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Grain Salad Recipe: Create Your Own

Make-ahead and endlessly versatile, grain salad just might be the perfect potluck dish

by Joanne Weir

from Fine Cooking
Issue 117

Say you’re going to a summer potluck, picnic, or barbecue. What do you bring? For me, the answer is always a grain salad. Not only can it be made completely ahead, but it holds up beautifully and tastes even better the next day. Plus, it’s easy to customize because the flavor combinations are virtually endless; grains are like a blank canvas, so they go well with just about any ingredient. And best of all, the method couldn’t be simpler.

To start, cook your grain of choice (more on that below). You can choose a familiar one, like rice or barley, or try something more unusual, like farro or spelt. Next, whisk together a vinaigrette, which is easy to vary with your choice of vinegar, citrus juice, or aromatics. Finally, prep your favorite add-in ingredients. Fresh vegetables or fruits and herbs are essential, but you can also experiment with cheeses, dried fruits, beans, and nuts. Toss it all together, and you’ve got a salad that’s delicious and healthful—an ideal contribution to any summer meal.

Summer Grain Salad
Serves 8 to 10

Cook the Grains

The cooking method will vary, depending on the grain you choose (see options below). Most cook in boiling water, though some require a presoak.

If using wheat berries or spelt, soak them for 10 to 18 hours in a bowl of cold water and drain before cooking.

If using bulgur, pour 3-1/2 cups boiling water over the bulgur in a medium bowl, stir, and let sit until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is tender, 20 to 25 minutes (do not cook further).

For all other grains, rinse under cold water and drain before cooking.

Bring 7 cups of water to a boil in a 4-quart pot over high heat. Add 3/4 tsp. kosher salt. Add the grain, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally and adding more boiling water as necessary to keep the grain covered, until tender (see below for cooking times).

Drain and rinse the grain with cold water to stop the cooking. Transfer the grain to a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, and toss lightly to coat. Spread the grain on the baking sheet and cool completely at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Choose a grain (quantities yield 6 cups cooked)
  • barley
    Pearled barley: 1-3/4 cups; cook 30 to 45 minutes
  • wheat berries
    Wheat berries: 2-1/4 cups; soak; cook 1 to 1-1/2 hours
  • basmati rice
    Basmati rice: 2-1/2 cups; cook 10 to 15 minutes
  • farro
    Semi-pearled farro: 3 cups; cook 30 to 35 minutes
  • brown rice
    Brown rice: 2-1/2 cups; cook 20 to 25 minutes
  • spelt
    Spelt: 3 cups; soak; cook 45 to 60 minutes
  • quinoa
    Quinoa: 2 cups; cook 15 to 20 minutes
  • bulgur
    Medium-grind bulgur: 2-1/4 cups
  • millet
    Millet: 1-3/4 cups; cook 15 to 20 minutes
Make a vinaigrette

The vinaigrette should have an assertive flavor that doesn’t get lost when mixed with the grains, so once you’ve made it, taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and more vinegar or citrus juice.

Put 1/3 cup of the vinegar and/or citrus juice of your choice (see options below) in a small bowl and gradually whisk in 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Whisk in the flavor boosters (see options below). Taste and season with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and additional vinegar, citrus juice, or oil as needed.

Choose one or two Vinegars or Citrus Juices (1/3 cup total)

  • red wine vinegar
    Red wine vinegar
  • balsamic vinegar
    Balsamic vinegar
  • champagne vinegar
    Champagne vinegar
  • white wine vinegar
    White wine vinegar
  • rice vinegar
    Plain rice vinegar
  • sherry vinegar
    Sherry vinegar
  • cider vinegar
    Cider vinegar
  • lemons
    Lemon juice
  • limes
    Lime juice
  • grapefruit
    Grapefruit juice

Choose one or two flavor boosters (optional)

  • olives
    Pitted, chopped black or green olives: 1/2 cup
  • honey
    Honey: 2 to 3 tsp.
  • sesame oil
    Asian sesame oil: 1 Tbs.
  • walnut_oil
    Roasted walnut oil: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • tahini
    Tahini: 2 to 3 Tbs.
  • soy sauce
    Soy Sauce: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • capers
    Capers or chopped caper berries: up to 1/4 cup
  • jalapeno
    Minced jalapeño: up to 1 whole
  • orange zest
    Finely grated orange zest: 1 to 2 tsp.
  • lemon
    Finely grated lemon zest: 1 to 2 tsp.
  • lime
    Finely grated lime zest: 1 to 2 tsp.
  • grapefruit zest
    Finely grated grapefruit zest: 1 to 2 tsp.
  • mustard
    Mustard: up to 1 Tbs.
  • anchovies
    Minced anchovies: 2 to 3
  • ginger
    Finely grated fresh ginger: up to 2 Tbs.
Prep your add-ins

Vegetables or fruit (or both) and herbs are a must in these grain salads. Pair flavors that sound good to you, making sure to include a variety of textures and colors to give your salad interest. Then feel free to add optional dried fruit, cheese, nuts and seeds, or beans.

Prep 2-3 cups total of add-ins (see options below) according to their notes.

Prep 2-3 cups total of add-ins (see options below) according to their notes.

  • peaches
    Peaches: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice
  • nectarines
    Nectarines: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice
  • mangos
    Mangos: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice
  • avocado
    Avocado: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice
  • grapes
    Seedless grapes: cut in half
  • artichoke hearts
    Oil-packed artichoke hearts: cut into 1/2-inch wedges
  • apples
    Apples or pears: core and cut into medium dice or thin slices
  • radicchio
    Radicchio: shred
  • golden beets
    Golden beets: roast until tender, peel, cut into medium dice, or 1/4 -inch-thick rounds if small
  • asparagus
    Asparagus: steam or grill until crisp-tender, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • fennel
    Fennel: trim and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • broccoli
    Broccoli or cauliflower: cut into 1-inch florets, steam until crisp-tender
  • carrots
    Carrots: cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices, steam until crisp-tender
  • brussels sprouts
    Brussels sprouts: cut in quarters, steam until crisp-tender
  • celery
    Celery: cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • corn kernels
    Corn kernels: blanch if fresh, thaw if frozen
  • cucumbers
    Cucumbers: peel, seed, and cut into medium dice
  • grapefruit
    Grapefruit segments: cut into pieces if large
  • oranges
    Orange segments: cut into pieces if large
  • green beans
    Green beans: cut into 1-inch pieces, steam until crisp-tender
  • red onion
    Red onion: cut into small dice
  • scallions
    Scallions: thinly slice diagonally
  • cherry tomatoes
    Cherry tomatoes: cut in half
  • peas
    English peas: blanch if fresh, thaw if frozen
  • bell peppers
    Red, green, or yellow bell peppers: cut into medium dice
  • sugar snap peas
    Sugar snap peas: Cut diagonally in half, steam until crisp-tender
  • radishes
    Radishes: Cut in half then thinly slice
  • yellow squash
    Summer squash: cut into medium dice or 1/4-inch-thick half-rounds
  • zucchini
    Zucchini: cut into medium dice or 1/4-inch-thick half-rounds

Bold: Choose up to three more add-ins (optional)

  • dried apples
    Dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, chopped apricots or cherries, thinly sliced figs): up to 1/2 cup total
  • blue cheese
    Cheese (crumbled feta, blue, or goat cheese, grated Parmigiano, diced Cheddar): up to 1 cup total
  • nuts
    Toasted nuts and seeds (pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, chopped walnuts or almonds): up to 3/4 cup total
  • lentils
    Cooked beans (chickpeas, cannellini beans, lentils, kidney beans, black beans): up to 1 cup total
Dress and season

Be sure to add enough vinaigrette when tossing your salad. An under-dressed grain salad will be dry and short on flavor.

Put the cooked and cooled grains in a large serving bowl and toss to break up any clumps. Add the add-ins, fresh herbs of your choice (see options below), and 1/2 cup vinaigrette and toss. Taste and season as needed with more vinaigrette, salt, and pepper. Serve or refrigerate for up to 1 day (let sit at room temperature so it’s not refrigerator-cold and season with more vinaigrette, salt, and pepper before serving).

Choose one to three fresh herbs (up to 1/4 cup total)

  • chives
    Thinly sliced Chives
  • dill
    Chopped dill
  • flat-leaf parsley
    Chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • marjoram
    Chopped marjoram (1 Tbs. max)
  • basil
    Chopped basil
  • savory
    Chopped savory
  • oregano
    Chopped oregano (1 Tbs. max)
  • mint
    Chopped mint
  • cilantro
    Chopped cilantro leaves and stems
  • tarragon
    Chopped tarragon (1 Tbs. max)

If you can, make your salad in advance—even up to a day before serving—to give the flavors time to meld. Take the salad out of the refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes before serving so that it’s not ice cold. It’s best just slightly chilled or at room temperature. Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving to be sure the salad is flavorful and bright.


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