Grain Guide: 10 Awesome Ones You Should Try
We all know quinoa made its big splash as the hailed, gluten-free/protein dense healthy carb now about 2 years ago. Side note: it’s not a grain, it’s actually a seed- surprise! But there are actually a TON of other awesome & healthy options that I like to use in place of rice and pasta as a smarter carb source. When some people hear about them, it’s intimidating because they barely know how to pronounce the names, much less how to cook them- I only recently learned how to properly pronounce freekeh!
I’m just calling this the grain guide because 1. I love silly alliteration-if you've seen some of my Instagram captions, you'll understand and 2. It’s just easier to group it all together this way.
I wish that I had this guide when I was first experimenting with these. It would have saved me a lot of looking up confusing things on the internet and some batches of undercooked, soggy mush. I suggest you bookmark this page as a reference to look back on when trying to cook one of these on the list for the first time. Helpful tip: Trader Joe's sells several of these grains in small, affordable, quick-cook forms (quinoa, bulgur, and farro).
Not everything on here is a grain necessarily, nor is it gluten-free (we know how I feel about gluten already), but I wanted to share some of my favorite, healthy carb sources and explain a little more about their nutritional indexes and instructions on how to cook them. This library just really expands your options for easy prep options to be used throughout the week when short on time.
All photos are the grains in raw forms!
1. Quinoa (keen-wah)
- Gluten-free seed (not grain!)
- Commonly available in white quinoa, red quinoa, and black. White is fluffier and stickier in texture when cooked, red and black are a bit crunchier. Tricolor blend is pictured above.
- Protein amount isn't as significant as the type of protein it contains. It is a complete protein=the golden combination of all 9 essential amino acids necessary for us humans. This is rare for a plant/non-meat source of protein.
- High in fiber and iron.
- Slightly nutty flavor, texture is similar to rice but with a bit of an initial "crunch."
- 2:1 Water : Quinoa ratio
- Cooks like rice. 1 cup dry = ~3 cups cooked
- Before cooking: rinse quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer under cool water to rinse the bitter coating, saponin (a natural bitter, soapy-tasting coating to ward off insects while growing), off. Some quinoa comes pre-rinsed now, but I do it just incase- why not.
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add quinoa and reduce heat to a gentle simmer, then cover. Cook for 15-20 minutes (mine usually takes 15 mins- depends on your stove) until all water is absorbed and quinoa is translucent in color. Remove from heat and use fork to fluff, and serve.
- 1/2 CUP COOKED: 111 Cal: 2g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 19.5g Carb (2.5g fiber/0 sugar)/ 4g Protein
- One of my most frequently cooked things in the kitchen. It substitutes very well for anything that typically uses rice- Whole Foods even has quinoa sushi rolls now! I like it for making grain bowls (my burrito bowl being a favorite) in particular, and they work well in veggie burgers too.
2. Freekeh (free-kah)
- An ancient grain also known as greenwheat or farik. Made from young durum green wheat (not gluten-free).
- Most frequently sold in "cracked" form, as it is easier and quicker to cook.
- Toasty flavor, as it is sun-dried then burned after it is harvested. Chewy in texture, very similar to rice but a bit heartier.
- High in fiber (4x as much as brown rice per serving), protein, iron, and manganese. Also high in lutein, an antioxidant that's good for your eye health!
- 2.5 : 1 Water : Freekeh ratio
- Cooks like rice. 1 cup dry = a little over 2 cups cooked
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add freekeh and reduce heat to a gentle simmer, then cover. Cook for 20-25 minutes (mine usually takes 20 mins- depends on your stove) until all water is absorbed and desired tenderness is reached. Remove from heat and serve.
- 1/2 CUP COOKED: 130 Cal: 1g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 28g Carb (4g fiber/0 sugar)/ 6g Protein
- One of my favorites to make when I want rice. And I'm Korean and grew up on white rice, so that's a big claim for me to make! I love the chewiness of freekeh and the toasty flavor is so delicious. I add it to salads for a bit of texture, and it holds up well in soups too. A favorite of mine when I'm making my version of a "fried rice" aka veggies and freekeh cooked in a pan together. It is also really filling and keeps me satiated for a long time.
3. Farro (fahr-oh)
- The oldest cultivated grain in the world, frequently used in Italian cooking. Not gluten-free, but low in gluten. A bit of a nutty taste. Chewy, hearty texture and taste.
- Farro actually is 3 different grains- one of which I classify in this guide as a different grain. Farro piccolo (einkorn), farro medio (emmer- the most common to find in stores), and farro grande (spelt).
- Farro can be a bit confusing to cook and shop for- some varieties you need to soak overnight, some are whole grain while others are semi-pearled. It's enough to make you not want to cook it- BUT you should because it's actually easy and delicious. The ones I usually buy are Laurel Hill (found at Whole Foods) or Trader Joe's quick cook. For my instructions and nutrition information below, I'm going off of Laurel Hills for simplicity. When in doubt, follow the packaging's instructions.
- 2:1 Water : Farro ratio
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add farro and reduce heat to a gentle simmer, then cover. (For semi-pearled/pearled) Cook for 15-25 minutes (mine usually takes 20 mins- depends on your stove) until all water is absorbed and desired tenderness is reached. Remove from heat and serve.
- 1/2 CUP COOKED: 170 Cal: 2g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 31g Carb (5g fiber/1 sugar)/ 7g Protein
- Farro comes in several forms for cooking. I recommend that you buy the semipearled variety over the whole grain- what this means is that some of the bran covering has been removed, allowing the grain to cook much faster. Otherwise you'll be simmering for well over an hour. Most accessible market varieties tend to carry semipearled now but it's worth a double check.
- Farro is a great sub for rice in risottos, holds form really well in soups/broths, awesome addition to salads, and I personally love using farro for stuffed peppers.
4. Einkorn (Eye-n-corn)
- Einkorn is referred to as the "Mother Wheat" of ancient grains. It is young, small farro (farro piccolo).
- It is the only wheat that's never been hybridized. It is a very pure form of a wheat berry (containing 2 chromosomes rather than your usual 6).
- Lower in gluten peptides, so it is typically more well-received among gluten-sensitive folk (NOT for celiacs).
- It has a very similar nutritional index to emmer Farro, as described above, but is higher in beta-carotine and lutein. Higher in protein than most grains!
- 2:1 Water : Einkorn ratio
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add einkorn and reduce heat to a gentle simmer, then cover. Cook for 25-30 minutes until all water is absorbed and desired tenderness is reached. Remove from heat and serve.
- 1/4 cup UNCOOKED: 180 Cal: 1.5g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 33g Carb (4g fiber/1 sugar)/ 9g Protein
- Have to be honest here- I haven’t tried cooking this grain in its own yet- I’ve primarily used it to grind fresh flour to bake with, because of it's smaller and softer texture than other wheat berries (ideal for grinding).
- Harder to find in general stores, but I swear it's going to blow up soon and be the next "quinoa." I love the Jovial brand (I order it off Amazon- gotta love my 2 day prime!)
5. Bulgur (Bul-gr)
- Bulgur is a whole wheat commonly found in Middle-Eastern foods, usually in tabbouleh and pilafs. Mildly nutty taste, very chewy and satiates hunger well. It's most commonly found and eaten in its cracked form.
- For those of you "bad" at cooking rice because of trouble with water/grain ratios, bulgur is way more foolproof (see below) and very quick to cook.
- Fewer calories, no fat, higher protein, and twice the fiber of brown rice.
- Similar cooking process to pasta:
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add bulgur and boil on medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes or until desired tenderness is reached. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer, rinse, and serve.
- Bulgur, to me, oddly feels like pasta. Something about its chewiness and taste manage to quell any cravings I have for pasta- so for your tiny pasta fans of things like ditalini and orzo, give bulgur a try!
6. Sorghum (soar-gum)
- An ancient, non-GMO, gluten-free grain most commonly grown and eaten in India and African countries.
- There's such a large variety of ways you can eat this grain: cooking it like rice, popping it like popcorn, and grinding it into flour for baking/cooking.
- Popped: See Popped Sorghum recipe here
- Cooked: Rinse and drain 1 cup of sorghum. Place in a pot with 3 cups of room temperature water, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cover, and let cook for 50-60 minutes until grains are tender and chewy. Drain any excess liquid, and serve.
- 1/4 CUP UNCOOKED: 175.5 Cal: 1.5g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 35g Carb (3g fiber/0 sugar)/ 5.5g Protein
- One of my new favorites that I’ve discovered lately! So fun to use it as popcorn.
- I also like to use it to grind flour- it's a bit tougher to grind and takes some time, but it turns out a finer, fluffier version of cornmeal. Sorghum flour is gluten-free and a great swap for baking and cooking!
7. Lentils (len-till)
- This is not a grain- it's a legume. For some reason though in my head, I just group it with grains because of the way I tend to treat it in terms of recipes, I treat it similarly to the way I use grains.
- The nutritional index of this little guy is awesome. Really good dose of dietary fiber, protein, and a carb balance- and it's also decently high in iron and magnesium. Good for your cholesterol, heart health, and digestive health. Not to mention it's yummy and very filling.
- Best way is to prepare it according to the packaged labels, as there are a bunch of lentil varieties, but below are instructions for cooking my favorite- dried small French green lentils. Green lentils get less mushy when cooked so I like the texture better than other varieties.
- 2:1 Water: Lentil ratio
- First wash lentils and rinse w/cold water with a fine mesh strainer- pick out any debris/rocks that may have snuck their way in there. Combine rinsed lentils and water in a pot and bring to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce to a light simmer over low heat. Cook uncovered for 20-30 minutes until tender and add water if needed (water should be just covering lentils). Drain, and serve.
- 1/2 CUP COOKED: 115 Cal: 5g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 20g Carb (8g fiber/2 sugar)/ 9g Protein
- I love using lentils in bowls, salads, and soups. It's a good source of protein for vegetarians and they're just so versatile to cook with. I may be biased here, but I do think my lentil-black bean pepper salad is pretty awesome and it's an easy portable lunch for people on the go.
8. Kañiwa (ka-nyi-wah)
- Similar in characteristics and use as quinoa, Kañiwa is an ancient seed hailing from South America (primarily the Andes region of Peru & Bolivia).
- A nutty and slightly sweet taste. Is crunchier and very small- be careful, this is not one you want to spill. I've done it and it is impossible to pick up every microscopic piece and it bounces everywhere (found some in my hair a few minutes after my spill... not joking).
- Gluten-free, high in protein & iron, and has more flavanoid antioxidants than quinoa. It does not have saponins like quinoa- so that makes it a bit more hassle free!
- An option for before cooking: toasting it lightly in the oven. This brings out an earthier, nutty flavor. You can even eat it like that and put it over salads to add some crunch.
- 2:1 Water: Kañiwa ratio
- Combine water and kañiwa in a pot and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes until water is absorbed. The grain will most likely pop a bit while cooking, just a heads up!
- 1/2 CUP COOKED: 160 Cal: 2g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 29g Carb (4g fiber/0 sugar)/ 7g Protein
- My favorite use for kañiwa is throwing roasted veggies over it and mixing it as a bowl. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It's also really good in salads. If you just want to toast it, it's great to add into granola bars or plain granola, as well. It's also great soaked in oatmeal, porridge, or overnight oats!
9. Amaranth (ah-mah-ranth)
- Another called an ancient grain, but amaranth is more of a seed. Cultivated by the Aztecs thousands of years ago, and still native to Peru- however, it's grown pretty world-wide now.
- Ivory colored but with the occasional red one. A light, nutty flavor with a crunchy texture. Is a great thickener for sauces and soups.
- Gluten-free, high in protein (it's high in lysine, one of the amino acids, which isn't common in most grains), calcium, magnesium, and iron.
- Similar to cooking bulgur- but keep the water content high, as amaranth soaks up a lot:
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add amaranth and boil on medium-high heat for 15-20 minutes or until desired tenderness is reached. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer, rinse, and serve.
- 1/2 CUP COOKED: 180 Cal: 3g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 31g Carb (7g fiber/1 sugar)/ 7g Protein
- I use it in a similar way to kañiwa- and they even look similar to each other. Great for adding some texture and thickness to soups, and I also like to grind amaranth to make flour- amaranth pancakes have an awesome texture and taste.
10. Buckwheat (buck-wee-t)
- Buckwheat is actually a fruit seed, not a grain. It's related to the rhubarb family, oddly enough. The hulled buckwheat kernels are commonly called Buckwheat groats.
- Deliciously intense flavor when cooked- not sure how to describe it other than it being very "homey."
- Gluten-free, great for baking and cooking- a big variety of ways how to prepare this seed, most commonly being in breakfast-y items: oatmeals, cereals, and pancakes.
- 2:1 Water : Buckwheat ratio
- Bring water to boil in a pot. Add buckwheat and reduce heat to a gentle simmer, then cover. Cook for about 10 minutes until all water is absorbed and desired tenderness is reached. Remove from heat, drain if necessary, and serve.
- 1/4 CUP UNCOOKED: 160 Cal: 1g Fat (0 trans/sat)/ 32g Carb (1g fiber/1 sugar)/ 6g Protein
- They're awesome in hot breakfast cereal dishes, and one of my favorites to grind into flour for baking (recipes coming soon!). Also, soba noodles are frequently made with buckwheat, so I grew up on the stuff.