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In honor of National Quinoa Day, we’re demystifying whole grains

There are about 20 varieties of whole grains, but we’re focusing on the ones you’re most likely to cook and eat

Sunday, Jan. 16, is National Quinoa Day.Pat Greenhouse

This Sunday, Jan. 16, is National Quinoa Day. The so-named food holiday is unlikely to garner as much interest as, say, National Blueberry Pancake Day (Jan. 28) or National Tater Tot Day (Feb. 2) or Bloody Mary Day, which was Jan. 1. But if even a little recognition for quinoa and other healthy grains gets us thinking about cooking and eating more of them, then a happy National Quinoa Day it will be!

Yes, you know whole grains are good for you and you’re still not eating enough. The USDA’s 2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend adults consume about six ounces of grains daily, at least half of which should be whole grains. These can be cooked grains or foods made from whole grains, including whole grain cereals, pasta, and breads. Not so shocking, the USDA reports that 98 percent of Americans fall below the recommendations for whole grains and 74 percent exceed limits for refined grains.


There are about 20 varieties of whole grains; these can take many forms, including whole kernels, cracked pieces, or milled into flour. Narrowing the list to eight of the more readily available and those you’re most likely to cook and eat will give us plenty to devour. In addition to quinoa, we’ll shine a light on wheat berries and its cousin Kamut, bulgur, farro, millet, wild rice, and brown rice.

Go ahead, munch on some home-popped popcorn (a whole grain!) while we dive in. First, consider two recommendations. When you cook grains, make a big batch and use them in a few different meals. Particularly for the longer cooking varieties like wheat berries, Kamut, and wild rice, you’ll get a hefty yield for your time and big bang for your buck. Whole grains provide crucial nutrition at a low cost.

Second, most grains can be cooked using the “pasta method,” which is to simmer them, uncovered, in a pot of boiling water. Dispense with specific grain-to-water ratios, which might leave too little liquid under the lid or a pot full of mushy grains. If you have a pressure cooker, you can use it to speed up the cooking.


To start, a quick Grains 101: Grains are the seeds of grass-like plants called cereals, such as wheat, corn, and rice, and some non-cereal plants (pseudocereals), including buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth. Whole grain kernels contain three parts: the fiber-rich outer bran layer with B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, and other minerals; the germ, which has B vitamins, Vitamin E, minerals, some protein and healthy fats; and endosperm, the largest portion of the kernel, which contains carbohydrates, protein, and small amounts of nutrients.

Perfectly cooked brown rice.Sheryl Julian

Whole grains have had only the outer inedible hulls removed, leaving the bran, germ, and endosperm intact. Less processing equals higher fiber and nutrients. When grains are refined to make, say, white rice or white flour, the bran and germ are processed out, leaving just the starchy endosperm. (If you’re wondering why grains are refined at all, it’s because refined grains and flours are milder tasting and finer textured and have a longer shelf life than whole grains.) Many refined grains are “enriched” to add back some of the nutrients removed during processing, but the bran layer is lost.

A very nutritious food, whole grains are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers, and other health problems. Whole grains are digested more slowly than refined grains and flours so there is less of a spike in blood sugar. And fiber helps us feel full and more satisfied.


For gluten-free eaters, safe choices include quinoa, brown rice, millet, wild rice, corn, buckwheat, and amaranth. Wheat-based grains — wheat berries, bulgur, freekeh, farro, Kamut, and spelt — as well as barley and rye contain gluten.

Cooking grains is easy, particularly if you cook them like you cook pasta. Fill a large saucepan or pot with water, about 6 to 10 cups for 1 to 2 cups of grains, respectively. You can substitute some of the water with vegetable or chicken stock if you like. Add about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt (to water, not stock, which may already be salty) and bring to a boil. Rinse the grains in a sieve, then add them to the boiling liquid. Stir briefly, return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer the grains uncovered. Make sure there is always enough water covering the grains in the pot. Start tasting before the recommended cooking time on the package; they’re done when firm-tender, with some chew but no hard centers. Drain in a fine mesh strainer or sieve. Return the grains to the pot or a serving bowl. Fluff with a fork.

Millet "fried rice." Karoline Boehm Goodnick

Small grains like bulgur, quinoa, and millet can be ready in 10 to 20 minutes. Harder, larger kernels, such as farro and barley, if pearled (milled to remove the bran layer), take about 30 minutes; wild rice and brown rice, 40 to 60 minutes; and wheat berries and Kamut can take from 45 to 75 minutes. Older, drier grains need extra time to become tender. (Cooking times can be shortened by soaking harder kernels in water overnight, if desired.)


Once you get into a weekly grain-cooking routine, you’ll enjoy using them in all kinds of dishes. Add cooked grains to salads, tossing them with salad greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other assorted raw or cooked chopped vegetables. Add quinoa to a Greek salad and farro or wheat berries to heartier mixtures of roasted broccoli, cauliflower, and chunks of squash and root vegetables. A bright salad dressing brings it all together. Create warm grain bowls using wild or brown rice, Kamut, or wheat berries tossed with sauteed bell peppers, mushrooms, and onion. Top with a sprinkling of nuts and handful of fresh microgreens.

Also, with more familiarity, you’ll see how simple it is to make healthful substitutions, such as these:

  • When you make pasta, use half whole grain and half regular (white) pasta.
  • Replace white rice with brown rice (or any other whole grain) for stir-fries and fried rice.
  • Add whole grains to soups, chili, and stews, replacing all or some of the meat.
  • When making burgers, meatballs, or meat loaf, substitute ¼ to ⅓ of the ground beef or turkey with cooked grains, such as barley, farro, bulgur, or quinoa.
  • Use whole grains instead of white rice in burritos and stuffed peppers.

After honoring quinoa and some of the others, note that National Cereal Day is coming up on March 7. Just remember to make yours whole grain.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com