Guide to Grains

At our house, we do a fairly good rotation through the grains, partly because I like to try new healthy things and partly because I just got so damn bored of brown rice, brown rice, brown rice. Over the years I have experimented with quite a few and learned a few things about how and when to use them. Here’s a list of some of my favourite grain buddies:

Red and white quinoa


This is the first fancy grain I tried, mostly due to all the buzz around it a few years ago. By far the most popular of the ancient grains, quinoa is actually not a grain but a seed. In its raw form, it looks like birdseed (prompting a lot of heckling by meat-and-potatoes types) but it actually cooks up into a fluffy couscous-type dish. It’s become so popular because it’s quick to make, it’s a stellar nutritional performer (containing protein, fibre, iron and lots of minerals) and it’s extremely versatile. It’s a perfect introduction into the world of ancient grains for the uninitiated.



Anything, really, from salads to side dishes to breakfast. I like to toss it with brocolli florets, toasted pine nuts and a sauce made from soy sauce, sesame oil and chopped ginger. Or it makes a kickass lunch when mixed with crunchy veggies, lime zest and juice and a drizzle of sesame oil. A makes an amazing indian pilaf version which i will post here soon. 

Where to find it:

Quinoa is so popular now that you can usually find it in your grocery store (check the natural section.) It’s also available at the bulk store and at health food shops.

Prep tips: 

A. likes to toast his quinoa in a hot pan, making it nice and golden before adding the liquid to give it a nuttier taste. Though most people say that red and white quinoa are exactly the same, I find that red quinoa needs a couple minutes longer to cook. Don’t overcook it or it will become waterlogged and mushy (I have ruined many a dinner that way.) 


Amaranth. Most of that ended up on the floor and is now slowly sanding away the finish on the hardwood. It’s a good thing we rent.


Amaranth is like quinoa’s baby sister. It is also technically a seed, but has tiny particles that are much smaller than quinoa, about the size of poppy seeds (for this reason, always measure amaranth over the sink – if you spill this on the kitchen floor, your grandchildren will still be trying to clean it up.) When cooked, the seeds kind of meld together into a texture similar to Cream of Wheat – it’s sticky as opposed to fluffy. Amaranth is nutty, earthy tasting and very hearty – perfect to ward of the chill on a cold day. It’s very filling and has lots of fibre, protein and folate, not to mention a variety of important minerals like magnesium and phosphorous. When I eat this for breakfast, I am often full for 4 or 5 hours (and I’m a hungry-every-2-hours gal.) Beware, though, that amaranth is unusually heavy – usually a half cup cooked is all I can eat before I am full. 


Perfect for a warm, comforting breakfast – top with maple syrup or honey and some nuts. You can also pop the individual seeds to make ‘amaranth popcorn,’ though I’ve never tried this.

Where to find it:

The health food store or the bulk store. 


Prep tips: 

Typically 2/3 cup of amaranth takes 2 cups of liquid to cook. I like to toast the grains over high heat until they smell really nutty before adding the liquid (if I’m making it for breakfast, I use a combination of milk and water.) It takes a while to cook (25 – 30 minutes), so make a batch and refrigerate what you don’t eat – leftovers can be warmed up with a little water or milk and taste just as good the next day (or the day after.) 

Amaranth porridge with figs, walnuts and, of course, maple syrup.


Barley is not a sexy grain. It’s not in the fancy displays at specialty stores or on the menus at big name local restaurants. in fact, it’s usually sitting primly in the back of the grocery store, its hands in its lap, waiting to be noticed. Don’t be swayed by the lack of hype, my friends. Barley is delicious with a chewy, toothsome texture that can be fluffy or risotto-like, depending on how you cook it. It has lots of iron and fibre and some protein, too. At around two bucks a bag, it’s the frugal superhero of the bunch. 


Barley is tremendously versatile. I like to cook up a bunch and freeze it in single serve portions to use in a variety of ways – as a breakfast cereal topped with sauteed pears, blueberries and maple-syrup spiked yogurt, in a risotto, or simply as a bed to top with a stir fry. 

Where to find it:

In the grains section of the grocery store. You can buy either pot barley or pearl barley. Pot barley is less processed; pearl barley is better for risotto-type dishes.

Prep tips: 

Add the liquid at the beginning if you want a firm, chewy texture, or keep adding liquid throughout the cooking process if you like it more risotto-like. Add broth or seasonings during the cooking process to maximize the flavour.



Millet is also a grain (well, actually a seed) that doesn’t get a lot of respect. I know it sounds like the kind of boring, puritan thing they ate on Little House on the Prarie, but it’s actually very tasty – a fluffier, slightly bigger version on quinoa. In the East Indian tradition, millet is thought to be immensely soothing and easy on the digestive system, which is why it’s recommended for nursing mothers and small children. It is also packed with protein and relatively easy on the wallet. 


Millet is great in a cold salad (think crunchy vegetables and a lime vinagrette) or as a warm side dish (try it with chickpeas and grilled eggplant.) You can use it for breakfast too – just mix it with some fruit and top with a dollop of greek yogurt. Basically, use it anywhere you would use quinoa.

Where to find it:

At the bulk store or the health food store.

Prep tips:

Use stock instead of water when preparing this for dinner; millet is great at absorbing flavours. Don’t cook it too long or it will become mushy. 

A tip on all the grains above – don’t mix them during cooking. They all have different cooking times and need different amounts of liquid, so mixing them while cooking can lead to some disastrous results (I should know; I had to throw out a recipe I was going to post here because, in an act of desperation, I mixed bulgur, millet and barley together because I only had a small amount left of each.) But mixing them once prepared can be delicious, especially in a salad. I wouldn’t recommend mixing amaranth with anything, though, because of its sticky texture.


Up next in my Guide to Grains series: bulgur, spelt and wild rice (I know, not a grain, but whatever.) Also I’ll give you a tip on the best brown rice I’ve found. Stay tuned!

Are there any other grains you’ve experimented with? What are your favourites?



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