Your Guide to Cooking and Eating Whole Grains
Want to add more whole grains to your family's diet? Here's an overview of what's available along with tips on how to cook and use them.

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picture of grain Your Guide to Cooking and Eating Whole Grains

You probably have heard that whole grains are good for your health and your waistline. By now you may even have already switched to 100 percent whole-wheat bread, pasta, and whole-grain cereals. But when it comes to rice, do you choose brown or white? Have you ever tried quinoa or barley?

The term whole grains includes a wide array of food choices. Their flours are used to make crackers, pastas, breads, and cereals. But in their most unprocessed form, grains can be used to make delicious side dishes and soups.

From barley and buckwheat to quinoa and bulgur, you can find grains in their whole form in most supermarkets and in the bulk sections of some grocery and health food stores. Here is the rundown on some of the more popular types.

  • Barley is a good source of soluble fiber, which may help lower cholesterol and blood sugars. The least processed form is called hulled barley or barley groats. It has the most fiber and nutrients. Lightly pearled barley has some of the bran removed, but it is still a good source of nutrients. Fully pearled barley, which is white in color, has the least nutrients.
  • Buckwheat/kasha is technically a fruit seed. But its nutrients, nutty flavor, and appearance resemble whole grains. Buckwheat groats, commonly known as kasha, are whole or coarse roasted buckwheat kernels. The hearty flavor of buckwheat flour makes for tasty pancakes. It's also used in Japanese soba noodles.
  • Bulgur consists of whole wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried, and then cracked into grits. Fine or medium grind is most commonly used for tabbouleh. Coarse or medium bulgur is used for pilaf. Of all the grains, bulgur has the highest fiber content.
  • Corn can be eaten fresh off the cob or as popcorn, corn cakes, polenta, or corn tortillas. When buying cornmeal, look for whole-grain cornmeal. Cornmeal labeled degermed is not technically whole-grain.
  • Oats are a heart-healthy whole grain that make a good source of soluble fiber. That's the type of fiber that may help lower cholesterol and blood sugars. In addition to the familiar rolled oats, look for steel cut oats. Steel cut oats are also known as oat groats or Irish oatmeal. These types of oats are less processed and have a delightful, chewy taste. On the other hand, many instant oats are more processed and often have excess amounts of added sugar.
  • Quinoa is a tiny, light grain about the size of a mustard seed. When cooked, it has a sweet flavor and soft texture. It also has a higher protein content than any other whole grain.
  • Rice has a chewy texture and a nutty flavor. You can choose from long, medium, or short-grain, which is slightly denser. Although brown rice is the most popular alternative to its refined white counterpart, whole-grain rice can also be black, red, or purple.
  • Wheat berries are small, crushed whole-wheat kernels that have a firm texture and nutty flavor.
  • Wild rice is actually a seed and not a grain. The strong flavor and high price of wild rice mean that it is most often consumed in a blend with other rices or other grains. Wild rice has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice but less iron and calcium.

Cooking with whole grains
Cooking most grains is very similar to cooking rice. Just place the dry grain in a pan with water or broth, bring it to a boil, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Use the following chart as a guide for your grain-to-liquid ratio. Grains can be presoaked for quicker cooking times.

To 1 cup
of grain:
Add this much
water or broth:
Bring to a boil,
then simmer for:
Barley, hulled 3 cups 45-60 minutes
Buckwheat 2 cups 20 minutes
Bulgur 2 cups 10-12 minutes
Cornmeal (polenta) 4 cups 25-30 minutes
Millet, hulled 2 1/2 cups 25-35 minutes
Oats, steel cut 4 cups 30 minutes
Quinoa 2 cups 12-15 minutes
Brown Rice 2 1/2 cups 25-45 minutes (varies)
Wheat berries 4 cups Soak overnight then cook 45-60 minutes
Wild rice 3 cups 45-55 minutes

Cooking tips and recipe suggestions

  • When cooking whole grains, try using low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth instead of water. The resulting product will be heartier and tastier.
  • Cooked grains keep 3 to 4 days in your fridge and take just minutes to warm up with a little added water or broth.
  • Look for quick-cooking grain side dishes on the market. You can even find 90-second brown rice. These grains have been precooked and need only brief cooking or to be warmed through in the microwave.
  • For a simple pilaf, saute diced onions, mushrooms, and garlic in a little oil in a saucepan. Add your grain of choice and cook briefly, coating the grains in oil. Then add broth and cook until all the liquid is absorbed. See the chart above for the amount of broth to add. Experiment by using other vegetables, too.
  • Leftover cooked grains can be used for cold grain salads or soups. Simply toss them with chopped veggies, dressing, and leftover chicken, meat, or shrimp. Or toss a few handfuls into some canned soup.
  • Grains like barley, rice, and quinoa work well in homemade soups. Just add 1/2 to 1 cup of grain to the liquid with other ingredients and let the grain cook right in the broth.

Grains are a rich source of many important vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and iron, as well as fiber. Increase variety and boost your nutrition by adding more whole grains to your diet today.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist
Created on 02/11/2011
Updated on 02/11/2011
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. Carbohydrates.
  • Whole Grains Council. Cooking whole grains.
  • Whole Grains Council. Whole grains A to Z.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. Why is it important to eat grains - especially whole grains?
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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