Many great grains are too often misunderstood as being healthy but too difficult and time consuming to cook. So they sit on the pantry shelf, in the shadow of the all too familiar white rice.
Not in my kitchen. On winter days, I frequently reach for farro, my newest favorite grain, to add to a nourishing bean soup, or barley for a rich mushroom risotto. Grains are at the heart of some of my favorite comfort dishes. When cooked just right, they have an appealing, chewy texture. Their low-key flavor— slightly sweet, somewhat nutty—makes them the perfect backdrop for more assertive ingredients, such as sun-dried tomatoes, warm spices, and fresh herbs.
With all grains, texture is key. Most grains should be cooked until they’re tender but still have some toothiness. Beyond this stage, they become mushy or begin to fall apart. But getting the right texture is no more difficult than cooking pasta. Just taste and test the grains as they simmer in water or stock. When they’ve got that perfect al dente texture, drain any excess liquid. There’s just one catch to cooking with grains: their cooking time can vary unpredictably. Barley, for instance, might take 20 or up to 45 minutes. One factor that accounts for this is the grain’s age. As grains sit on the shelf, their starch network becomes tighter, and so they need more cooking time to get tender.
Your best bet for finding fresh grains is to buy from a source with high turnover (see Sources, p. 76). Also, buy small quantities so the grains don’t hang around too long. Stored in airtight containers in a dry, dark, cool place, most grains will keep for up to a year.
In this article, I’ve profiled four easy-to-cook grains. Each profile includes one delicious "starter" recipe, which I'm sure will convince you that there's much more to grains than good health.
Barley is probably the oldest grain on the planet. It has a mild sweetness and, when cooked properly, a chewy but tender texture. Barley soup is standard diner fare, but this grain is also an excellent candidate for a creamy risotto or a simple pilaf.
Pearled barley is the most widely available—you’ll find it in the supermarket—and the easiest to cook. It has been abraded many times to remove the tough outer husk, and this lightens it to a buff color. Some varieties are white because all the bran and fiber have been polished off, which means it’s less nutritious. Brownish-gray whole-grain barley (also called hulled barley) is less widely available. You’ll most likely find it in a specialty or natural-foods store.
Soaking pearled barley in water for a few hours or overnight will shorten the cooking time but isn’t required. Whole-grain barley, however, does require an overnight soak and may need longer cooking. Use 1 part barley to about 3 parts liquid. Bring the barley to a boil in salted water or broth, reduce to a simmer, and cook until tender but toothy. Cooking time ranges from 30 to 60 minutes. For a creamier consistency, gradually add hot liquid in small increments, adding more as the grain absorbs the liquid and stirring all the while.
Recipe: Barley Risotto with Mushrooms & Gremolata
A staple in Middle Eastern kitchens, bulgur is made from whole wheatberries that have been steamed, hulled, dried, and cracked. Because it’s already cooked, it only requires rehydrating and no further cooking to serve. Its flavor is wheaty, its texture crunchy-tender. Try serving it hot as a pilaf with lentils and warm spices, cold in salads like tabbouleh, combined with chickpeas for a side dish or stuffing, or mixed with ground beef or lamb.
Bulgur comes in several grinds. A fine or medium grind is good for salads and baked goods, and medium or coarse grinds are better for pilafs or stuffings. Bulgur can go rancid quickly, so buy small amounts and use it within a couple of months. If you don’t find it in your supermarket, look for it in natural-foods stores and Middle Eastern groceries. Sometimes bulgur is incorrectly labeled as cracked wheat. The two look alike and are sometimes interchangeable in recipes, but cracked wheat isn’t precooked, and it needs about 15 minutes of simmering to get tender.
No soaking is necessary since bulgur is already cooked. To reconstitute it, put the bulgur in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling salted water over it, using 1 part bulgur to 1 to 2 parts water. The bulgur should absorb the liquid and fluff up in 15 to 60 minutes, depending on the coarseness of the grind (finer grinds take less time). If there’s excess water once the bulgur is tender, drain it. Let the grains rest for 10 or 20 minutes to help them dry out and separate and then fluff with a fork.
Recipe: Bulgur & Chickpea Salad with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Feta & Mint