4 Good-for-You Whole Grains You Haven’t Tried
If you’re trying to be a healthier eater, one of easiest places to start is with your carbs—more specifically, your grains. Switching from refined grains (white bread, white rice, white flour), which lose a lot of nutrients in processing, to whole grains (ones in which the entire kernel is left in tact) can give you an instant nutrient boost without sacrificing flavor.
But if it’s as easy as swapping one grain for another, why isn’t everyone on the whole-grain train? “I think for a lot of people, it’s a fear of the unknown,” says Christina Dimacali, personal chef and owner of the NoLibs-based cooking school Clean Your Plate. “People don’t know how to use some of these grains or cook with them, and for a long time you really couldn’t find this stuff very easily. You had to go to natural food stores.”
Those days are long gone, thanks to recent efforts (by the government, nutritionists, and health reporters like yours truly) to push whole grains into the mainstream. Now it’s pretty easy to find things like quinoa and barley at the ACME, and even easier at places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
Still, a lot of people shy away from some seriously good for you (and tasty!) whole grains just because they have no idea what they are or how to cook with them. So let’s clear a few things up, shall we? Here, Christina shares her four favorite good-for-you grains you may not have tried, along with cooking tips and easy recipes to start incorporating them into your meals fret-free.
What is it? Bulgar is made from cracked wheat kernels—which is why it’s often referred to as cracked wheat. The grains are often steamed, dried then crushed. Bulgar is a staple of Middle Eastern diets. Look for bulgar at most grocery stores in the international aisle.
What does it taste like? The closest taste-alike is couscous, says Christina. The texture is similar, too.
What’s in it? In a cup of cooked bulgar, you’ll find about 150 calories, less than one gram of fat, zero saturated fat and cholesterol, 34 grams of carbs, six grams of protein and eight grams of fiber—twice the fiber of brown rice.
How should I cook it? Simply boil water, pour it over the bulgar and let it sit for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork when all the water is absorbed. Use one cup of water for every ¾ cup of dry bulgar. “What’s cool about this is you can turn the heat off and walk away, and you’re not going to burn the house down,” says Christina. “People have a tendency to want to stir it while it’s cooking, but you should really leave it alone.”
Healthy bulgar recipe: Red Pepper Cracked Wheat [PDF]
What is it? Okay, okay, quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain, but since it looks, tastes and acts like a whole grain (and is often classified as such), we’re including it here. If you need a good protein boost in your diet (ahem, vegetarians) quinoa should be your go-to; it’s positively loaded with protein. In fact, it’s what’s called a “complete protein,” meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that we need in our diets. As Christina explains, “Quinoa is called a complete protein because it doesn’t need other foods for the protein to fully activate. If you have a block of tofu, yes, you’re getting protein, but it’s incomplete until you combine it with a whole grain; you need both things to trigger the protein to work. Because quinoa is a whole grain, you don’t need to eat a whole grain with it to activate the protein.” Quinoa comes in several varieties (white, red, black), but there is no difference between them nutritionally-speaking or taste-wise.
What does it taste like? Either nutty and firm, or soggy and bland, depending on how you prepare it. (See below for Christina’s cooking tips for making it taste nuttier.) The nice thing about quinoa is that it’s really a blank slate—it takes on the flavors of whatever dish you use it in, which means it gets high marks for versatility.
What’s in it? In a cup of cooked quinoa, you’ll find 222 calories, four grams of fat, 39 grams of carbs, five grams of fiber and eight grams of protein.
How should I cook it? If you’ve tried quinoa before and decided you don’t like it, Christina says you’re probably cooking it wrong: “You don’t just add water and hope for the best.” Instead, try toasting it in a dry (i.e. no oil) skillet for 7 to 10 minutes before soaking it in water. Toasting will help keep the seed together once water is added and will lend a heartier, nuttier flavor. You’ll know you’ve toasted it well enough when the quinoa starts to smell like popcorn and the kernels start popping in the pan. Then, add water to the quinoa (the ratio of water to quinoa is 2:1), bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes until the water is absorbed.
Healthy quinoa recipe: Breakfast Quinoa [PDF]
What is it? A member of the grass family (really), barley is where to turn if you want some serious tooth in a dish. Barley is nice and hearty, which is why you’ll often find it in soup recipes.
What does it taste like? Christina calls this another “blank-slate whole grain.” The pearl-like shape means it has some good texture, but will take on the flavor of whatever you cook with it.
What’s in it? In a cup of cooked barley, you’ll find 193 calories, one gram of fat, 44 grams of carbs, six grams of fiber and four grams of protein.
How should I cook it? Barley cooks just like rice: add one part barley to two parts water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. If you’re using it in a soup, you can cook the barley right in the broth. “Barley has some starchiness to it, like when you make pasta and the water gets starchy,” Christina says. “This can help thicken up a soup without having to add flour.”
Healthy barley recipe: Beef Barley Soup [PDF]
What is it? Whole-wheat in the truest sense, wheat berries are whole-wheat kernels—in other words, wheat with the bran, germ and endosperm left in tact. When ground into a powder, wheat berries become whole-wheat flour.
What does it taste like? The texture is chewy, even a bit juicy. “It gives a little bit,” says Christina. “There’s a chewiness to it that lingers longer than rice.” Wheat berries have a slightly nutty, earthy flavor.
What’s in it? In a cup of cooked wheat berries, you’ll find 302 calories, two grams of fat, 58 grams of carbs, eight grams of fiber and 12 grams of protein.
How should I cook it? Wheat berries couldn’t be easier to cook: “It’s literally just boiling it,” says Christina. Some people presoak them, but Christina says it isn’t necessary. Use 2½ cups of water for every one cup of dry wheat berries, bring it to a boil, then simmer for 40 minutes. Note: not all the liquid will absorb; drain off the excess.
Healthy wheat berries recipe: Apple Wheat Berry Salad [PDF]
>> Tell us: What’s your favorite non-rice grain to cook and eat? How do you like to prepare them? Share in the comments!
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Photos (wheat berries, bulgar and whole grains): Shutterstock