Old World Grains to Try Now
If you consider yourself a “healthy eater”, you probably know that grains should be part of your diet each day, and that at least half of the grain-based foods you eat daily should be whole grains as opposed to refined grains. Opting for whole wheat bread, brown rice, or oatmeal is a good way to get whole grains into your diet each day, but old world or “ancient grains” are worth exploring too when you need a bit of culinary adventure.
Interesting, healthful ancient grains are turning up on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus everywhere, due largely to the popularity and availability of quinoa. “Consumers like the “wholesome, back-to-nature appeal” of old-world grains,” says Food Business News, and grains like millet, spelt and kamut are becoming nearly as familiar to consumers as quinoa and chia.
What Exactly is an Ancient Grain?
The Whole Grains Council deﬁnes ancient grains as those that are “largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.” Modern wheat doesn’t qualify because crop scientists have changed it over the decades and are constantly looking for ways to make wheat plants to produce more and be hardier in the field. There are some ancient grains in the wheat family however, including farro, spelt, and Kamut®. The Council also classifies some “heirloom” varieties of common grains like black barley, red rice, and blue corn to be ancient grains. Buckwheat and wild rice are also on the Council’s ancient grains list, as are amaranth, teff, and freekeh.
How to Use Ancient Grains
You may have seen many of these old-world grains at your grocery store but passed them by because they were unfamiliar. To help you get to know your ancient grain options, here’s a quick wrap up of some of the most popular varieties, the health benefits they may offer, and how to use them in recipes.
Amaranth is protein-rich, providing 9 grams of protein in one cup of cooked grain. Enjoy it for breakfast by preparing it the same way you would cook oatmeal. You can grind it into flour and add to bread dough or use as a coating for baked chicken. Cooked amaranth can add an appealing crunch to salads too.
Farro is another name for emmer wheat. It has a tougher husk than do some other grains, so it needs to be cracked before cooking. Look for long or medium grade farro and use a spice grinder or coffee grinder to crack what you need for your recipe just before cooking. Farro has a nutty flavor and chewy texture when cooked.
Kamut® is the brand name for khorasan wheat. It is bursting with antioxidants to support the immune system and is purported to have anti-inflammatory properties as well. Kamut has a buttery flavor and has been compared to a cross between brown rice and barley when cooked. It lends itself well to pilaf dishes, stir fry, soups, and grain-based salads.
Millet is a tiny grain with heart-healthy magnesium, manganese and phosphorus, as well as protein and fiber. Look for hulled millet and try toasting it in a dry skillet before using in recipes to enhance its nutty flavor.
Sorghum provides lots of dietary fiber (16 grams) and protein (10 grams) in just one-half cup serving. You can cook it with water or broth for a healthful side dish, use it instead of bulgur wheat in tabbouleh, in grain-based salads, and even as a replacement for rice in rice pudding.
Teff is another tiny grain that packs a big nutritional punch. It has a good amount of calcium, and dietary fiber, and it’s gluten-free, so can be ground and used in recipes that typically use wheat flour. Teff is particularly high in lysine which helps with muscle repair. Unlike some of the other ancient grains, teff cooks up quickly – in about 20 minutes.
Future of Ancient Grains
As consumers become more interested in adding variety to their meals, ancient grains will undoubtedly become even more popular and available. Tsampa, for example, is a starting to appear in restaurant dishes and on store shelves. Tsampa flour made from ground and roasted barley is a staple in Tibet and said to be a breakfast favorite of the Dalai Lama! As our palates crave different flavors, and we search for ways to improve our diets, more “new” ancient grains will undoubtedly be on the menu.