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Grain Salad Recipe: Create Your Own

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.


Grain Salad Master Recipe

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)


Pearled barley: 1-3/4 cups; cook 30 to 45 minutes Wheat berries: 2-1/4 cups; soak; cook 1 to 1-1/2 hours Basmati rice: 2-1/2 cups; cook 10 to 15 minutes
Semi-pearled farro: 3 cups; cook 30 to 35 minutes Brown rice: 2-1/2 cups; cook 20 to 25 minutes Spelt: 3 cups; soak; cook 45 to 60 minutes

Quinoa: 2 cups; cook 15 to 20 minutes

Medium-grind bulgur: 2-1/4 cups

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

Balsamic vinegar

Champagne vinegar

White wine vinegar

Plain rice vinegar

Sherry vinegar

Cider vinegar

Lemon juice

Lime juice

Grapefruit juice


Choose one or two flavor boosters (optional)


Pitted, chopped black or green olives: 1/2 cup

Honey: 2 to 3 tsp.

Asian sesame oil: 1 Tbs.

Roasted walnut oil: 1 to 2 Tbs.

Tahini: 2 to 3 Tbs.

Soy Sauce: 1 to 2 Tbs.

Capers or chopped caper berries: up to 1/4 cup

Minced jalapeño: up to 1 whole

Finely grated orange zest: 1 to 2 tsp.

Finely grated lemon zest: 1 to 2 tsp.

Finely grated lime zest: 1 to 2 tsp.

Finely grated grapefruit zest: 1 to 2 tsp.

Mustard: up to 1 Tbs.

Minced anchovies: 2 to 3

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.


Peaches: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice

Nectarines: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice

Mangos: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice

Avocado: peel, pit, and cut into medium dice

Seedless grapes: cut in half

Oil-packed artichoke hearts: cut into 1/2-inch wedges

Apples or pears: core and cut into medium dice or thin slices

Radicchio: shred


Golden beets: roast until tender, peel, cut into medium dice, or 1/4 -inch-thick rounds if small

Asparagus: steam or grill until crisp-tender, cut into 1-inch pieces

Fennel: trim and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Broccoli or cauliflower: cut into 1-inch florets, steam until crisp-tender

Carrots: cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices, steam until crisp-tender

Brussels sprouts: cut in quarters, steam until crisp-tender

Celery: cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices

Corn kernels: blanch if fresh, thaw if frozen

Cucumbers: peel, seed, and cut into medium dice

Grapefruit segments: cut into pieces if large

Orange segments: cut into pieces if large

Green beans: cut into 1-inch pieces, steam until crisp-tender

Red onion: cut into small dice

Scallions: thinly slice diagonally

Cherry tomatoes: cut in half

English peas: blanch if fresh, thaw if frozen

Red, green, or yellow bell peppers: cut into medium dice

Sugar snap peas: Cut diagonally in half, steam until crisp-tender

Radishes: Cut in half then thinly slice

Summer squash: cut into medium dice or 1/4-inch-thick half-rounds

Zucchini: cut into medium dice or 1/4-inch-thick half-rounds

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


Dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, chopped apricots or cherries, thinly sliced figs): up to 1/2 cup total

Cheese (crumbled feta, blue, or goat cheese, grated Parmigiano, diced Cheddar): up to 1 cup total

Toasted nuts and seeds (pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, chopped walnuts or almonds): up to 3/4 cup total

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)

Thinly sliced chives

Chopped dill

Chopped flat-leaf parsley

Chopped marjoram (1 Tbs. max)

Chopped basil

Chopped savory

Chopped oregano (1 Tbs. max)

Chopped mint

Chopped cilantro leaves and stems

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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