Basics for a Plant-Based Diet: Get to Know Your Grains
Are you new to a plant-based diet? Or maybe just looking for some new plant-based recipe ideas? Let’s get to know our grains!
Whole grains can add depth and texture to create super yummy plant-based recipes. See our separate chart for cook times. You may find that changing up the grains can add a whole new flavor to some of your favorite recipes!
List of grains in alphabetical order:
Amaranth is not actually a grain: it’s a seed from an annual plant! It’s very versatile and can be cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, popped like popcorn, sprouted, or toasted. Amaranth contains no gluten, so it is an excellent option for people following a gluten-free diet. Amaranth’s texture is a bit different than some of the other grains you may be used to. It is somewhat “sticky” and malt-like: be careful not to overcook it or it might become really one big Amaranth clump. According to Alex Jamieson, author of The Great American Detox Diet and Vegan Cooking for Dummies, “Cup for cup, amaranth is higher in protein and calcium than milk, which makes it a great food for pregnant and breastfeeding moms. Used as a chi tonic, Amaranth is gluten-free and a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, and iron, making it a great food for vegans. “
Note: although you can use amaranth flour to make baked goods, you can’t use it as a 1:1 substitution for traditional wheat flours. Since amaranth flour contains no gluten, you’ll need to mix it with other flours or binders.
Barley has a nutty flavor and a satisfying chewy texture. It is very high in soluable fiber and is beneficial for the “friendly” bacteria in the large intestine. It does contain gluten and should be avoided by anyone following a gluten-free diet. Barley contains eight of the nine essential amino acids and new studies discuss that eating whole barley may help regulate blood sugar.
Buckwheat isn’t actually wheat at all! Buckwheat is actually a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel. Buckwheat has an earthy, nutty flavor. It is a gluten-free and can be a good option for people who are sensitive to wheat or following a gluten-free diet. The World’s Healthiest Foods has some great information about buckwheat and its ability to help stabilize blood sugar.
Kamut is an ancient grain that was originally cultivated thousands of years ago in Egypt. It’s actually a brand name now, (Kamut® Brand khorasan wheat), for an ancient wheat that has avoided the genetic modifications of our modern wheat. Kamut berries are about twice as large as traditional wheat berries and they have a richer, nuttier flavor. Kamut also has about 40% more protein then traditional wheat. Kamut does contain gluten, so it is not suitable for people following a gluten-free diet. However, some people who have a wheat sensitivity can tolerate Kamut much better than traditional wheat.
Note: see our previous article written about Kamut.
Millet is another ancient grain. It has been used as a staple in Africa and India for thousands of years. Millet has a sweet flavor and is packed with protein. Millet is gluten-free, so it’s a great option for people following vegan gluten-free diet. Cooked millet is a nice grain to mix in with other cooked grains to add a subtle sweetness to the overall flavor dimension. Alex Jamieson shared, “Millet is high in protein and iron, gluten-free and very easy to digest. Rich in B vitamins and phosphorus, millet can be made light and fluffy or dense and smooth depending on how much cooking liquid is used.”
1 cup millet to 2 ¼ cups liquid = light, fluffy, pilaf
1 cup millet to 3 cups liquid = polenta texture
Oats are most commonly eaten in oatmeal or breakfast cereals. However, today non-dairy milks are made from oats as well! One of the advantages of whole grain oats is that they are a good source of soluble fiber. Whole grain oats also have a low glycemic index, which means that blood sugar levels will remain more stable during the digestion process. Although oats do not contain gluten, they were historically not recommended to celiac patients because of cross-contamination issues. For more information about this topic, visit this article about Celiac disease and oats.
Quinoa is an ancient grain from South America. Quinoa is one of the only grains that contains all nine of the essential amino acids, which makes it a complete protein. It has a fluffy, creamy, nutty texture and is a good source of fiber and iron. Quinoa is an extremely versatile grain and can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. Quinoa was a staple of the ancient Incas in Bolivia and Peru. Note: the demand in developed countries for Quinoa is making the price so high that the locals in Bolivia can no longer afford to buy it. Check for fair trade certified grains from companies like Alter Eco who offer fair trade certified Quinoa to make sure that the Quinoa farmers in South America are fairly compensated.
Rice is known as the great balancer. It is easily digestible, gluten-free and easily tolerated by most people. It is a complex carbohydrate and brown rice is fiber-rich. Brown rice contains very little fat, no cholesterol and 2.5g of protein per ½ cup of cooked rice. According to Alex Jamieson, “Whole brown rice is the highest of all grains in B vitamins, but a little lower in protein than others. Short-grain brown rice has less protein than long-grain, but has more minerals. Rice has been used as a blood tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is used to calm the nervous system and nurture the stomach. Sweet, or glutinous rice, is more easily digested than regular rice and is great for making congee, a rice porridge, for the sick.”
Note: The World’s Healthiest Foods shares some disturbing nutrition information about brown vs white rice. “The process that produces brown rice removes only the outermost layer, the hull, of the rice kernel and is the least damaging to its nutritional value. The complete milling and polishing that converts brown rice into white rice destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of the vitamin B6, half of the manganese, half of the phosphorus, 60% of the iron, and all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids. Fully milled and polished white rice is required to be “enriched” with vitamins B1, B3 and iron.”
Spelt is an ancient variety of wheat. Spelt has a rich nutty flavor and can be milled for flour and pasta or and cooked to eat as a whole grain. It still contains gluten and is not a suitable grain for anyone following a gluten-free diet. Interestingly though, since Spelt did not go through the same hybridizing process as modern wheat, it seems to be an option and is tolerated by people who have a wheat sensitivity, rather than an actual gluten intolerance.
Wheatberry refers to the entire kernel of wheat (except for the hull). Cooked wheatberries can add a nice chewy texture to a dish and are a good source of fiber. Wheatberries do contain gluten and they are not suitable for anyone following a gluten-free diet.
These cooked grains can be combined to add a variety of flavors and textures to your dish. Cook a bunch on the weekend and you’ll have extra for 5-minute meals during the week!