Types of Grains
Grains are the seeds of grass-like plants like wheat, rice and corn, which are called cereals. Non-grass plants called pseudocereals also have seeds that are considered whole grains; these include quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice.
Grains are commonly found in bread, pasta and breakfast cereals.
Examples of Grains
When you think about grains, wheat and oats likely come to mind first. But there are actually many other grain options available that can add diversity to your diet and complex textures to your meals.
- Amaranth: Gluten-free seeds with a mild, nutty flavor.
- Barley: Hulled, or whole, barley is a whole grain.
- Buckwheat: Gluten-free pseudocereal that feeds healthy gut bacteria.
- Corn (including popcorn!).
- Farro: Heirloom wheat grains with a nutty flavor and chewy texture.
- Millet: Gluten-free ancient grain.
- Oats: Mild-flavored and filling.
- Quinoa: Tiny round seeds that are either black, red or white.
- Rice: Brown and wild rice are whole grains; white rice is refined.
- Rye: Member of the wheat family, with more minerals and fewer carbs.
- Sorghum: Gluten-free grain that looks similar to corn and can be popped.
- Spelt: Large grains with a chewy texture and nutty flavor.
- Teff: A type of millet that is almost too small to be milled, so it’s almost always a whole grain.
What Are Grains?
Grains are made up of bran, which is the hard outer shell of the seed; endosperm, the middle layer; and germ, the inner layer. When all three layers are present in their original proportion, it’s considered a whole grain — even if that grain has been milled into flour or another form. When the germ and bran have been removed, leaving just the carbohydrate-heavy endosperm, those are called refined grains. Examples of refined grains are white rice and white flour.
Healthy Grains with Benefits
Since whole grains are healthier than refined grains, it’s recommended that at least half of the grains you eat come from whole grains.
Whole grains work to lower your risk for heart disease, and are also linked to reduced inflammation and a lower risk for cancer and premature death. Grains are rich in fiber and can help you feel full, which may prevent overeating. In addition to fiber, which mostly comes from the bran, whole grains are high in B vitamins and have several grams of protein per serving. The vitamin K, fiber and antioxidants found in whole grains can reduce your risk for stroke. Germ contains vitamins; minerals such as zinc, iron and magnesium; and proteins and plant compounds like polyphenols and sterols, which help to prevent disease. Some grain fibers even act as prebiotics to improve gut health and digestion.
Here are some easy ways to swap refined grains for whole grains:
- Corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas.
- Whole wheat bread instead of white bread.
- Brown rice instead of white rice.
- Popcorn instead of flour-based crackers.
- Crushed whole-wheat bran cereal instead of breadcrumbs.
While many grains contain protein, the following have some of the highest protein content of all grains:
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
How to Cook Grains
Most grains can be cooked on their own with water or broth in a saucepan by bringing the grain and liquid to a boil and then reducing to a simmer, occasionally stirring, until the grain has absorbed the liquid. Cooking times vary from 10 minutes to 2 hours and liquid-to-grain ratios range from 2:1 to 4:1. After cooking, the grains are ready to be added to salads, grain bowls or other dishes.
Here are a few examples of grains and their cooking specifications:
- Amaranth: 3 cups water to 1 cup amaranth. After bringing to a boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Hulled Barley: 3 cups water to 1 cup barley. After bringing to a boil, cover with a lid and reduce heat; simmer for 90 minutes.
- Farro: 4 cups water to 1 cup farro. After bringing to a boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 1 hour.
- Millet: 3 cups water to 1 cup millet. After bringing to a boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 25 minutes, then let stand for 10 minutes.
- Quinoa: 2 cups water 1 cup quinoa. Add water after rinsing quinoa and then toasting it in a dry pot; bring to a boil then cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Wheat Berries: 3 cups water to 1 cup wheat berries. After bringing to a boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 1 hour and 10 minutes.
- Wild Rice: 4 cups water to 1 cup rice. After bringing to a boil, cover with a lid and reduce heat; simmer 45-60 minutes or until rice splits open; drain excess water.
Some recipes, especially soups, incorporate the dried grain into the cooking process with other ingredients, adding the flavor of the cooking liquid to the grain itself and melding it more with the dish. Try this technique by following our recipe for Instant Pot Beef Barley Mushroom Soup, below.