10 ancient grains you need in your pantry

By
Molly Brown
Added
12 March, 2014

We've all heard of ancient grains, but what are they, and what do we do with them? We look at 10 grains including quinoa, Kamut, amaranth, freekeh and more, that you should add to your pantry.

Ancient grains are so-called as they have been used over the world for thousands of years and have only relatively recent gained popularity in western cooking. These grains are generally eaten as whole-grains and hark back to times of less-processed forms and greater genetic diversity in our foods. 

Camargue red rice | Spelt

Camargue red rice | Spelt

Camargue red rice

Camargue red rice is cultivated in the wetlands of the Camargue region of south-west France. Like brown wholegrain rice it has a chewy texture, although it does become softer than brown rice when cooked. You can cook it in plain water and drain it, or simmer it in stock, allowing the stock to become absorbed as the grain softens.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. Cooks in 35–45 minutes.
  • Full of: B vitamins, iron, calcium and the antioxidant anthocyanin.

Spelt

Spelt is an ancient wheat now available as white and wholemeal flour, as well as grain. It can be eaten by some people who are intolerant to regular wheat, although it still contains gluten. Spelt grain becomes quite creamy when stirred so it can be used to make risotto in the same way that pearl barley can, although it isn’t quite as starchy. Pearled (all bran removed) and semi-pearled (some bran left on) are both available, although pearled is easier to find. Cook in water and drain, or in stock by the absorption method.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. Cooks in about 45 minutes.
  • Full of: fibre, protein, B vitamins, zinc and manganese.

Farro | Freekeh

Farro | Freekeh

Farro

Farro is an ancient wheat that can be used in soups, stews and salads. It can also be used in risottos as it becomes slightly creamy when simmered in stock and stirred, although never as creamy as pearl barley or spelt. As a salad base it is delicious dressed with vinaigrette and works well with a range of flavours. Farro is most commonly sold semi-pearled. Like freekeh, spelt and wheat, farro softens when cooked but remains a little firm.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking for semi-pearled farro; soak non-pearled farro overnight. Cook semi-pearled farro for 20–40 minutes; cook non-pearled farro for 60–70 minutes.
  • Full of: protein, fibre, iron, niacin, zinc and magnesium.

Freekeh

Freekeh is roasted green wheat with a strong smoky taste, which is widely used in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. It stands up well to big flavours – preserved lemon, dried fruit and pomegranate molasses for example – and is great with barbecued food. Freekeh does not need soaking and cooks in 30 minutes; boil in water and drain, or cook in stock by the absorption method.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. Cooks in 30 minutes
  • Full of: fibre, protein, calcium and iron.

Barley | Quinoa

Barley | Quinoa

Barley

Pearl (or pearled) barley is processed barley that has had the germ and some bran removed from the grain. While not strictly a whole grain, unlike most grains, barley’s fibre is not concentrated in its outer bran but found right through the kernel. This means that pearl barley contains at least 8% fibre and retains much of the distinctive earthy flavour of unprocessed barley. For unprocessed barley (often referred to as pot barley or Scotch barley) just follow the soaking and cooking instructions provided here and continue the recipe as for pearl barley.

  • Soaking & cooking: soak pot or Scotch barley overnight; no soaking for pearl barley. Cook pot or Scotch barley for 40–50 minutes; cook pearl barley for about 30 minutes.
  • Full of: fibre, phosphorus and manganese.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a versatile South American grain-like crop that can be eaten hot or cold, and is similar to couscous and burghul in texture and size. Quinoa benefits from being toasted in a dry frying pan for a minute before cooking in liquid for 10–15 minutes. The cooking instructions on most brands suggest using more liquid than necessary; 675 ml per 300 g quinoa is enough to produce a moist grain that fluffs up well like couscous. Quinoa is a gluten-free complete protein (rare in the plant world), which means it contains all the amino acids we need. Quinoa is available in white, black and red versions, flakes (that can be treated like oat flakes) and flour.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. Cooks in 10–15 minutes.
  • Full of: iron and calcium, and also a good source of manganese, magnesium and fibre.

Buckwheat | Amaranth

Buckwheat | Amaranth

Buckwheat

Buckwheat is technically a leafy seed grain and has been a staple for centuries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Buckwheat groats and roasted buckwheat both have an assertive ‘meaty’ flavour, particularly the roasted variety. Unroasted groats are more palatable and the version to look out for – just quickly toast the groats in a hot pan with a little oil for a minute before cooking in water or stock. Buckwheat flour, commonly used in blini, has a gorgeously earthy flavour and is also used in cake batters, pasta and Japanese noodles.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. Cooks in 10–15 minutes.
  • Full of: fibre, manganese and magnesium.

Amaranth

Golden amaranth seeds are considered super grains as they contain all the essential amino acids that make up a perfect protein. They come from a tall leafy plant (the leaves are eaten in many parts of the world) and have an earthy, grassy flavour. They are best popped like corn rather than cooked in liquid – where they quickly disintegrate if overcooked and can be sticky and gruel-like. Pop the seeds and add to breakfast cereals or health bars, but only pop 1 tablespoon at a time because the seeds are so tiny. Amaranth flour is also available – you can use it for flatbreads and cakes – but most people find it produces rather dense baked goods.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. pops in a few minutes.
  • Full of: protein, calcium, fibre and vitamin E.

Kamut | Burghul

Kamut | Burghul

Kamut

Technically called khorasan but commonly sold under the brand name Kamut, this is an ancient variety of wheat related to durum. It has large honey-coloured kernels that make an excellent base for salads. Kamut contains 20–40 per cent more protein than conventional wheat and has a less wheaty taste; it is good paired with assertive flavours such as preserved lemon, capers, anchovies and feta. Once cooked, it keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple of days and is also available in flour form.

  • Soaking & cooking: no soaking. Cooks in 50–60 minutes.
  • Full of: protein, fibre, iron, zinc, vitamins B2, B3 and E, phosphorus and magnesium.

Burghul

Burghul, or bulgur wheat, much used in Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern cooking, is one of the quickest and easiest starches to prepare. It is produced when wheat (usually durum) is boiled and then dried, cracked and sorted by size. Burghul is not strictly a whole grain as the outer layers of bran are removed, but still contains plenty of fibre. Cook in boiling water or stock – the time will depend on the coarseness of the grain, so check after 10 minutes. Alternatively, soak in water and eat cold. Do not confuse with cracked wheat, which has not been precooked.

  • Soaking & cooking: soak for 20 minutes instead of cooking, or cook for 10–15 minutes.
  • Full of: protein, fibre, iron, potassium, phosphorus, manganese and B vitamins.

Now you know all about which grains are what, check out the incredible recipes in the book Grains.

20 WAYS WITH ANCIENT GRAINS

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