Whole Grains to Try Now
This ancient Incan grain can be puffed like popcorn, ground for flatbreads, or tucked whole into candy, where the tiny, round kernels add textural pop. But amaranth's nutty, grassy flavor makes it best in savory dishes. "It reminds me of beef," says Sarah House, chef at Bob's Red Mill, who uses it in fritters and veggie burgers. Given its luscious starch, it's perhaps most delicious as a porridge. Marco Canora, chef-owner of New York City's Hearth, used to think amaranth was "a weird, bird-seedy thing." But he came around, and his book, A Good Food Day, includes a recipe for amaranth polenta with dinosaur kale. Dressed in Parmesan and olive oil, it tastes wonderfully indulgent, but it's so good for you.
Though this is the main grain malted for beer, you don't have to drink your barley. Its sweet-tasting flour is great for cakes and scones, says The Bread Lab's Jonathan Bethony, but he also likes to mix it into bread doughs. "It has a type of fiber that makes a wholesome texture." Many of us have had barley in soup, but it's fabulous as well as a breakfast cereal. At the Four Seasons Westlake Village, near Malibu, chef Alex La Motte serves it in a "ancient grains porridge" along with quinoa and steel-cut oats, topped with Greek yogurt, peaches, and pecans. With its high soluble fiber content, barley is a great for your heart. But much on the market is pearled, meaning its inedible hull has been scraped away, a process that also removes the nutritious bran. Look instead for hull-less barley, a variety that does not need pearling.
Yes, brown rice counts as a whole grain. After all, it comes with its bran and germ intact. The variety that really put brown rice on the grain map is grown exclusively at Koda Farms in California's Central Valley. At this century-old rice producer, heirloom Kokuho Rose brown rice is grown organically. It has the flowery, sweet taste that gives chef Jessica Koslow's rice bowl such phenomenal flavor at Los Angeles' popular Sqirl.
The grain in some of the world's most classic dishes—Japanese soba, Russian blinis, American buckwheat pancakes, Eastern European kasha—is not, as its name would suggest, a wheat. It is a relative of sorrel and rhubarb, and it's high in antioxidants and gluten-free. With its deep earthiness, buckwheat makes a full-flavored, rustic cereal—served hot or cold. The Dubai-based Jumiera hotel chain makes a signature muesili of buckwheat, oats, and amaranth. In Portland, Oregon, they're fans of it in baked goods: Tabor Breads offers a buckwheat-apple gingerbread, and at Kim Boyce's Bakeshop, the figgy buckwheat scone is a hit. Plenty of buckwheat's savory preparations come from Japan, where the grain is milled straight from the fields. Chef Marc Spitzer, for instance, features a buckwheat "risotto" in his yasai itame (stir-fried vegetables) dish on the Japanese-driven menu at Cherry, in NYC's Meatpacking District. And look for home-grown soba-making to take off in the near future, as Sonoko Sakai, of Los Angeles' Common Grains, teams up with the Port of Skagit, in Washington State's Skagit Valley to bring soba-grade buckwheat milling to the U.S.
Wheat—most durum—that's been steamed or parboiled, dried, and cracked, bulgur is considered a whole grain because its germ and bran are intact. High in minerals, proteins, and fiber, it is, like many grains, low in calories and fat. A Middle Eastern preparation, bulgur is the traditional grain for tabbouleh, but it's also great in a pilaf and other warm or cold salads. At New York's Fishtag, chef-owner Michael Psilakis tosses bulgur in a satisfying chopped salad of Medjool dates, pomegranate, olives, breakfast radishes, peppers, grilled onions, and smoked nuts.
If you keep your eye on milling trends, you'll know that corn is a grain to watch out for. Fantastic "open-pollinated"—i.e. non-hybridized—heirloom varieties are being grown all over the United States and Mexico right now. U.S. varieties include Otto File, whose huge, orange kernels are delicious in polenta, cookies, and cornbread; rose-hued, floral Bloody Butcher; flint corn, which the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow; Cherokee blue corn and big, yellow Hickory King, both great for grits. Some are being ground for flavor-packed meals and flours. Some, like the crop at the farmstead Orange County Distillery, are being distilled into gorgeous whiskeys, with the taste of fresh, raw kernels. Chefs like Cosme's Enrique Olvera, Sean Brock of Charleston's Minero, and Tom Douglas of Seattle's Cantina Leña are using importer Masienda's landrace (locally grown and adapted) maiz from Jalisco, Michoacan, Oaxaca, and the state of México for their tortillas, and in some cases, their beer.
This is the stuff of which legendary pastas are made. When the bran and germ are removed through milling, the remaining endosperm is what we call semolina. Plenty of pasta chefs nowadays mill their own, from Marc Vetri at Vetri in Philadelphia to Kevin Fink at Emmer & Rye in Austin. But nowadays you can also find durum wheat berries. Polished so that the bran is removed, these are called grano. Chef Anna Sortun uses these golden nuggets in a Greek yogurt parfait at Safra in Cambridge.
Harvested wild as far back as 18,000 years ago, einkorn is the wheat mentioned in Genesis, according to Eli Rogosa of Heritage Grain Conservancy, who cultivates strains she brought back from the Middle East here on her farm in Massachusetts. Bakers adore it. "Its properties are very nice," says Chico, California baker Dave Miller. "It gets good life in the oven, and it makes a moist, fairly light bread. It mills out into a fine powder with a wonderful, rich flavor." Pam Yung of New York's Semilla describes that flavor as akin to "toasted nuts, with a grassiness." Its delicate gluten requires a fairly wet dough, says Rogosa, and a longer time to ferment. She soaks the grain overnight and then blends it with her whole wheat dough for breads, pastries, and pies. But it's worth all the trouble. "It's a real pleasure," according to Miller. "And my einkorn customers are the most fanatic."
In Italy, the word "farro" refers to a hulled grain. Italians call einkorn "farro piccolo," spelt is "farro grande," and the grain most often identified here as farro—emmer—is "farro medio." Emmer is the wheat of the ancient Egyptians, the first to be cultivated. In the field, "i is as tall as a human and very beautiful," says Eli Rogosa. Whichever its type, farro is oftentimes lightly pearled, or scraped, so that the starchy endosperm is exposed, allowing it to cook faster. Like beans, it can also be soaked overnight, which helps reduce cooking time. Like many chefs, Cathy Whims of Portland, Oregon's Nostrana is crazy about it. She boils it for winter soups and spring broths, and she uses it in a mushroom risotto where "we love the pop and crunch that it has," she says. Her pastry chef, Brian Murphy, even makes a classic Puglian dessert of farro, walnuts, candied fruit, pomegranate, and chunks of chocolate that he drizzles with sweet vin cotto. "I enjoy chewing, so that's what I love about whole grains," says Whims. "They have that texture that people enjoy."
In Syria and other parts of the Middle East, wheat is picked young and sun-dried, then set aflame to char its hulls, which are rubbed off afterward. What's left behind is this grain with a smoky, nutty taste lends depth to pilafs, salads, and stuffings. Pam Yung, of Brooklyn's Semilla, grinds freekeh into her bread dough, where it gives the flavor of the loaf a toasty dimension. Marco Canora tosses it with spring vegetables and fresh herbs, and Yotam Ottolenghi makes a freekeh pilaf flavored with cinnamon, allspice, and coriander.
"I love its flavor," says Dave Miller of kamut, the brand name for large-kerneled, ancient Middle Eastern grain called khorasan wheat. The bread he makes with it, the baker says, "has a caramelly, rich crust with a really nice orange-ish chocolate-brown crust, paired with this lighter, mellower-flavored crumb that's almost color of cornmeal." Bob's Red Mill chef Sarah House likes its "hearty wheat flavor" in soups, long-cooked pilafs where the "humongous" grain "blows up like a balloon."
A relative of quinoa, only half the size, this South American grain is as tiny as amaranth, and in fact, like quinoa, it comes from the goosefoot plant, which in the amaranth family. Unlike quinoa, it produces no saponins, bitter-tasting compounds that help quinoa ward off insects, so while you might want to wash quinoa before using it to rinse off the bitterness, kañiwa can be cooked straight away. Try it in a porridge or "polenta," or toast and cook it and use it as chef Jason Bond does at Bondir in the Boston area, to visual and textural punch to salads and other veg dishes.
A staple of ancient China and north Africa where it withstands arid growing conditions, mild, fast-cooking millet is an "excellent substitute for rice," according to Sarah House. Indeed, at Karen and Quinn Hatfield's new LA restaurant, Odys and Penelope, the grain is long-cooked and blended with fresh ricotta and a walnut pesto for a creamy millet risotto. "It has quite a bit of texture," says Karen. The grain is gluten-free so it lacks the structure needed for bread dough, but its chewy consistency makes it a great addition to a loaf. At Tabor Breads in Portland, Oregon, millet is toasted and blended whole into a wood-fired sprouted grain bread.
Fine, stone-ground oatmeal; rough, steel-cut oats, ground on a metal burr mill; oat flakes; rolled oats; or whole groats—all of these make fine breakfast cereals with cholesterol-lowering properties. Susan House adds flavor by toasting her oats before making a porridge. But the bigger trend at breakfast is to bump up plain, old oats' interest by adding other grains: quinoa, millet, barley. With their thick, creamy starch, oats can add a nearly puddinglike texture to breads and other foods. Bakers like Matt Hogan at Georgia's Sea Island resort adds soaked oats (along with cracked wheat and polenta) to his whole wheat loaves. And Marco Canora makes an oatmeal shake that, he says, "feels like a milkshake."
An Incan grain—or, rather, the seed of flowering goosefoot plants—cultivated at altitudes of over 10,000 feet in Bolivia and Peru, quinoa is also grown organically in Colorado and the Canadian prairie. Full of proteins and amino acids, it's the darling grain of healthy eaters. But chefs love it for its earthy chew—not only in salads but as a stand-in rice in hot dishes. At Nostrana, Cathy Whims has been experimenting with a quinoa paella, and at Harvest, in Cambridge, Massachussets, chef Mary Dumont makes a risotto of quinoa, farro, and wheat berries with chickpeas, dried cranberries, feta, and mint. Chef Michael Armstrong stuffs his chile relleno with quinoa, vegetables, and Chihuahuan cheese at New York City's Bodega Negra, and across town, at Tuome, Thomas Chen uses both steamed and fried quinoa to add texture and heft to a dish of shaved, raw beets and yogurt seasoned with five-spice.
Move over, old-school New York rye. There's a whole new range of rye-based baked goods out there nowadays. Bakeries like the Breadfarm in Edison, Washington, are adding rye to their sourdough loaves, while New York's Nordic Breads is going 100% whole-grain rye in its flat, intense Finnish-style ruis bread. And even pastry shops are using it. Nicole Rucker's blueberry-jam-filled rye Danish has Angelenos raving at Gjusta in Venice, while up the coast in Portland, Bakeshop's Kim Boyce adds swarthy depth to her decadent chocolate orange pecan scone by using 40% rye flour. With the small-batch distilling boom boosting the revival of flavorful heritage ryes, chefs like Dan Barber, whose Stone Barns farm is growing the grain this spring, are excited about it. Look, too, for the rye-wheat hybrid triticale to surface in multi-grain cereal blends like Wild Hive Farm's 10-Grain Stone Ground Chops Mix.
Miller-historian Glenn Roberts, the man behind Anson Mills, tells the story of American flatbreads in a nutshell. It all has to do with this heritage variety of wheat—the first to be cultivated in the Americas: "What's now known as Sonora wheat was what Jesuits brought in, a wafer wheat. Native people jumped the fence and ran off with it, so then we go from wafers to big tortillas. The wrap is the relation of that." One of the wheats of the moment, this drought-friendly variety is a dry-climate baker's favorite. "I just love it," says Chico, California, cult baker Dave Miller. "It's on the cusp of bread wheat and pastry wheat, so it depends on climate conditions if it gets enough protein. But every third year, when conditions are right, it makes a white, creamy-colored bread with a nice texture."
The grain—not the syrup—is a mild-flavored, chewy, long-cooking type that makes a dynamite holiday stuffing mixed with cranberries and walnuts, says Bob's Red Mill chef Sarah House. She also likes it in curried cold salads, or popped like pop corn and used as a garnish. Because it makes a tasty brew, it's a boon for gluten-intolerant suds lovers; craft breweries like Dogfish Head and Milwaukee's Lakefront make sorghum beers.
This type of ancient wheat "has the tannin-like flavor of red wheat," says Sarah House. But it's gentler on the system. "It seems to go down easily," says baker Dave Miller. "It digests, and I feel good. It almost melts in my mouth." This is particularly the case, says Pam Yung, if you soak the seeds and sprout them before baking. With this method, says Yung, "You're eliminating the phytic acid that the body has trouble processing. You're also softening the grain, so you can grind it into flour or leave it whole, and the nutrients are more available to your body." Wheat expert Monica Spiller, of California's Whole Grain Connection, likes to bake with spelt flour because "it has this nice elastic gluten we're used to for breadmaking," which allows for "that very open texture" that makes artisan bread so appealing.
The world's smallest grain, this calcium-rich Ethiopian staple is ground for the spongy flatbread called injera, but it also makes a side dish, says Sarah House. "You fry or toast it, and it crisps on the outside, while inside it's creamy. And it maintains its shape, so you still have texture there. I like its dark color for a beautiful contrast with grilled chicken or fish." With his Ethiopian root, Marcus Samuelsson, of course, is also a fan.