Wide selections of whole grains, such as wheat berries, spelt, and kamut, are becoming more common at supermarkets and online—and that’s great news for cooks. Whole grains, or grains that have been minimally processed and still contain their bran and germ, are a livelier (and more nutritious) alternative to rice or pasta, lending a satisfying chew and earthy, nutty depth to casseroles, soups, and sides. Keep a stash of them on hand and you’ll have a wholesome base for countless dishes, from spelt salad with pickled fennel, pea greens, and mint to warm kamut with carrots and pomegranite. I selected nine varieties of hearty grains and got to work to find a simple cooking method that would suit them all.
Whole-grain cookery typically falls into two categories: the pilaf method and the pasta method. The former calls for simmering a measured amount of grains in a specific amount of water in a covered pot until the water is absorbed and the grains are tender; the latter involves boiling the grains in an abundance of water that is later drained off.
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I quickly discovered that the pilaf method was frustratingly inconsistent: It worked well for shorter‑cooking choices such as einkorn, but longer-cooking grains such as triticale turned out uneven. Because the kernels soaked up most of the liquid early in the cooking process, only those that fully hydrated at the start softened completely, while those that didn’t initially absorb enough liquid remained firm.
The pasta method offered significant improvements. With a full 2 quarts of boiling salted water in the pot, the liquid could penetrate the grains evenly from all sides, softening them uniformly. Plus, since the large volume of water allowed the grains to absorb water more readily than the small amount of water used in the pilaf method, these grains cooked faster. And for even speedier results, a pressure cooker is the way to go: Using one reduced the cooking times by at least 50 percent.
One more thing: If you have the time (and the forethought), it’s a good idea to soak the raw kernels overnight. In addition to speeding up the cooking time, this step helps prevent blowouts. A bag of grains is likely to contain kernels with different moisture levels, and soaking equalizes the amount of liquid in each grain, so they stay intact during cooking.
Guide to Whole-Grain Cookery
This chart contains all you need to know to cook some of our favorite hearty whole grains. The grains featured here are largely interchangeable—while we’ve provided recommendations in the recipes here, feel free to swap in whichever grain you have on hand. The recipes can be scaled up by increasing the amounts proportionally. The cooking times will remain the same.
*Note that pressure cooking is not recommended for einkorn and soaked emmer, as they cook too quickly.
Rinse and drain grains before cooking. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in large saucepan. Stir in 1 cup grains and 2 teaspoons table salt. Return to boil; reduce heat; and gently boil until tender, following times given. Drain well. Spread on rimmed baking sheet and let cool for at least 15 minutes before using.
Rinse and drain grains before cooking. Combine 1 cup grains with 1 quart water, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (this helps prevent foaming), and 1 teaspoon table salt. Bring to high pressure over high heat. (If using a multicooker, select high pressure-cook function.) Reduce heat to maintain high pressure and cook following the times given. Remove from heat and allow pressure to drop naturally, about 10 minutes. Check for doneness. If grains are still firm, return to simmer and cook until tender. Drain well. Spread on rimmed baking sheet and let cool for at least 15 minutes before using.
Store raw grains in the freezer. Cooked grains can be refrigerated for up to two days or frozen for up to three months.
SOAKING (optional, reduces cooking time):
Cover the grains with water and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours.