Glorious Grains

By Melanie Gold

Grains are the foundation of the world’s diet. Generally speaking, grains are easy to grow, easy to prepare, and rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein. They’re a staple in the “clean food” movement and provide excellent sources of complex carbohydrates (the “good” carbs). Today’s tasty, healthy grains aren’t just about oat bran and brown rice.

According to nutrition experts, eating whole grains helps prevent heart disease and other chronic diseases, stabilizes blood sugar and digestion and may help regulate estrogen levels.

But probably most importantly, grains provide dozens of year-round options for satisfying, healthy, great-tasting meals. Here’s a look at some grains we know and love, and a few newcomers, too.


Many people know that barley is used as a base for making beer or distilled beverages, and as a favorite ingredient in hearty soups. A bowl of piping-hot beef with pearl barley soup and crackers or crusty bread on the side is a fortifying early-spring meal. Consider using whole barley, which is minimally processed and nutritionally superior to pearl barley, easy to digest and light and delicious as a side dish when combined with lemon juice, garlic and fresh herbs. It has five to six times the fiber as compared to most whole grains and is recommended for those trying to control blood sugar.

However, barley—like a number of other grains—is high in phytic acid. Phytic acid has some beneficial properties, including cancer-fighting agents, but it is also known to create acid in the body and interferes with the absorption of zinc, calcium, iron and other essential minerals. To reduce this grain’s acidic qualities, soak whole barley (sometimes called hulled barley) for at least an hour. Discard the soaking liquid before cooking, and a significant amount of the phytic acid washes away while the nutritional properties remain. Barley contains gluten and is not recommended for people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. Barley is also discouraged as a food for infants younger than six months old because of its potential to cause an allergic reaction.


Also known as kasha, buckwheat is a staple food all over Eastern Europe It grows best in cooler climates and has a short growing season, so it may be no surprise that Russia is the world’s top producer of buckwheat, and was once used as part of ceremonial meals for Russian nobility It is a key ingredient in borscht, a beet-based vegetable soup.

Buckwheat is also used in buckwheat pancakes and crepes, farina breakfast cereals and as a thickener in Pennsylvania German scrapple. Soba noodles, which are also made of buckwheat, best tolerate stir-frying if added to the wok or pan while they’re still cold. Unlike wheat, buckwheat is gluten-free.


Millet may be used in some commercial bird feed, but this small-seeded, high-protein grain has been traced to prehistoric China and Korea as a human food source. Today, India is the top producer of millet, as its flour is commonly used in the making of Indian breads, such as roti, a flatbread. Millet can be eaten as a sweet porridge with sugar and cream or with apple slices and honey. As a vegan meal or meat replacement, millet can be combined with black beans, corn, cumin and black pepper, then fried as meatless burgers or stuffed in pitas with lettuce and tomato.

This grain can be a bit bland, so some cooks pan-roast it first to bring out its nutty flavor. Millet is gluten-free.


Quinoa, pronounced “keen-wah,” is native to the Andean mountains in South America. It is a small-seeded annual plant related to lamb’s quarters (regarded by some as a weed) and is nearly a complete protein, containing twice as much protein as barley, corn, or rice. Historically, Incan warriors used quinoa as a staple food source, particularly when they were on the go. It is still a popular grain in places such as Peru and Bolivia, where it is ground and made into tamales or, when combined with water, a high-energy drink or fermented beer. The Incas also used it medicinally as a pain killer, anti-inflammatory, disinfectant, to stanch internal bleeding and repel insects.

Quinoa, thought of as an ignored grain, contains phytic acid. Food historians suspect that Spanish explorers, put off by raw quinoa’s bitterness, were reluctant to introduce it to Europe. In the United States quinoa started appearing on shelves of health food stores in the 1980s. Today, quinoa is in vogue, found in supermarkets and on menus at local restaurants .

Gluten-free and easily digested, quinoa comes in several colors and cooks in about 15 minutes (1 cup of grain for every 1 1/2 cups of liquid). Home cooks frequently use quinoa in place of oats, rice, breadcrumbs, or as a substitute for bulgur in tabbouleh. Try a quinoa avocado salad, tossed with diced tomato, corn, garlic and chopped cilantro. Quinoa also comes in flakes and can substitute for granola over yogurt, fruit and nuts.


Wheat is the most plentiful crop in the world. It is the basis for milled all-purpose flours and is the main ingredient in most breads and pastas. But there are other types of wheat, including bulgur and cracked wheat. Both are crushed wheat grain; cracked wheat is raw and bulgur is parboiled. Cracked wheat can be used as a breakfast cereal or added to meatloaf in lieu of breadcrumbs. Bulgur is common in pilaf, tabbouleh and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes.

Other products that come from wheat include wheat germ, which is removed before wheat is refined into flour. It is a stand-by food for vegetarians and vegans, as wheat germ is a great source of folic acid, fiber and L-ergothioneine–a powerful antioxidant that is not destroyed by cooking. It is popular as a granola substitute.

Wheat berries, farro and spelt are often used interchangeably, though there are subtle differences between them. Wheat berries are whole wheat kernels, including the bran, germ and endosperm. They are used in savory porridge dishes and in rustic European desserts such as Pastiera Napolitana, a tart containing a ricotta cheese and wheat berry filling. Farro was a primary grain among ancient Egyptians and became a staple for Roman legions that occupied Egypt. Popular in Italian dishes, farro has a dense, chewy texture and can be used as a risotto substitute. Both wheat berries and farro should be soaked overnight before cooking.

Spelt is a variety of wheat that fell out of favor after the medieval period but is gaining popularity again, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, and can be found in the United States in health food stores, commonly sold in breads and crackers.

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