Whole Grains 101: Breaking Down the Health Benefits

Healthy Eating Thursday, September 12, 2013 Written by

Have you ever wandered through the bulk-foods section in your grocery store and seen bins of odd-sounding grains only to think, “I have no idea what to do with those!” Well, fear not. Here’s a quick rundown on whole grains, tips for buying and cooking grains at home, plus a few recipe ideas to incorporate more whole grains into your diet.

Cooking Grains


Most whole grains can be purchased dry, either in bulk (at a natural food store) or in packages. Either way, cooking whole grains doesn’t have to be difficult. Here’s a foolproof way to cook any whole grain – with no measuring required!

  • Place a cup or so of grain into a medium saucepan with a pinch of salt and add enough water to cover the grain by several inches.
  • Bring water to a boil then turn heat down to low and simmer until the grain is tender.
  • Drain in a colander and use in a recipe.
  • If the water evaporates before the grains are cooked, simply add more water to the pot.

Cooked grains can be combined with chopped veggies and vinaigrette for a healthy salad, or simply served warm with a bit of butter or olive oil, and perhaps some toasted nuts, dried fruit, or chopped fresh herbs for a simple side dish.

Guide to Popular Grains

Ready to try this at home? You can start with one of these three commonly available grains:



While not technically a grain, quinoa is a relative of beets, chard and spinach. It was a staple crop for Incas in South America, and has recently grown in popularity, largely due to the fact that it is high in protein and gluten free. Quinoa comes in several different colors, including ivory, red and black.

Quinoa has a slightly nutty taste that complements many other ingredients and is fluffy and light when cooked, much like couscous. Try it in a Greek summer salad with cherry tomatoes, olives, basil and feta, or serve instead of rice as an accompaniment to meat, chicken or fish.

Recipe to try: Quinoa, Beet, Chevre and Arugula Salad


Farro is one of the ancient forms of wheat, along with einkorn and spelt. Also called “Emmer,” farro is the Italian name given to this grain, which has recently been making a comeback as a gourmet specialty. One of the largest producers of farro in the U.S. is Bluebird Grain Farms, located in the Methow Valley of Washington state.

Known for its slightly sweet, nutty taste and plump, chewy kernels, farro is excellent in salads, pilafs, soups or risottos. Its flavor goes well with hearty dishes such as roasted chicken, pork or duck, and also adds nice texture when added to soups or used in place of rice in risotto. For a nutritional powerhouse, add cooked farro to a salad of shredded kale, dried cherries, goat cheese and toasted walnuts.

Recipe to try: Farro Risotto with Butternut Squash, Rosemary and Pecans



Bulgur is not technically a grain, but rather cracked, par-boiled wheat. Popular in the Middle East, bulgur cooks in 10 minutes, making it a great weeknight staple. Health bonus: bulgur has more fiber then quinoa, millet, rice, buckwheat or oats!

The quick cooking time and versatility of bulgur make it a great replacement for rice in pilafs, or as the base for curries, stir-fries or grain salads. You can also follow its Middle Eastern origin, adding ground cumin, coriander, a pinch of cinnamon and some toasted almonds to cooked bulgur for an excellent side to roast chicken or grilled fish.

Recipe to try: End of Summer Tabbouleh with Cherry Tomatoes, Fennel and Mint