12 Ancient Grains to Switch Up Your Healthy Carbs
Generally regarded as trendy food royalty, quinoa is technically a seed but commonly referred to as an ancient grain—and, as such, is prepared like one. It's gluten-free and packed with protein too (8.1 grams per cup). All of this makes it appealing to use in place of pasta, couscous, or even oats for a hot cereal breakfast. (Need some dish inspo? Turn to these all-star quinoa recipes.)
Just like quinoa, amaranth is actually a gluten-free, protein- and fiber-packed seed (bonus: It's a fab source of iron and calcium). Rumor has it that amaranth was a major food crop of the Aztecs (so it's seriously an ancient grain). With a mild, nutty taste, amaranth also readily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients—so it's a perfect addition to soups and stews (like these satisfying, heart-warming bowls).
It may be used as bird seed, but don't write millet off just yet: This amazingly healthy ancient grain provides a much-needed dose of magnesium, zinc, copper, and manganese. Originally from India, today, millet's mild flavor and slightly nutty taste makes it super versatile in kitchens all over the world. Mix with veggies, chicken, and your favorite herbs and spices for a savory dinner (like this chicken, millet, and mushroom recipe), or toss it in a batter for some gluten-free cookies.
Spelt was originally grown in Iran around 5,000 to 6,000 B.C. And we're lucky to have this ancient grain around around: With 5.5 grams of protein and 3.8 grams of fiber per half-cup serving, the slightly nutty but sweet grain can be enjoyed as a side dish or cereal (score!). One of the best uses, though? Sub spelt flour for regular or whole wheat flour.
You can thank Italians for pasta, pizza, and farro—they've been enjoying the ancient grain for more than 2,000 years! This healthful, high-fiber whole grain has a woody, hearty flavor that's a welcome addition in everything from soups to salad. It provides 8 grams of protein per one cup serving, but here's a pro tip: Because it can take so long to cook, look for a pearled or semi-pearled variety to speed preparation. To add a depth to the dish, try cooking the grain in broth. (Related: 7 Whole Grains to Break You Out of Your Brown Rice Rut)
The story of kamut (pronounced ka-moot), also called Khorasan wheat or Pharaoh grain, is up for debate, but these two verisions are pretty interesting: Some say the ancient grain was discovered in Egyptian tombs; others believe it was brought over by Noah in his ark. In the modern world, though, kamut's chewy texture and earthy flavor makes it perfect to sprinkle on salads or into casseroles (and even in energy bars). Know this: Soaking kamut overnight makes for better consistency and slashed cooking time.
Teff is a tiny, gluten-free ancient grain—the smallest grain in the world, actually!—and has been grown almost exclusively in Ethiopia for thousands of years. It has a grainy texture and makes a great wheat flour alternative. Plus, it's sky-high in calcium. Used to thicken soups and stews, it can also be eaten like polenta or as an oatmeal alternative.
Sorghum was first collected 8,000 years ago in Southern Egypt. It has a neutral, slightly sweet flavor and can be used in basically any recipe that calls for grains. Want to get creative? You can grind sorghum up as flour for a gluten-free baking alternative. This ancient grain is a nutrition powerhouse too: It's packed with vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin; and it's high in magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, phosphorous, and potassium. Not too shabby.
Freekeh (pronounced freak-uh) is wheat that was harvested when it was young and green. Originating thousands of years ago in the Middle East, the kernels are parched, roasted, dried, and rubbed. The end result: a slightly chewy, yummy grain with a bit of a smoky taste. You can buy it whole, but the "cracked" version requires half the cooking time. Try it as hot cereal for breakfast or in soups, salads, or casseroles alongside shaved persimmons, roasted fennel, or toasted pistachios. (Cue: Almond and Parsley Pesto with Asparagus and Freekeh.)
Bulgur, an age-old staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions, is whole wheat that's been pre-cooked, dried, and crushed. It comes in two varieties: white wheat and red wheat: White wheat has a chewy texture and a mild woody taste, while the red is heartier in consistency and can be slightly bitter. Both varieties are fluffy and light like couscous, making them a perfect addition to herb salads or tabbouleh or used as a base of a pilaf. (Related: Grain-Based Salads That Seriously Satisfy)
Sorry, wheat berries aren't actual berries. The ancient grain is the entire edible part of wheat kernels (aka the germ, the bran and the endosperm), meaning none of its nutrients are removed and each kernel is jam-packed with good-for-you qualities. If you're obsessed with farro or spelt, you'll probably like this grain, too, as it lends a similar chewy texture and nutty flavor. Due to their heartiness, they can hold the flavor and texture of vinaigrettes, making them a perfect addition to salad, like this zesty, fiber-packed wheat berry salad.
Grown in the shallow waters of North America, wild rice is an oft-overlooked ancient grain and seed combo. The whole grain has nearly double the amount of protein of white rice, is a solid source of fiber, and even contains 10-times more antioxidants than white rice. Mix it into a roasted veggie bowl filled to the brim with root vegetables like parsnips, beets, and carrots for a plant-based meal that keeps you full for hours.
How to Make the Most of Ancient Grains
If you're used to warming up a package of pre-cooked brown rice in the microwave and calling it a day, you might be overwhelmed with all of these ~fancy~ ancient grains. But don't break a sweat just yet. Emily Fiffer, a co-owner of Botanica restaurant in Los Angeles, is here to help you experiment with the grains that may be new to you and reimagine ways to cook with old favorites.
1. Mix and Match
"I'm a big fan of combining different types of cooked grains in one dish," says Fiffer. "At Botanica, we make porridge with wheat berries, black rice, and quinoa. The beauty is in how the different flavors, textures, and shapes come together." TL;DR: Play around.
2. Upgrade Their Role
Instead of making grains the base of your meal, use them as an accent. Sprinkle cooked grains into a lettuce salad for texture. Or do the same with a composed dish: Spread yogurt sauce or hummus on a plate, add roasted carrots, Brussels sprouts, or squash, and top with a handful of grains.
3. Bring out the Crunch
You can buy puffed grains like quinoa, rice, or amaranth (Fiffer loves the Organic Quinoa Puffs at nuts.com) or make them yourself in a hot pan with a little oil, just like popcorn. Puffed grains offer the perfect amount of crunch to dishes like tartines, soups, and pastas. They're also delicious stirred into granola or oatmeal. For a crisp topping, fry cooked rice in a skillet with a little oil until it puffs up.
4. Go Sweet, Not Savory
Grains are incredibly versatile and work as well in sweet dishes as they do in savory ones. Cook your favorite variety with coconut milk, orange zest, maple syrup, and cinnamon for a healthy dessert or snack.