These days, grains are hugely popular because they’re not only delicious, but they’re very nutritious as well. My grandmother must have known instinctively that grains were long on the good stuff (B vitamins, fiber, minerals) and short on the bad stuff (low in fat, no cholesterol) because years ago, she was cooking grains of all kinds. We lived on a ranch in Colorado, and grains like whole wheat and barley were always in her pantry. And she knew how to use them, whether in satisfying soups or hearty casseroles.
Since I’ve followed my grandmother to the stove, I love using grains in many different ways—especially in salads. The subtle, earthy flavors of many grains make a perfect foil for all kinds of dressings and condiments—not to mention for the overflow from the summer vegetable garden. Grain salads hold up and travel well, making excellent picnic or party fare.
I like to take advantage of the wide variety of grains now available in the markets. While barley, wild rice, wheatberries, and hominy are still some of my favorite grains, I’ve started to cook with millet (a staple of Africa), rye berries, triticale (a nutritious cross of wheat and rye), dried sweet corn, and even amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat, which aren’t technically grains (defined as the “fruit” or berries of grasses), but we eat them in the same way.
With this huge variety of grains, it’s fun to experiment. Once you make a few grain salad recipes, you can begin substituting one grain for another or combining two (cooked separately) in one recipe. For instance, I sometimes like to use quinoa in place of the wheatberries in the Summer Wheatberry Salad, or I add cooked wild rice to the Lemon Rice Salad for color and flavor contrast. I’ve provided a chart of cooking times (see panel) and a list of sources for hard-to-find grains (at far right) so that you can experiment with different substitutions and combinations.
Tips for cooking grains for salads
The only real trick to using all these delicious grains in salads is learning to cook them properly.
Take care not to overcook grains. If you’re cooking grains to use in salads, it’s especially important not to overcook them or the salad will be mushy or uninteresting. You’re going to combine the grains with vinaigrettes and other moist ingredients, so they will continue to absorb moisture. I suggest that when you cook grains, you use the same approach that you use with cooking pasta. As you near the end of the estimated cooking time, keep tasting them to make sure they’re al dente (cooked through but with some pleasant texture left). When they get to that point, remove them from the stove and drain them if necessary.
Keep in mind that cooking times can vary widely according to how old the grains are and how they’ve been stored. It’s smart to buy your grains at a busy store that has quick turnover, but even then you might wind up with a particularly stubborn batch of grain that takes longer than usual to soften.
Let cooked grains cool completely before mixing them into salads. Warm grains can absorb too much of the salad’s vinaigrette or slightly wilt raw ingredients like peppers and onions, so you should cool the grains completely before using them. One way is to spread them out on a baking sheet or a jelly roll pan (in one layer, if possible); this allows steam to escape quickly so the grains won’t get cooked any further. I’ve included a few more cooling tips in the sidebar below.
- Toast grains first for more flavor. Toasting grains lightly, either dry or with a little fat in a sauté pan, intensifies their flavor and brings out their nuttiness.
- Cook grains in flavorful stocks. Instead of just cooking grains in water, add sautéed aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots, and celery, or cook the grains in vegetable or chicken stock. When seasoning grain salads, be bold with spices, herbs, and plenty of salt and pepper.
- Give large whole grains an overnight soak. Some grains, like wheatberries and wild rice, will cook in half the usual time if they’re soaked overnight or even for a few hours.
- Or try the “quick soak” method. If you don’t have time for a long soak, rinse the grains well and put them in a pan, cover with at least an inch of water, and bring to a boil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and let sit for an hour or so. Drain, add the cooking liquid, and cook.
- Store grains properly. The fats in grains turn rancid after a time. In warm or humid climates, store grains in airtight containers in the refrigerator or freezer to extend their shelf life. Label the grains with the date you buy them, and keep them no longer than a year.
- Cook and freeze grains. You’re much more likely to use grains if they’re already cooked. Most grains freeze well in airtight containers. I cook grains simply and in fairly large quantities so that I can freeze them and then defrost them quickly to make salads and other dishes.