Choosing and cooking whole grains

Delicious, nutritious and economical, whole grains have nourished people for millennia and are part of most meals around the world.

Why choose whole grains?

Whole grains and seeds are excellent examples of healthful complex carbohydrates. Their bran, germ and endosperm are intact and not removed by a refining process, so all their natural vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein remain.

Refined grains so common in processed foods have had the bran and germ removed. Enriched or fortified products are not nutritionally equivalent to whole grains, since most of the natural nutrients and fiber are not replaced.

Numerous studies show that the more intact the grain or seed, the slower it metabolizes, and the better it is for maintaining stable blood sugar. Cooked whole grains also are wonderfully chewy and versatile.

Anatomy of a kernel of grain

Bran — The protective outer layer of the seed, containing most of the important fiber. Bran also provides iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and three B vitamins — niacin, thiamin and riboflavin.

Endosperm — Located beneath the bran, this is the largest portion of a seed. It’s the main source of carbohydrates and protein but also has small amounts of minerals and vitamins.

Germ — Inside the endosperm, the germ contains the most concentrated nutrients in a seed. Here are rich stores of niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, some protein and fat, and oil-rich vitamin E. These nutrients are vital — the fuel for growth during germination of the seed.

Cooking Basics

  • Wash all grains before cooking to remove residual dirt. Cover with cold water in a heavy-bottomed pot and drain, several times, until the water is clear. Alternatively, use a rice cooker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Bring grains and water (or broth or milk) to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover tightly. Don’t lift the lid to peek until you think it is done; it interferes with the steaming process.
  • Never stir grains while cooking. Stirring destroys the network of steam vents that develop and makes grains sticky and gluey.
  • If water remains after the grain is tender, simply drain it off. If the grain is too hard or dry, add a little water and cook a few minutes more.
  • For fluffy grains, lift gently and separate with a fork. For a firmer texture, let stand a few minutes after removing from heat, covered.


Store dry grains in a tight-lidded container away from heat and light. The following guidelines are for “optimum quality,” not maximum shelf life.

  • In the pantry, 6 months
  • In the refrigerator, 9 months
  • In the freezer, 9 to 12 months


  • Try combining various grains, such as brown and wild rice, or quinoa and millet; they blend beautifully. Cook separately for best results.
  • Cook in coconut or almond milk, and add slivered almonds or other chopped nuts, dried fruits such as currants or dates, pumpkin seeds, or a bit of butter.
  • Cook grains in advance and refrigerate for later use. Reheat on the stove with a sprinkle of water to steam gently.

Grain Cooking Chart

grain grain to liquid preparation characteristics
Cooking times and liquid amounts are approximate. Length of time stored since harvest can cause fluctuations in the time needed to cook a grain. Always check to see if done 5 minutes before the shortest specified cooking time, and be prepared to cook it longer than the longest specified time.
Amaranth 1 : 2 Simmer 25-30 minutes Sticky and slightly bitter. Try adding to soups. Best prepared as porridge. Gluten free.
Barley, hulled 1 : 4 Pre-soak 6-8 hours. Simmer 60 to 90 minutes. High fiber, with only the outer shell removed. Good in cold salads, soups and stew.
Barley, pearled 1 : 3 Simmer 40 minutes to 1 hour. If pre-soaked, cook 15 minutes. Bran is scrubbed off. Less chewy and cooks faster than hulled barley.
Buckwheat groats/kasha (raw or roasted) 1 : 2 Simmer 10 minutes, covered. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Not wheat, but a fruit seed with no gluten. Mix with a beaten egg in a skillet, simmer with chicken broth, onions and mushrooms. Gluten free.
Bulgur 1 : 1 1/2 Pour boiling water over and soak 30 to 40 minutes, no cooking needed. Whole wheat. Blend with garlic, mint, parsley, tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice for tabouli. Serve hot for dinner.
Farro (Emmer) 1 : 4 Pre-soak 6 to 8 hours. Simmer 45 to 60 minutes. Firm and chewy, slightly nutty. Good in cold salads, soups and stews.
Flakes: barley, kamut, rye or spelt 1 : 3 Add to boiling water, simmer 30 minutes. Combine with other grains for porridge or stir uncooked into muffin batters.
Millet 1 : 2 1/4 Simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Drain. The most alkaline of grains. Good with vegetables or stews. For porridge, cook in milk. Gluten free.
Oat groats 1 : 3 Simmer 50 to 60 minutes Heartier and more rustic than oatmeal.
Polenta (yellow corn grits) 1 : 4 1/2 Whisk into boiling liquid, stir constantly 5 to 10 minutes. Cover and let stand. Partly refined. Excellent with braised greens, roasted veggies, eggplant, tomatoes and cheese.
Quinoa (black, white or red 1 : 2 Rinse well, cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes. Fluff and serve. High in protein, light texture. Combines nicely with other cooked grains. Gluten-free.
Rice 1 : 2 Add to boiling water. Simmer, covered, 30 to 50 minutes. Fluff with fork. See our rice brochure for information on varieties and choosing the right rice for a recipe.
Rye, whole 1 : 4 Unsoaked, cooks in 90 minutes. Pre-soaked, 50 to 60 minutes. Chewy. Good mixed with rice or other grains. Try with onions and caraway seeds. High in protein.
Spelt, whole 1 : 2 1/2 Pre-soak 6 to 8 hours. Simmer 50 to 60 minutes. More protein than wheat. Combine with millet or barley for creative salads.
Teff 1 : 3 1/2 Simmer 15 to 20 minutes, covered. Makes a creamy, sticky porridge with a natural hint of molasses. Gluten-free, high in iron.
Wheat berries, whole 1 : 3 Pre-soak 6 to 8 hours. Simmer 50 to 60 minutes. Full-flavored. Makes sturdy side dish.
Wild rice 1 : 3 Simmer 45 to 70 minutes. Not a true rice, but the seed of a marshy grass. Low fat, high fiber and protein. Gluten free.