Sunday, June 14, 2009

Whole grains 101

whole grains: millet, steel-cut oats, and barley
Over the past few months, I've received some feedback from several faithful readers that goes something like this: "I like most of your recipes... except the ones that use really weird ingredients." When I've inquired about these "weird ingredients," it turns out that they're usually referring to the whole grains that I use. Until about a year ago, I would have said the exact same thing, and until I was armed with a copy of Lorna Sass's "Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way", I didn't really know where to start.

Why whole grains?

After I began exploring whole grains, I was fascinated by the diversity that exist and the great flavors that I had been missing out on. In fact, I went for about 5 months without eating pasta or rice because I had so many new things to try out. The best thing about whole grains? They're so much better for you. They include the bran and the germ of the grain, which hold most of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and about 25% of the protein. Because of the fiber and extra protein, they're extremely filling. Why leave all of this goodness behind?

So, here's what's going to happen. Every few weeks (or whenever I get inspired), I'm going to write a post with general information about a specific whole grain. I will include information about the various types (if applicable), the way it tastes, where to buy it, how to cook it, and recipes that I've made with it. I may also include recipes from others (either ones that look great that I haven't yet tried, or ones that you guys send me).

Storing whole grains

There are a few important things about all whole grains. The first is that they should ideally be stored in the refrigerator or freezer because the germ contains oils that can go rancid at room temp. Here's a secret: I don't have room in my refrigerator or freezer, so I don't do this (shhh... don't tell anyone!). The one exception is my whole grain flours, which I always store in the refrigerator. Instead, I buy small amounts of grains from the bulk bins at the local co-op or natural foods store and try to use them fairly quickly. Grains are also much cheaper in the bulk bins, so there's really no downside. I also make sure that they're stored in air-tight containers. So far I haven't had a problem, even after letting grains sit around for about 6 months. If you have room, go ahead and throw them in the fridge - it can't hurt, after all.

Sorting and rinsing

Sorting and rinsing is another topic that applies to all whole grains. Always, always, always sort through your grains to pick out any rocks or debris. The one time you don't do this, you will crunch through a rock in your barley and think that you've chipped off part of your tooth. Then rinse your grains before cooking them.

Cooking time and storage

The downside of whole grains is that many of them take a long time to cook. But, you can cook up a ton of them and store them for quite a while in the freezer. I always make extra grains, particularly when I'm cooking one of the ones that has a very long cooking time, such as rice. Then I stick them in the refrigerator the day before I plan to use them or defrost them in the microwave (or, in some cases, they can be used frozen). If you're short on time, there are several that cook quickly (quinoa and millet are my favorites when I'm in a hurry). Feel free to substitute one grain for another - it works in just about every recipe and you might find a new favorite flavor combo.

The grains

The list below includes the grains that I hope to cover. I started this list before I eliminated gluten from my diet, so you'll notice a post on wheat berries. Obviously these are not gluten free. Also, several common grains are missing, like buckwheat. I tried it several times, and it's just not my thing. Sorghum and job's tears may be eventually included if I run across some or get around to ordering them, but I won't make any promises.

If there are specific ones that you're particularly interested to learn about, let me know and I'll try to cover that one sooner rather than later. Also, if there are other things about each grain that you would like to learn (other than what I mentioned above), please let me know. I realize that a few of these aren't actually grains (like amaranth, quinoa, and wild rice), but they're generally grouped with the rest of these in terms of use, so go along with me here.

Gluten-free grains
Amaranth (coming soon)
Teff (coming soon)
Wild rice (coming soon)

Gluten-containing grains

You'll be able to find this post and all added gluten-free grain information on the right sidebar for future reference. Have fun experimenting!


Julia said...

Great post! Thanks for the lo-down.

Katie said...

Thanks! Our conversation last week inspired this idea, and I'm very excited about it!

lorna sass said...

Thanks so much for your shout-out. So glad you are spreading the word on whole grains. Lorna Sass

Katie said...

Lorna - Your book made it so much easier for me to approach using whole grains (I highly recommend it to everyone), and it's been a fun adventure! So glad you discovered my blog!