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The ultimate guide to grains

The ultimate guide to grains covering everything you need to know from identifying to cooking. Plus, loads of grain recipes to try

Grains are the staple diet of two thirds of the world’s population, from rice and wheat to teff and barley. There’s no arguing with the fact that whole grains are good for you, containing fibre, B vitamins, folic acid, essential fatty acids, protein and antioxidants as well as micro-nutrients.

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Because much of the nutrients are in the bran and germ of the seed they should be eaten without milling it off first, or as whole grains. Most whole grains can be made into salads, stirred into soups or stews, used to bulk up burgers (or instead of meat) or added whole to baking so they aren’t hard to use. Buy them in smaller quantities at first so that you can use them up before the fats contained in them taste less fresh.


Cooking grains

Grains absorb different amounts of liquid as they cook, teff for example needs about three times the volume of water to grain, so the best way to cook them is in plenty of boiling water. Check on them as they cook and when they have reached the texture you like drain them well.

Millet benefits from being toasted first – dry fry it until the seeds start to smell nutty and toasted and a few grains pop like popcorn. Try these recipes: freekeh and artichoke salad with golden onions, sultanas and herb labneh, mushroom- and quinoa-stuffed courgettes, and spelt risotto with wild mushrooms.

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Guide to grains and pseudo grains

Some of the grains listed in this feature aren’t real grains but are pseudo grains or seeds. Seeds function differently to grains, they contain embryonic plants that just need to be released to grow, whereas grains have all the components to make a plant but haven’t begun yet, and this makes them richer in carbs whereas seeds contain a higher percentage of protein.

For culinary purposes, both can be used in similar ways except when making bread, as seeds contain no gluten.


Gluten free grains

Amaranth: Not actually a grain, but with a similar nutrition profile and use, this is a type rather than one individual strain, there are about 60 varieties in all. The tiny grains can be cooked in water, popped like corn or ground, and have
a slightly peppery flavour. Add to breads and baked goods and you’ll be upping the protein content.

Buckwheat: Technically not a grain (and actually related to rhubarb) but used in much the same way, as a flour to make pancakes and soba noodles as well as bread. Also known as kasha this is a useful grain if you are avoiding gluten.

Try our buckwheat pancake recipe here

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Corn: Or maize is seen as both a grain when dried and a vegetable when fresh. America relies on it for popcorn, cornbread and grits while in Mexico they use it to make tortillas. Corn is everywhere – used as a starch and as a sweetener in the form of corn syrup.

Millet: Lots of varieties of this tiny grain are known under the umbrella title of millet. A staple in India and Africa, this is made into bread, a type of porridge, or beer.

Oats: Rolled oats are steamed, flattened whole oat grains, while steel-cut oats are chopped and have a more robust texture. Oats can be fried or baked as a crispy coating for fish, used as a topping on crumbles and breads or cooked
to a creamy consistency.

Try our coconut overnight oats recipe here

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Quinoa: Cooked whole or flaked, quinoa is available in several different coloured varieties including the most commonly eaten red, white and black, none of which are technically grains. This is a tough plant, able to grow without much water and each plant produces lots of grain. Quinoa is a complete protein.

Try our quick quinoa and black bean chilli recipe here

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Rice: White rice has the germ and bran removed, while brown rice is left intact. Red and black rice is true rice but wild rice is a grass.

Teff: One of the toughest food plants on earth, teff can grow when it is very dry or very wet and is a staple in Africa where it is made into spongy pancake-like bread called injera. The grain is tiny and is never refined, it’s easily cooked and can be added to baking.


Containing gluten

Barley: This is the high fibre grain if that’s what you’re looking for, with a tough hull which, if intact (rather than ‘pearled’ and polished off along with some of the bran layer), takes about an hour to cook through. Barley flour makes a closely textured bread with a hint of sweetness.

Try our green barley with kale, pistachios and mint recipe here

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Freekeh: This is wheat, harvested green and then roasted and rubbed to hull it.

Try our freekeh and carrot burgers recipe here

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Rye: Has a high fibre content and low glycemic index and makes heavier, coarser and more nutritious bread than wheat.

Triticale: A hybrid of wheat and rye.

Wheat: This grain comes in many forms, whole wheat berries, ground into flour and cooked, dried and cracked as bulgar. Hard wheat is high in protein with strong gluten, soft wheat the opposite, in the UK soft wheat dominates.

Emmer, also known as farro, spelt, khorosan (kamut™) and einkorn are varieties of wheat, as is durum, which is used to make pasta and couscous.


Geek gadget

A hand crank or electric grain mill. Like a good quality coffee grinder, these may have cone-shaped grinding burrs, others are stone grinders. Kenwood and KitchenAid both have attachments your can buy, and a Thermomix will do the job nicely too. Use them to crack whole grains for cooking with, or to make small batches of flour.


Sprouted grains

These are said to be more easily digested, higher in protein and more nutrient-dense. Grains are sprouted under controlled circumstances and then slowly dried and processed. Once the original grain sprouts it becomes a raw food.

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Buy British

Locally grown quinoa is becoming more easily available, you can buy it from hodmedods.co.uk or britishquinoa.co.uk, the latter also sells smoked quinoa.