The Skinny on... Unusual Grains
From creamy and nutty to sour and toothsome, these unusual grains offer a taste sensation with every bite.
By now, you probably know about wheat berries, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa and oats. These are the whole grains we find in copious supply. Even corn — it’s a whole grain!
But the world of edible cereal grains, and the seeds from various grasses that act like whole grains, is enormous, with more choices showing up in our supermarkets every day. They offer wide variety and new taste experiences — all things that can bring more pleasure to our meals. From amaranth to teff, grains are finally getting their day in the sun.
Whole grains are filling. They keep you from being hungry for hours. And a whole grain is both a nutritional and a culinary powerhouse. Not only do you get a big hit of vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein, you also get intense flavors and a vast range of textures.
Whole or refined?
It’s not accurate to say that whole grains are not processed foods. Almost all are. To understand why, we have to figure out what a whole grain is. It has four parts:
- the tough outer hull
- the thin bran that protects the inner seed
- the germ that functions like an egg yolk when the seed germinates
- the creamy, sweet endosperm, the pale center of the grain
By and large, the hull is inedible and must be removed before we can eat the grain. And the grain itself must be dried for long storage, to keep inherent moisture from reacting with the natural fats and causing the grain to go rancid.
Thus, almost all grains are processed in some way, even when they’re “whole.” The one stand-out exception is corn. We eat the hull — and can even eat the grain itself raw, straight off the cob.
A “whole” grain then is a grain with the hull removed (except for corn) but the bran, germ and endosperm still intact. A refined grain lacks its hull as well as its bran or germ — and sometimes both.
To soak or not to soak?
Many whole grains benefit from an overnight bath before they’re cooked on the stovetop. The water invades the cells and gives the grain a leg up on hydration before it hits the heat and begins to soften.
No doubt about it, a 12-hour soak improves the texture of cooked grains. The texture and tooth of these grains will be compromised without an initial soak. The grains can be tougher and chewier, not as creamy and smooth. In general, the larger the grain, the more it benefits from an initial soak. But it’s a myth that whole grains require overnight soaking. For one thing, many don’t at all: specifically, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, wild rice and corn. And some of the unusual grains we’ll discuss on the next page don’t need that initial bath either, like millet, amaranth, teff and bulgur.
Other whole grains — wheat berries and brown rice, as well as the more unusual spelt berries or kamut wheat, for example — can be cooked by being placed in a pot of water and boiled on the stovetop without soaking. Unsoaked grains will take up to 25 percent longer to cook — which means that soaked spelt berries will take about 1 hour to get tender, but will take 1 hour and 15 minutes or so if they’re not soaked first.
A vast world
The sheer variety of grains is astounding.
- You can have a different grain every day of the month and not repeat yourself.
- You won’t get bored. The flavor range is dramatic, from spiky, slightly sour spelt berries to creamy, nutty kamut wheat.
- Some grains have two faces: Millet can be crunchy for a salad if cooked for a short time, or creamy like a porridge if cooked for a long time.
Two cooking methods
There are two ways to prepare grains:
- By adjudicating the exact water-to-grain ratio and boiling the two together until the water has been absorbed or has evaporated and the grains are tender.
- By putting the grains in a big pot of water and letting them boil over the heat until tender, then draining off the excess water in a colander in the sink.
Many grains can be cooked with either method. Most of us usually cook rice by the first method — but many cooks around the world use the second, dumping the rice grains in a big pot of water, boiling them until tender, and then draining them through a colander.
One last tip
Many grains are small and will slip right through a standard colander when drained in the sink. Search out a fine-mesh sieve or a small-holed colander for draining grains. Or line a standard colander with damp paper towels before pouring grains into it.