Ancient Grains: Oldies but Goodies
Boost your "Grain Grade" from an F to an A. Learn the health benefits, preparation methods, and proper storage for these powerhouse foods, from farro and quinoa to barley, millet, and more.
Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum
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Who is your celebrity crush? Yours might be an actor or musician, but I totally fan-girled over food journalist Michael Pollan at a whole-grain conference I attended a few years ago. Pollan has written extensively about the transformation of grains over the last 100 years, particularly in his book Cooked, which gives a true education on bread.
My one-sentence description of the evolution of grains over the past 100 years is: We evolved from whole grains that retained their flavor, nutrients, and fiber; to an industrialized ultra-processed, low-nutrient vacuum of junky cereal/cookies/crackers/bread/chips that are so deficient in vitamins that the government makes companies add nutrients back in that they removed.
Count the ingredients of a loaf of generic supermarket bread or flour tortillas — you will be shocked at how much filler, preservatives, vitamins, and stabilizers are added.
In the same time you would cook any rice or pasta, you can instead cook ancient whole grains that can seriously improve your health. You don’t have to become a kitchen hippy, soaking things and cooking all day either. As a busy working mom (and a dietician) I will give you tips to easily cook and use these ancient grains and go from a Grain Grade F to an A+!
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The fundamentals of ancient grains
Get to know this healthy, delicious, and versatile food category, from the basic definition and health benefits, to time-saving cooking tips and proper storage
What are ancient grains?
There is no absolute definition of ancient grains, but I explain them as basically unchanged throughout the last several hundred years. They’re old of course too — most can trace back to thousands of years of use in agriculture. They’re like the great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents of modern wheat. The ancient grains discussed in this article are the wheat-based farro/einkorn/emmer/spelt and Kamut; millet; barley; and the pseudo-grains quinoa and buckwheat.
Is there anything wrong with regular wheat?
Modern wheat gives us delicious homemade sourdough bread and tender cakes. It also gives us low-fiber, low-nutrient Oreos and Ritz crackers, fake-colored sugar cereals, and 20-ingredient junky breads.
Before the mid-1800s, we milled and used wheat kernels very differently. It was mostly stone-ground, which means the entire wheat kernel is ground between heavy, giant millstones and all parts of the wheat kernel are used.
As my food hero Pollan has explained in depth, modern milling methods discard the fiber-rich bran and germ and keep only the endosperm, which is pulverized to make soft, fine wheat flour. Roller milling and discarding parts of the wheat kernel mean that B vitamins, iron, and fiber are lost. U.S. rules mandate “enrichment” of wheat-based foods, meaning that companies must replace what was removed: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and iron.
There is nothing wrong with modern wheat. We do have major problems with the low-nutrient products that fill the aisles of most grocery stores.
Are ancient grains healthier?
I am a chef and love to bake and cook from scratch. I believe anything I make in my own kitchen is healthy, from quinoa to chocolate cake.
Yes, ancient grains are generally healthier than most starchy carbohydrates in the grocery store, but that is because they are single-ingredient products that still look like food.
Farro, buckwheat, and barley look like “food” — they still resemble the plant they came from. Corn kernels also look like the plant they came from.
I teach my clients about “food ladders” to explain this best: going from corn on the cob, to frozen corn (both look like the corn plant) … to a healthy cornbread mix with good ingredients … to Doritos (no longer have any resemblance to corn).
Whole quinoa is amazing, but 20-ingredient ultra-processed quinoa cookies or cereal bars aren't healthy.
Whole wheat and sorghum are amazing. Special K Protein Honey Almond Ancient Grain Cereal? I’m sure you can guess my opinion of that cereal, which contains 22 ingredients and is ultra-processed. Ancient-grain Special K is no longer an “ancient grain” in my opinion.
To sum up, a whole intact grain provides more health benefits than a refined grain such as white rice.
Are ancient grains gluten-free?
Wheat-based grains (such as farro and Kamut) are not gluten-free. Quinoa, buckwheat, and millet are gluten-free — but those with celiac disease need to make sure these are processed in a gluten-safe facility. Some people who are sensitive to gluten report that they tolerate a wheat-based whole grain such as farro, but this is highly individual.
What about fiber?
The good bacteria in our intestines love to chomp away on fiber. The typical Western diet is sadly lacking in fiber, and ancient grains are a good source of fiber. The increased natural fiber in all of the ancient grains is a huge healthy selling point!
What about health benefits?
Intact grains, with only one ingredient, are almost always higher in nutrients and fiber than their refined counterparts. Most ancient grains sold in the supermarket have gone through some kind of minor processing to make them easier to cook, and perhaps remove an outer layer of bitter coating, but they are still healthy and wonderful to eat. Ancient grains also contain natural antioxidants, and their high fiber may help reduce cholesterol and prevent high cholesterol. Because of their complex high-fiber whole grain package, they can have a more sustained effect on blood sugar levels, rather than a quick spike up and down.
How do I cook ancient grains?
Pasta method: The easiest cooking method for a beginner is to simply cook these grains just as you would pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, then add the grains. Cook uncovered until tender. The cooking time will depend on the grain, but it usually takes around 20 minutes. Drain well. If you want to make a large batch to keep in the fridge all week, turn the drained grains onto a cookie sheet or even a clean kitchen towel and let dry thoroughly.
Rice absorption method: The “rice” method is recommended for grains like quinoa, where you measure a 1:2 ratio of grains to water. The grain cooks, covered, and absorbs the water. You will see this method on most packages of quinoa and millet.
How to save time when using ancient grains
Keep your fridge stocked with cooked grains: Cooked grains keep in the fridge up to 5 days. Make a larger batch to add in recipes for the week and reduce prep time. If your cooked grains clump together in the fridge, you can toss in a bit of olive oil.
Purchase pre-cooked grains: Convenience products such as mixed-grain hot cereal and frozen rice/barley blends are also time-savers. My favorite frozen product is Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice with black barley.
What are some easy ways to eat ancient grains?
Add cooked grains to almost any salad, soup, or chili
Mix with cooked beans and/or veggies
For breakfast, add maple syrup, nuts, dried fruit, nut butters, berries, and more
How should I store uncooked ancient grains?
According to the Whole Grains Council, you can store wheat-based grains in their intact form in the pantry for 6 months and in the freezer for 1 year. You can store flours made from these grains in the pantry for 3 months and in the freezer for up to 6 months. I suggest keeping grain flours in the freezer unless you use them often. Use airtight containers for best results.
Farro is my favorite ancient grain to cook because it has a mild flavor and nice chewy texture. I use the pasta method to cook it. You can easily substitute farro for rice — making the Italian dish farrotto instead of risotto, for example.
Most farro sold in stores is semi-pearled or pearled, which means some (or all) of the tough outer shell has been removed. If you manage to track down whole farro, it will take longer to cook so follow the package directions. Grocery stores mainly sell pearled farro, which is a bit lower in fiber and nutrients but cooks faster. Semi-pearled farro splits the difference. Whole-grain or “berry” farro needs overnight soaking before cooking.
For more exact details on how to cook farro, check out this tutorial.
Technical details: There are actually several types of farro: farro piccolo (also called einkorn), farro medio (also called emmer) and farro grande (also called spelt). Specialty growers like Anson Mills grow Italian farro varieties.
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Quinoa was the “gateway” ancient grain, paving the way in the past 20 years for other specialty grains. It even made a hilarious appearance in a Bud Light NFL commercial you can watch here.
Quinoa is a type of seed grown for thousands of years throughout South America. Pronounced “keen-wah,” it comes in several colors and more than 100 different varieties. While other ancient grains are harder to find, most supermarkets now carry at least one variety of quinoa.
Quinoa needs to be rinsed before cooking to remove a bitter outer coating. Some products are pre-rinsed to save you that step.
Technical details: Quinoa is not technically a grain, it is a grain-like seed. However, it looks like grain and acts like grain and is generally lumped in with the definition of “whole grains” (just like tomatoes and cucumbers are technically/botanically fruits but we consider them vegetables). The little string that comes out of cooked quinoa is normal, it is the embryo of the seed. Quinoa is a complete protein, unlike most other grains. Quinoa is part of the amaranth family (the umbrella “amaranth” has over 70 species).
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A Montana farming family started growing this heirloom type of Khorosan wheat in the 1950s, bringing this forgotten grain to the United States. They later trademarked the name Kamut, to ensure it would be unmodified and organically grown.
Technical details: As part of the trademark requirements, Kamut farmers must grow it organically. Products containing Kamut must also be certified organic.
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Buckwheat has a stronger flavor than the more mild white quinoa or farro. Thin Japanese soba noodles are made from buckwheat, as is the Eastern European dish kasha.
Technical details: Buckwheat is not wheat, and it’s technically not even a grain. It’s an honorary member of the grain family, like quinoa, and has been grown for more than 4,000 years.
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Barley has been grown for more than 10,000 years and was an important staple food for ancient cultures, including Roman Gladiators. Over many thousands of years, wheat gradually overtook barley as the staple grain for people, and now barley’s main role is for animal feed. Barley is a natural companion to most soups. My favorite easy product is Trader Joe’s frozen blend of brown rice and black barley — just 3 minutes in the microwave to a yummy, easy, high-fiber dish. Sometimes in the morning, I'll add a little real maple syrup and butter to it. It’s also great with a simple vinaigrette mixed into the cooked blend.
Technical details: Barley has a whopping amount of fiber — about 17% in whole intact barley. Barley consumption is associated with reduced risk of heart disease and thus has an FDA-approved qualified health claim for its cardiovascular benefits. Despite its healthy attributes, almost all barley is used for either malt (25%) or animal feed.
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Millets are actually a group of grasses that were cultivated thousands of years ago, and are still a staple crop in parts of Africa and Asia. You may have heard of teff, which is a type of millet that provides needed calories and protein in parts of Africa. Teff is used to make injera bread, a part of most Ethiopian meals. Millet is also a major ingredient in birdseed! Millet is gluten-free, and millet flour can be used in gluten-free baking.
Technical details: You want to buy “hulled” millet. Hulled means the indigestible outer shell has been removed, but it is still whole grain. Millets are very high in calcium — the equivalent to a half cup of yogurt — and magnesium.
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Other ancient grains to consider
Because there is no one definition of “ancient grains,” it’s a broad category. Since you might also see sorghum, chia, and freekeh in the grain section of your grocery store, here is a very brief description of each.
Sorghum: While in Africa and parts of Asia, sorghum is grown for human consumption, in the U.S., sorghum crops are primarily used to make ethanol and feed animals. This drought-tolerant plant is very versatile, with uses like popcorn and making sweetener.
Chia: Even though chia seeds are very trendy now, they were actually a staple in the ancient Aztec diet. As you probably know, you can make everything from pudding to smoothies with this gluten-free, high-fiber seed.
Freekeh: There is no freekeh plant; rather, the term "freekah" refers to a process of harvesting and processing a young grain — typically a type of wheat grain.
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