If you pledge to eat more whole grains in 2015, consider it a long-term investment. Two recent studies link whole grains with longer life expectancies — and highlight their nutritional value over refined grains and carbohydrates like sugar. In order to qualify as a whole grain, seeds like wheat or rye have to retain 100% of their three edible components: fibrous bran, nutrient- and mineral-rich germ and starchy endosperm. In other words, unless they’re explicitly labeled as “whole grain breads” those seemingly noble loaves of seven-grain are only as healthful as their nutritionally compromised endosperm.
Fortunately, the granular world is vast. Here is a primer on some leading and lesser-known whole grains to keep you cooking for years to come.
- Amaranth originated in Peru, gluten-free and packed with protein, calcium and vitamin C. Its kernels have a nutty flavor, and can be popped like corn, baked into sweets or cooked in water like rice to for tabbouleh-type salads.
- Buckwheat and Buckwheat Groats, called kasha once toasted, has a sturdy, earthy texture best known for giving soba noodles their bite. Rich in magnesium, and linked to controlling blood sugar, buckwheat is a natural in baked goods and good foil for fruit, as in these pancakes.
- Farro is an Italian stallion with ancient pedigree. Technically a member of the wheat family, grains are sold in whole and semi-pearled varieties. Skip the latter, wherein the germ and majority of its nutrients have been removed; although whole farro requires overnight soaking, it is also packed with fiber, Vitamin B3 and nutty, cinnamon flavors. For a taste of the Roman legions, use cooked farro in Mediterranean soups and salads.
- Millet is another gluten-free, ancient grain. A cup has as much protein as a large egg and is loaded with antioxidants and vitamin B, which can aid metabolism. The little, yellow and different grain requires considerable liquid to soften, so boil it low and slow, and serve as you would couscous.
- Oats are commonplace in American cupboards, but all are not created equal. Steel-cut or Irish oats take longer to cook than their rolled brethren, but they are less processed and sit lower on the glycemic index. If oatmeal is your jam, steer clear of anything accompanied by a sugary mix misleading labeled “Cinnamon Spice” and the like. Opt instead for a long-simmered, polenta-like homemade bowl.
- Quinoa is a superstar supergrain, gracing everything from Cheerios to kale salads. An Andean staple for 7,000 years, the 21st Century American obsession is high in protein and amino acids, and its versatile, nutty flavor shines in sweet and savory dishes. Quinoa is typically sold in monochrome: white is mild, black quinoa is slightly sweet, and red is hardy.
- Sorghum has more antioxidants than pomegranates, and is high in fiber, protein and cholesterol-reducing phytochemicals. It is the third-most produced grain in the U.S. and fifth worldwide, but, until recently, our homegrown sorghum was exclusively used as animal feed. Now, however, enterprising Americans use sorghum in gluten-free beers, pop its kernels into an adorably undersized facsimile of popcorn, or dry-roast and cook it into chewy, nutty pilaf.
- Teff is a poppy seed-sized powerhouse with 50 percent more protein and 25 times the calcium of brown rice. Teff-related agriculture occupies more than 20 percent of Ethiopia’s cultivated land, and is the main ingredient in its ubiquitous, spongy injera bread. Look for it stateside as a porridge-like, grits substitute.
- Wheat and wheat berries are a light, chewy category that includes bulgur, emmer, durum and spelt. All are loaded with antioxidants like vitamin E, plus ample fiber, protein, magnesium and iron. Use them in hearty grain salads, Mediterranean kibbeh and tabbouleh, or even chili. Those possessing a Vitamix Dry Blade and healthy measure of ambition can also use whole kernels to mill their own whole-wheat flour at home.
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