11 grains you should have in your pantry
The term grain applies to numerous harvestable plants with edible dry seeds. Within this food group there are cereals, pseudocereals, pulses (mostly dry legumes like lentils or chickpeas), and oilseeds (seeds harvested for their oils). There are further divisions – like seasonal cereals – and additional terms that refer to a grain's natural or whole state (i.e. whole grains). Since there are so many (I feel another Grain Study coming on), I've rounded up eleven of the most common and easily approachable grains that should stock your pantry.
Amaranth: This pseudocereal has a long history and numerous uses including floral arrangements, colored dye, and various culinary applications. While there are dozens of species, the most common culinary uses for amaranth come from Mesoamerica and ancient Aztec diets. High in protein and easy to cook, Amaranth can be used as a substitute in porridge, stirred into soups, or even milled into a gluten-free flour. Try this recipe for Toasted Coconut Amaranth Porridge from Savory Simple. How cool will you feel when you can tell people you had amaranth for breakfast.
Old-Fashioned Oats: An American favorite and arguably the most recognizable grain on the grocery store shelf. While many of us are familiar with old-fashioned oats, quick, or 1-minute oats, this grain comes in many other forms. One of the newer trends is steel-cut oats, a name that refers to the process in which the oats are prepared for consumption. Steel-cut oats are whole grain and include the inner oat kernel – or groat – and resemble small pieces of gravel, unlike old-fashioned oats which are rolled flat. I believe one should never tell another how to make their oatmeal, but if you want a new use for those tried-and-true grains, have a go at my recipe for homemade granola.
Millet: Not to be confused with mullet, this grain comes from a small-seeded grass grown in semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa. There are many types of millet – such as pearl and finger – but they are fairly interchangeable when it comes to culinary uses. While we typically consider rice to be one of the most ancient grains, researchers argue that millet might predate it by many years. As far as eating it, millet is used as a base grain for brewing certain exotic alcohols, puffed like a rice krispie for use in cereal bars and sweets, and is, of course, consumed as porridge. If you can find puffed millet cereal, make these indulgent Salted Caramel Millet Squares from Sweet Treats.
Brown Rice: This installment of Grain Study features brown rice (Texmati to be exact) because that's what I had in my pantry and what I use most often. While there are dozens of rice varieties, the grain can be considered more generally as the seed from one of two plants, either Oryza sativa (Asian rice) or Oryza glaberrima (African rice). We all have our preferred rice – wild, brown, white, jasmine, arborio, short-grain, long-grain – but in the end all rice is pretty much the same. The biggest difference is whether the outer husk, or chaff, and the bran has been removed from the grain. When these things are removed, the grain is typically known as white rice. And though specific varieties of white rice is essential in certain dishes – sticky rice for sushi, the puffed cereal in rice krispies, and rice pudding – the grain is technically less nutritional. While I love a big bowl of rice and beans and have had my fair share of rice krispies treats, my hands down favorite rice dish is this Wild Rice with Dried Cherries and Pecans from Martha Stewart.
Buckwheat Groats: A closer cousin to rhubarb than wheat, this grain is cultivated for its little seeds – known as groats – giving it the classification of a pseudocereal. Buckwheat is high in amino acids, protein, and certain minerals like iron. While buckwheat groat is not too popular here in the states, the grain is incorporated into other widely consumed dishes like soba noodles which are made with buckwheat flour. When buckwheat is cooked and served like rice, it is typically called by its other name, kasha. Today, buckwheat is a popular addition or flour-substitution for pancakes and other baked goods. Try your hand at these Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes from Southern in Law.
Farro – Wheat Berries: Until I started doing research for this post, I had no idea farro and wheat berries were, gasp, really one in the same. While the wheat grain isn't protected under AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) like French champagne, what you call it depends upon where it was grown. In some countries, they call any similarly-sized grain farro, but some consider the grain harvested from the emmer variety of wheat the only true farro. A similar variety of wheat is prepared much like this "true" farro, but is often referred to as wheat berries. Essentially, these grains are so alike in look and culinary preparation that most countries call them all farro. Think of it as calling all the different varieties of pasta – ranging from skinny spaghetti to giant tubular manicotti – by the same term, pasta. Confusing I know, but delicious. With pasta in mind, make this Farro Marinara with Melted Mozzarella from Cuisineous.
Quinoa: While two different colors of quinoa are present in the above chart, they only get one written entry. Why? Because regardless of color, quinoa, like rice, is roughly all the same. This South American pseudocereal has exploded over the past few years, but originated as a nutritional superfood of the indigenous peoples of the area. High in protein, gluten-free, and a pretty-looking crop, quinoa has a thousand different uses including stuffing, salads, baked goods, pudding, soup and stew thickeners, and, of course, porridge. My current favorite quinoa use is as a base for these Honey Chipotle Chicken Bowls from How Sweet Eats.
Barley: A wildly cultivated cereal grain, barley is well-known in many cuisines for its healthy qualities. But, let's be honest. We all know about it because it makes beer. In Scotland, barley is used to make wonderful soups and breads that happen to pair just perfectly with barley-based beers and whiskys. In England and in my own kitchen, non-alcoholic barley water is a popular beverage in the warmer months and is typically combined with citrus juices like lemon or orange. Over ice with a splash of vodka, hello porch swing. Barley water from the UK is a little hard to find here in the states, so try making your own with this recipe from Alton Brown.
Bulgur: A cereal grain if there ever was one, bulgur is made from the groats of wheat plants, most often from the variety of durum wheat. The word bulgur is Turkish in origin and the grain features in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, including the best salad ever, tabbouleh. My favorite dish as a young wannabe hippie in the first few years of college, I would walk to Tom's Tabbouleh on Guadalupe and get my fix with some all-natural, bulgur fueled goodness. Since then, I've learned of the grain's delicious role in veggie burgers and soup fillers. Have the best of both worlds in this Tabbouleh Soup from Wandercrush.
Maize: What a fancy word for corn. This large cereal grain was originally domesticated by the local peoples in Mesoamerica and thank goodness they did. While I try to avoid anything with the dreaded HFCS, I don't think I could survive without popcorn, cornbread, corn on the cob, cheese grits, and about a dozen other corn-based dishes. Perhaps this is the Southerner in me, but corn is a very important part of American foodways. From the kind natives who taught the bewildered pilgrims how to plant corn with mutually beneficial sister crops to the Southern American indigenous peoples who had the crazy idea to heat corn kernels until they popped, maize is just a wonderful food. While there's been lots of hullabaloo about GMOs and America's mono-culture practices, corn remains a wonderfully nutritional and delicious grain. Try to seek out locally grown or heritage varieties of maize in your area. There's really nothing better than a freshly ground cornmeal, and when you've found it, make my Dad's recipe for the Perfect Cornbread. No, really. It's perfect.Learn more.
Related Video: The benefits of whole grains
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