Our Guide to Healthy Whole Grains and Using Them for Dinner
Swap them for rice, add them to soups or salads, make a grain bowl for dinner—there are so many good-for-you options.
Cooking delicious, healthy dinners isn't hard when you're armed with a pantry of delicious whole grains. Whole grains like barley, farro, and wheat berries, are full of vitamins, protein, and fiber and lend a nutty taste and chewy texture to a variety of your old and soon-to-be favorite recipes. They are just about as easy to cook as a pot of rice and lend well to the big batch, make-ahead style of cooking. Read on to learn how to stock up on and cook hearty grains, then explore our creative ways to turn them into irresistible dinners.
Make Ahead and Batch Cooking
Grains are a perfect candidate for batch cooking. Make a big batch now and enjoy them over the course of a week or potentially even longer. Cooked and cooled grains keep in the refrigerator for up to five days or freezer for up to three months. Portion them in airtight containers or plastic bags and use them right from the refrigerator. For frozen grains, defrost first or toss the frozen grains into a hot skillet or simmering pot of soup to warm.
Cooking and Soaking
Most grains take around 20 minutes, but some, like rye and wheat berries, could take up to an hour. These heartier, longer-cooking grains offer a nice al dente chew and are worth the wait. When in doubt, follow package instructions for cooking whole grains or try our test kitchen's guides: millet, sorghum, barley, rye berries, bulgur, farro, and freekeh.
It is not necessary to soak grains, but it can shave off up to half the cooking time and it slowly tenderizes the grains from the outside in, making for creamier texture that is still al dente. All in all, the hardest part about soaking is getting into the routine of doing it. All that is required is placing the grains in a large nonreactive bowl and covering them with at least two inches of water. Then, you just leave them to soak overnight.
Think Beyond Grain Salads (Though You Should Make Those, Too)
Grain salads have become a category on their own, and some hits from our test kitchen include a Kale and Farro salad, a Roasted Sweet Potato and Farro Salad, and a Sorghum Salad with Carrots. While a recipe can be inspiring, it's also fun to come up with your own creation. Follow this basic formula: cooked grains + dressing + cooked or raw vegetables. From there it's a blank canvas—add herbs, spices, crunchy toppings like nuts or seeds, whatever you have on hand or dream up.
Grains are not just the star of the salad, they can also just be an ingredient. Throw just a handful into a green lettuce based salad or on top of roasted vegetables and treat them as a garnish or sprinkle. The little pop of grains adds a slight chew and a mild nutty note without dominating the other prominent flavors in the dish and can bulk up the salads to turn them from sides to mains. To prepare a next-level grain salad, we suggest doubling down on texture by flash frying the grains, as we do in our recipe for Crispy Grain Salad with Peas and Mint. You'll find that this step provides a little crunch and chew.
Like grain salads, grain bowls are also stand-alone meals, very versatile, and easy to dream up. To build a delicious grain bowl start with a bowl of grains, then arrange a selection of cooked or raw vegetables and protein such as meat or beans on top. Customize the bowl to whatever cuisine you are craving with the sauce. Looking for a place to start? Try tzatziki, hummus, roasted eggplant and tomato dip, our favorite vinaigrette, or one of our Healthy Grain Bowl recipes. Finish with a crunchy topping for an extra-delicious meal.
Side Dishes and Stuffing
Whole grains are an excellent addition to stuffing or a lovely side to complement both meat and plant-based mains. As a general rule, if a recipe has cooked rice in it or calls to be served with rice, you can easily swap in cooked whole grains. To take your grain sides to the next level, mix several types of grains together to make a beautiful whole grain pilaf or stuffing with different, flavors, shapes, and colors—this can be very appealing to the palate and eye. Try stuffing your mix into bell peppers, cabbage, rolls, or squash. For a start, try our recipe for stuffed acorn squash.
Alternative grain risottos are a delicious way to re-explore a classic Italian dish with a modern twist. The two best candidates for this not-your-usual risotto are barley and farro. They cook in just about the same amount of time and release enough starch for that creamy risotto texture. Another way to incorporate grains into the main dish is to stir cooked grains into soups, stews, or casseroles. They are a great swap for noodles in minestrone and an excellent addition to any brothy soup. Just remember to cook them first so they don't soak up all the tasty broth.