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Enjoying Grains

As versatile as pasta, grains bring nutty flavor and great texture to salads, pilafs, soups, and risotto

Fine Cooking Issue 50
Photos: Mark Thomas
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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. 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.

Buying tips
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.

Cooking basics
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.

Buying tips
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.

Cooking basics
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


Consisting of whole kernels of the wheat plant, minus the hull, wheatberries have a nutty flavor and resilient texture that many people adore. Cooked wheatberries also add substance and texture to soups, stews, and even salads.

Buying tips
Ranging from tan to reddish brown, wheatberries are either hard or soft. You’ll most likely find hard wheatberries (in natural-foods stores and some specialty markets and supermarkets), but often they’re not labeled either way. The two forms are interchangeable in recipes, but soft wheatberries cook much faster, so be sure to start checking for doneness early.

Cooking basics
To intensify their nutty flavor, you can toast dry wheatberries in a skillet for about 5 minutes. Soak the grains (toasted or not) in water for a few hours or overnight to shorten their lengthy cooking time. To cook, use 1 part wheatberries to about 6 parts liquid. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender but still a bit chewy. Cooking time for soaked wheatberries ranges from 25 to 50 minutes; unsoaked, they’ll need 50 to 90 minutes. They’ll split and turn mushy if overcooked, so start testing early. Cooked and drained wheatberries will hold for several days in the refrigerator. They can also be frozen for a few months; to thaw, run hot tap water over them in a colander and drain very well.

Recipe: Wheatberries with Fragrant Spices, Currants & Almonds


Farro is an ancient variety of wheat cultivated in Italy that has recently caught the attention of cooks in the United States. It has a nutty flavor and a firm, chewy texture that resembles barley more than wheat. Italians put farro in soups, salads, and stuffings. My family’s favorite way to eat it is simple: heat 1-1/2 cups fresh corn kernels and 3 to 4 cups cooked farro in water or broth until the corn is al dente and the farro is hot. Drain; stir in butter and salt.

Buying tips
Don’t confuse whole-grain farro with the cracked form, which looks like bulgur, has a very different texture, and cooks much faster.

Cooking basics
Many farro recipes say to soak it for 2 hours to shorten the cooking time, but I find it unnecessary. Simmer 1 part whole-grain farro in about 5 parts slated water until it’s pleasantly toothy and chewy but no longer hard and then drain any excess water. Unsoaked, it cooks in 15 to 30 minutes. Cooked farro will keep in the refrigerator for five days; reheat it in broth or water.

Recipe: Rustic Bean & Farro Soup


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