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What Are Grains?
Cereal grains, or true grains, are members of the Poaceae family, which includes barley, corn, oats, rice, and wheat, but other foods with similar uses and nutritional profiles are often considered grains by the Whole Grains Council and chefs, so we’ve included them here as well.
Grains consist of three important parts:
- The bran (the outermost layer), which contains fiber and B vitamins.
- The germ (aka the embryo), which contains oils, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- The endosperm (located above the germ), which contains carbohydrates and protein.
What's the Difference Between Whole Grains and Refined Grains?
Grain foods are typically categorized either as whole or refined.
- Whole grains are grains that have been minimally processed to still contain the bran, germ, and endosperm, whereas refined grains only contain the endosperm. The endosperm makes up about 85 percent of a wheat grain, meaning that just 15 percent of the grain contains all of its fiber and most of its nutrients.
- Refined grains can come from the same plant as whole grains, they’re just missing the germ, bran, and all the nutrients that go along with them. They have a longer shelf life than whole grains, since the oily germ tends to become rancid when exposed to light and heat.
How Many Grains Should We Consume in a Day?
The USDA recommends adults consume six to eight ounces of grains per day, at least half of which should be whole grains, for a healthy diet. The vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants whole grains offer have many potential health benefits. For example, replacing refined grains with potassium-rich whole grains may help lower blood pressure. The dietary fiber in whole grains slows digestion, which makes them low on the glycemic index. High-glycemic-index foods (like refined grains) can be digested very quickly, causing sharp spikes in blood sugar that can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
19 Whole Grains and How to Cook With Them
Whole grains contain the bran (outermost layer), which contains fiber and B vitamins; the germ (interior), which contains oils, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and antioxidants; and the endosperm (interior), which contains carbohydrates and protein.
- Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) was a staple crop for the Aztecs, now popular in gluten-free baking. Not a “true” grain (because it doesn’t belong to the Poaceae family), amaranth is safe for those with celiac disease. It’s also a complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids, including lysine, which is missing from most grains. Tiny amaranth kernels look kind of like couscous, and have a peppery taste. They’re about 14 percent protein and delicious in gluten-free amaranth muffins and puffed amaranth granola bars.
- Barley (Hordeum vulgare) was first domesticated around 8,000 BCE. While high in carbohydrates, barley is low in gluten, so it’s used to make flatbreads and porridge. Commonly available pearled barley is missing its bran and not technically a whole grain. Look for “whole barley” or “hulled barley” for the most nutrition. Whole barley’s nutty flavor makes a great addition to soups and stews.
- Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). A pseudo-cereal (not part of the Poaceae family), buckwheat is actually a fruit related to rhubarb and harvested for its tiny triangular seeds. Ground into flour, buckwheat is made into crêpes, soba noodles, and pierogi, while whole groats (called kasha in Russia) are eaten as a side dish. Buckwheat is unique for being the only grain with high levels of the antioxidant rutin. The nutty, bitter flavor of whole grain buckwheat flour is delicious in chocolate chip cookies and gluten-free pastries.
- Bulgur (Triticum) consists of the precooked, dried, and ground kernels (groats) of durum or other types of wheat. Quick-cooking, fiber-rich (18 grams of fiber per cup) bulgur is the main ingredient in tabbouleh salad and kibbeh meat patties.
- Corn (Zea mays) has an especially high content of oily germ, which makes whole-grain corn prone to rancidity, so why most cornmeal on the market is degermed. Make sure your cornmeal is labeled “whole corn” or “whole grain” (stone ground cornmeal is often whole grain, but not always) to get the most nutrients, and store that highly perishable cornmeal in the fridge or freezer. You can use antioxidant-packed whole grain cornmeal for grits, polenta, cornmeal pancakes, or cornbread. Try substituting whole grain cornmeal for the refined version in Chef Thomas Keller’s Creamy Polenta with Mushroom Conserva.
- Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) is German for “one kernel.” In Italy, its known as farro piccolo (small farro). Likely the first type of wheat to be cultivated by humans, einkorn is higher in nutrients than modern wheat. “Pearled” means it’s not whole grain. Use whole einkorn in farro recipes, or try whole grain einkorn flour in bread.
- Farro (Triticum turgidum dicoccum), aka farro medio or emmer, the nutty, hearty grain that’s packed with protein and fiber—first became popular in the United States via Italy, where it’s the star of Tuscan classics like farrotto and zuppa di farro. These days, farro is prized for the fact that it retains its al dente texture long after cooking, making it the perfect base for all kinds of grain bowls. Whole-grain farro, aka whole berry farro, pops a little when chewed, like wild rice or wheat berries. This high-protein farro requires overnight soaking before cooking. Semi-pearled farro (semi perlato) splits the difference: it cooks faster than whole-grain farro but contains more nutrients than pearled farro. It’s also packed with more protein and dietary fiber than brown rice, pasta, and couscous; a good source of magnesium (which supports bone health and the immune system); zinc (also good for the immune system); and vitamin B3 (which helps convert food into energy). When combined with legumes, farro forms a complete protein, making it a great option for vegans and vegetarians. Farro contains less gluten than other types of wheat so may be suitable for gluten sensitivity, but is not safe for those with celiac disease. Because it won’t ever get mushy, you can make a farro salad (such as Wolfgang Puck’s Roasted Carrots with Farro Salad) ahead of time and allow it to absorb the flavors of your vinaigrette.
- Freekeh (Triticum turgidum var. durum) is simply hard durum wheat harvested when immature and green, then roasted for flavor and often sold cracked for a quicker cooking time. Freekeh is popular in the Middle East for grain salads, porridge, and pilaf.
- Khorasan (triticum turgidum turanicum), commonly known by the trademarked name Kamut, is an ancient variety of wheat with a nutty, rich flavor and more protein and vitamin E than common wheat. Its high protein content makes kamut flour useful in bread- and pasta-making. Larger than wheat berries, khorasan can be puffed to make breakfast cereal.
- Millet is a name used for several related grains cultivated by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that's currently a staple grain in India, where it’s ground into flour to make roti. Millet can be yellow, white, red, or gray and is especially delicious if toasted before cooking. Try tiny millet grains in a porridge or fritters.
- Oats (Avena sativa) are one of the few common grains almost always sold whole. Old-fashioned, or rolled oats are steamed and flattened, whereas steel-cut oats consist of the entire grain kernel, cracked for faster cooking. They’re the best whole grain for lowering blood cholesterol levels, and a good source of protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B1, and niacin. Use oats in scotch eggs, granola, and—of course—oatmeal.
- Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is an ancient grain in the amaranth family (not a true cereal). Pronounced keen-wah, it has roots in the Peruvian Andes going back over 5,000 years, and hundreds of different cultivated varieties to its name. Quinoa is a complete protein, high in fiber (12 grams of fiber per cup) and minerals like iron and magnesium. Try nutty-flavored quinoa in stuffed bell peppers, quinoa grain bowls, quinoa breakfast porridge.
- Brown Rice (Oryza sativa) gets its color from the bran coating surrounding the kernels. After rice is harvested, the bran and germ layers are either left intact or removed, yielding brown or white rice, respectively. Pretty much every variety of rice can be available as brown rice, including basmati, jasmine, short-, medium-, and long-grain. The bran coating gives brown rice a nuttier taste and chewy texture. Brown rice has three times the fiber of white rice, and is rich in protein, potassium, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron, selenium, and manganese, which are all important for bone growth and energy. Try brown rice with a vegetable stir-fry, in kimchi fried rice, and in grain bowls.
- Rye (Secale cereale) is peculiar in that both the endosperm and bran are high in fiber, giving it a lower glycemic index than wheat. Cultivated for 2,000 years, rye is popular in bread-making because of its high gluten content. Look for “whole rye” or “rye berries” to make sure you’re getting protein, potassium, and B vitamins, in addition to the carbohydrates and fiber. Try whole rye flour in bread or chocolate rye cookies.
- Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), aka milo, is smaller than corn but similar in looks, and even can be popped like corn, to make Indian jowar dhani. Although it’s a true grain in the Poaceae family, sorghum, which probably originated in Africa, is gluten free. It's often ground into meal for porridge or baked goods.
- Spelt (Triticum aestivum spelta), aka farro grande, has been grown in what is now southern Germany since 4,000 BCE. Copper-color spelt was the most popular type of wheat until industrialization. Look for “whole spelt” to make sure you’re getting the whole grain, and use anywhere you would farro, such as in grain salads or stirred into a soup. High-protein spelt flour can also be made into pizza dough or bread.
- Teﬀ (Eragrostis tef) is a type of millet that’s a staple grain in its native Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it was probably domesticated 6,000 years ago. Today, teff is fermented and cooked into injera, a spongy, crêpe-like bread. Gluten-free teff grains are very small, molasses-like in flavor, and high in iron and calcium. They’re almost always whole grain, since teff is too small to be easily milled.
- Wheat (Triticum) comes in thousands of varieties, the most common of which are durum wheat (Triticum durum), usually ground into semolina for pasta and couscous; common wheat (Triticum aestivum), which accounts for 80 percent of worldwide production and is used to make bread; and club wheat (Triticum compactum), which is used in pastry. Different types of wheat can be classified as “hard” (more protein) or soft, red (more tannins) or white, winter (sown in fall) or spring (sown in spring), but to get the most nutrition, look for “whole wheat.” Whole kernels of wheat (aka wheat berries) have a crunchy brown outer husk that pops when chewed, giving way to a chewy center, and are also sold as cracked wheat or wheat flakes. High in gluten, wheat flour is considered the very best flour for baking bread. Most commercial whole-wheat flours are made by adding the germ and bran back into the refined white flour. Wheat germ is high in folic acid, an important prenatal vitamin. Use whole wheat flour to make sourdough bread, or try the whole kernels in a wheat berry salad.
- Wild Rice (Zizania) is the seed of a marsh grass native to North America, long cultivated by Native Americans. Wild rice contains more protein and fiber, but less iron and calcium, than brown rice, to which it is not related. The genus Zizania includes four different species, three of which are native to North America. The third (Zizania latifolia) is native to Asia and cultivated as a vegetable, not a grain. Try it in a wild rice salad with green onions, cranberries, and pecans.
3 Refined Grains and How to Cook With Them
Refined grains have had their bran and germ removed and are reduced simply to the endosperm. Refined grains contain less nutrients than whole grains and have less fiber. Most of the whole grains listed above can be refined, but some of the most commonly refined are:
- Wheat (Triticum) of all varieties can be refined into white flour, but the most popular is common wheat (Triticum aestivum), which is ideal for baking bread. It’s the main component of flour tortillas, used in burritos and fajitas, and French pastries such as croissants. Use refined all-purpose flour to make Perfect Potato Gnocchi.
- Corn (Zea mays) as a grain is most often sold refined: degermed and ground into cornmeal. You’ll find refined cornmeal and its products—grits, cornbread, polenta, corn tortillas, masa, and more—in grocery stores way more often than the whole-grain stuff. Refined polenta will cook much quicker in Chef Thomas Keller’s Creamy Polenta with Mushroom Conserva.
- White rice (Oryza sativa) is any type of rice that has had the germ and bran removed, including jasmine, basmati, sticky rice, short-, medium-, and long-grain rice, and their products, including the rice noodles in pad thai and the rice wrappers used for dumplings and spring rolls. Use white rice to make Cheesy Herbed Basmati Rice.