Easy to prepare. Inexpensive. Hearty and satisfying enough to fuel you for hours. Delicious. Versatile.
There are lots of reasons to get excited about whole grains.
By now, you know you should incorporate whole grain foods as part of a healthy diet—look at labeling on food packages to be sure that whole grain is the first listed ingredient in breads, cereals, crackers and other foods.
But have you tried cooking whole grains at home? Grains like barley, wheat berries, farro, oats and their cousins make terrific foundations for all kinds of recipes. They have a nutty flavor and a chewy texture. If you love red sauce and meatballs over pasta, try it over cooked barley instead. Make a hearty lunchtime salad with wild rice, chicken and apples. Swap wheat berries for white rice as a tasty side dish for grilled chicken.
What Makes Whole Grains Healthy?
First, a quick botany lesson. Grains are comprised of three edible parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm.
Refined white grains like rice have the outer bran and germ removed, leaving just the inner endosperm, which is pretty much all carbohydrate. The bran and germ contain all the fiber, about 25% of the protein and most of vitamins and minerals in the grain — so you get all those nutrition benefits!
How to Choose and Keep Whole Grains
Find all sorts of whole grains in the bulk section of large grocery or specialty stores; packaged grains generally live in the cereal aisle (Bob's Red Mill is a popular variety). If you see a grain marked 'pearled', that means it's been polished to remove the outer bran, so it will cook in less time than conventional grains (and as a result, it loses much of its healthy fiber). Store uncooked grains in an airtight container for up to one year.
If gluten is a dietary concern for you, look for whole grains that are naturally gluten free (and labeled as such) like rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth. Look for oats with the gluten free symbol on the package.
How to Cook and Enjoy Whole Grains
Whole grains vary widely in cooking time, from about 15 minutes for quinoa (which is technically a seed and not a grain) to an hour for unpearled wheat berries. Here's a simple chart that gives basic preparation for a whole bunch of different types.
You can use the "rice method" of cooking: Combine grains and the appropriate amount of water or broth in a saucepan and simmer until the grains are tender and the liquid is fully absorbed. Again, this chart will show you the water to grain ratio and cooking times.
Or you can use the "pasta method": Heat a large pot of water or stock to a boil and add the grains, cooking until tender and then draining off any excess liquid.
Either way, make sure the water or broth is well seasoned with salt to enhance the grains' flavor. You want the grains to be tender but still toothsome, like al dente pasta.
Because they can take 45 minutes or more to cook, it's smart to make a big batch of grains at a time. Spread whatever you don't need immediately out on a rimmed baking sheet, freeze, then transfer to a freezer bag.
This Broccoli Mushroom & Whole Grain Bake is an excellent way to use brown rice, farro or barley. One of my favorite side dishes is this Hearty Barley & Vegetable Salad (leftovers are great for lunch). And wild rice stars in this Fabulous Wild Rice Salad with Chicken and Apple.
Pick a grain to try and cook up a batch. Once you get to know them you'll discover how versatile and delicious they can be.