maria Speck!
Types of Whole Grains to Try
Fun Fact: The plant that the seeds come from is similar in flavor to spinach.
What to Buy: Amaranth seeds have great flavor and crunch, and amaranth flour (ground from the seeds) can be used in cookies or pastas for a healthier take.
Favorite Cooking Method: Toast the seeds in a dry, covered skillet over medium heat until browned and beginning to pop.
Other Prep Ideas: Simmer 1 cup of the seeds in 2 1/2 cups of water and eat for breakfast as you would oatmeal.
Fun Fact: Barley is the fourth most widely cultivated grain after wheat, rice, and corn.
What to Buy: Barley is most commonly sold whole (hulled), meaning the whole grain has had only the husk removed; pearled (much quicker to cook); or as grits, flour, or couscous.
Favorite Cooking Method: Throw some barley into a large pot of heavily salted water and simmer until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes for pearl barley. Drain and serve.
Fun Fact: Technically, buckwheat isn’t a grain but rather the seed of a plant that’s related to rhubarb. However, it has a lot of grainlike qualities so it’s long been lumped together with grains in the culinary world.
What to Buy: Buckwheat is usually found as groats or toasted groats (which are labeled kasha). We think kasha has a barnyardlike flavor, so we stick to regular groats.
Favorite Cooking Method: Add 1 cup of groats or kasha to 2 cups of salted boiling water and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Let stand covered briefly, then fluff and serve.
Other Prep Ideas: Use it in place of rice in pilafs or try making grain salads with it.
Fun Fact: This Middle Eastern staple is simply wheat berries that have been steamed, dried, and cracked.
What to Buy: Bulgur is sometimes found in different grinds, but fine grind is the most common.
Favorite Cooking Method: Add 1 cup of bulgur to 2 cups of salted boiling water and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Let stand covered briefly, then fluff and serve.
Other Prep Ideas: Use in salads or simmer for a simple side dish.
Fun Fact: This ancient strain of wheat is also known as grano farro or emmer wheat. It has a chewy texture and nutty flavor.
What to Buy: Farro is sold whole, semipearled, and pearled (meaning all or part of the bran has been removed). We prefer the semipearled version because it retains the grain’s signature texture and taste while cutting down on cooking time.
Favorite Cooking Method: Soak farro for at least 20 minutes and up to 12 hours, then simmer in a large pot of heavily salted water until tender, about 20 to 40 minutes depending on the type of farro being used. Drain and serve.
Other Prep Ideas: Use farro in salads or in place of rice in risotto.
Fun Fact: Kamut is an ancient relative of durum wheat.
Favorite Cooking Method: The berries take a long time to cook, so we put them in a slow cooker on low and let them go for 6 to 8 hours.
Other Prep Ideas: Use kamut pasta in your favorite noodle dish.
Fun Fact: Though it’s largely used as bird seed in the United States, millet is a staple in the Far East and is considered one of the world’s oldest cultivated grains.
What to Buy: It can be found as grains or flour.
Favorite Cooking Method: Toast 1 cup of millet in a dry, covered pan until browned, then add 2 1/2 cups of water and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Let stand covered briefly, then fluff and serve.
Other Prep Ideas: Serve it as a breakfast cereal, try it in place of polenta, or turn it into a creamy pudding for dessert.
Fun Fact: Actually the seed of a plant related to spinach, quinoa was a staple for the ancient Incans; it’s highly nutritious and a complete protein (it contains all nine essential amino acids).
What to Buy: It can be found as seeds (in yellow or red) or flour.
Favorite Cooking Method: Add 1 cup of quinoa to 2 cups of salted boiling water and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Fun Fact: The smallest grain in the world, teff measures about 1/32 inch in diameter. Teff flour is fermented to make injera, the spongy bread served with Ethiopian food.
What to Buy: Teff can be found as grains or flour.
Favorite Cooking Method: Bring 3 1/2 cups of water to a boil, whisk in 1 cup of teff, and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.
Other Prep Ideas: Try it in place of polenta.
Fun Fact: The whole, unprocessed kernels of the wheat plant, wheat berries are chewy and have a unique flavor.
What to Buy: There are many types of whole wheat berries for sale, but the distinctions don’t matter unless you are grinding the berries for flour.
Favorite Cooking Method: Simmer wheat berries in a large pot of heavily salted water until tender, about 45 minutes. Drain and serve.
Other Prep Ideas: Add wheat berries to any grain salad or serve as an alternative to rice.
Related Video: This West African Dish Is the Ultimate Ancient Grain Bowl
Header image by Chowhound.