Cooking with ancient grains
Ancient grains are nutrient-dense, high in fibre and linked to health benefits like decreased cholesterol and lower risk of stroke. Discover some of our favourite ancient grains like farro, spelt, millet, bulgar and teff and how to prepare and cook them.
Grown as they were many thousands of years ago, ancient grains pack a nutritious punch while being readily available on supermarket shelves and in wholefoods stores for keen foodies to embrace and enjoy in everyday cooking. More modern and common grains such as wheat, maize and rice which, over time, have undergone significant refinement, hybridisation and genetic modification can still of course be of benefit in the diet; however, as they deviate more from their original and natural state, so too can their nutrition.
Ancient grains such as amaranth, millet, einkorn, sorghum, freekeh, teff, spelt, bulgar, rye, farro, wheat berries, wild rice and kamut, however, remain largely unchanged or unrefined, offering unique properties in nutrition and diversity in flavour to meals too. If you’re keen to experience and connect with new ingredients that hold a beautiful connection to the past, ancient grains are your go-to.
Farro originated in the Mediterranean, has a mild nutty flavour, chewy texture quite similar to a brown rice. It boasts rich sources of protein, fibre, magnesium and iron. Farro is a variety of wheat, and does contain gluten; however, the gluten component is shown to be far less than that of modern, refined wheat and potentially better tolerated by those with a mild wheat or gluten intolerance. It is not however, appropriate for coeliacs.
Embrace the grain
Use farro whole rather than milled into a flour. Two options of farro are often available: pearled and semi-pearled. Aim to purchase and cook with semi-pearled farro as it contains more of the outer bran and is thus a denser source of nutrients.
3 ways with farro
- Swap arborio or brown rice for farro in your next risotto dish, a beautiful nutty flavour to team with the creaminess of parmesan and vegetables.
- Sauté cooked farro with leftover roasted vegetables as a breakfast hash, topped with an egg and a dollop of pesto.
- Enjoy cooked farro among a wholesome mix of vegetables and beans in your next batch of minestrone soup.
Spelt has a mild, very similar flavour to traditional wheat, making it an easy swap for wheat-based dishes such as bread, pancakes, pastry and pasta.
Spelt also holds a similar nutrition profile to common wheat and therefore contains gluten; however, as with many of its ancient grain siblings, spelt is richer in some nutrients, including zinc and protein. A higher zinc content in what can very easily become an everyday grain is beneficial for supporting immune system function and wound healing and for the synthesis of proteins and DNA; also, zinc is required in higher quantities during stages of life such as pregnancy, infancy and early childhood. A great way to get more nutrients such as zinc into kids is with spelt. Slice of spelt sourdough anyone?
Embrace the grain
Try whole spelt grain, rolled spelt and spelt flour. Whole and rolled spelt grain has quite a tough texture and is best soaked overnight (fermented) or sprouted to ease digestion. Spelt flour can be found both in wholemeal and plain variations, with a remarkable difference in colour. Aim where possible for the wholemeal spelt flour to maintain higher levels of nutrients from the whole grain.
3 ways with spelt
- Swap rolled oats for rolled spelt in your next muesli or porridge topped with fresh berries and seeds. Rolled spelt does take longer to cook so be sure to soak it in advance for a faster cooking experience.
- Include spelt as part of a wholesome flour blend with wholemeal and brown rice to boost nutrition in your baking. Test the blend on an old favourite like banana bread or muffins first, and you’ll soon see there’ll be no looking back at plain white flour!
- Supercharge weekend breakfasts with plant-based spelt hotcakes topped with maple and strawberries or any fruits in season.
Millet has a creamy, mild flavour (not overbearing like quinoa or buckwheat) in cooking. While millet is not currently a frequent feature on the bigger supermarket shelves, it is beginning to gain significant popularity in Western countries due to millet being a gluten-free grain, popular and convenient for both coeliacs and gluten-free diet devotees. Millet is commonly consumed throughout Africa and Asia and has been a staple grain in these regions for centuries. Millet packs its nutrition into the grain with magnesium and calcium to boot. Just one cup (100g) of cooked millet grain delivers 20 per cent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of magnesium and 13 per cent of the RDI of calcium. Magnesium is essential for hundreds of biochemical pathways in the body; it supports muscle contraction and relaxation and thus plays an important role in exercise and athletic performance; it can help with blood glucose regulation, reducing demands on insulin and nutritionally is indicated in type-2 diabetes and gestational diabetes mellitus (during pregnancy); and, among many other incredible supportive factors, magnesium has powerful cardiovascular benefits, with studies showing that higher magnesium intake can help reduce blood pressure levels.
Embrace the grain
Try puffed millet, millet flour, flakes and whole millet grain. Puffed millet is readily found in wholefoods bulk stores and packaged to throw into granolas or home-made cereals. The whole millet grain is great for building out salads and warm dishes. As with all grains, aim for the whole grain, and preferably rinse and soak before cooking for optimal results. Millet flour is a wonderful option to keep in the cupboard and combine with other gluten-free flours for wraps, pancakes and baking.
3 ways with millet
- Fill wraps made with millet and buckwheat flour with your favourite ingredients for a healthy lunch option, or alternatively use them as an easy roti-style bread with an Indian meal.
- Incorporate puffed millet into a healthier variation of granola with quinoa, buckwheat, oats, olive oil, maple, cinnamon and dried fruits.
- Add as a delicious inclusion to a crust with almond meal and herbs for fish, chicken, (no) meatballs or falafel.
Bulgar has most commonly been used throughout history in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking and has a delicious nutty flavour. Bulgar’s nutritional profile is similar to modern wheat but with a richer source of nutrients due to minimal processing of the grain. This is especially the case for dietary fibre, with 1 cup of cooked bulgar wheat contributing 8.2g fibre, a whopping 33 per cent of the RDI for adults. The majority of Australians aren’t meeting the RDI for dietary fibre through their diet, so understanding where the big hitters are, such as bulgar, is a simple but powerful way to up your fibre intake with ease. While most associate healthy fibre intake with bowel motions and digestive health, remember that a fibre-fuelled diet will benefit cardiovascular health by lowering and maintaining cholesterol levels while also feeding beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome which have a number of positive effects on health including reducing inflammation, incidence and risk of illness and chronic disease.
Embrace the grain
Enjoy the whole bulgar grain rinsed and soaked before tossing into salads, pilafs, puddings and porridge.
3 ways with bulgar
- Whip up a nourishing bulgar and greens with feta salad to serve for dinner one night and enjoy for lunch the next — a lovely flavour and more nutrient-dense alternative to couscous or pasta salad.
- Pop some spice in your rice, or in this case bulgar, with a delicious pilau/pilaf that can be enjoyed vegetarian with chickpeas, or for meat lovers with lamb or chicken.
- Pump up a Mexican chilli with cooked bulgar or make a meaty swap for plant-based meal with lentils, kidney beans and bulgar — a hearty meal any night of the week and great stored in the freezer for a quick go-to as well.
Teff is a tiny seed (although grouped as part of the grain and ancient grain family), historically eaten in Ethiopia, with a plethora of nutrition benefits. Teff has a rich, earthy, nutty flavour, is naturally gluten-free and is a wonderful substitute for rice, quinoa and barley. Lighter varieties of teff (such as ivory) are milder and sweeter in flavour.
Of all the ancient and whole grains, teff boasts rich sources of calcium, iron, protein and resistant starch. Just one serving of teff (1 cup of cooked teff grain) offers approximately 123mg of calcium, meeting 15 per cent of the RDI for calcium in adults (19- to 50-year-olds). We know calcium’s role in bone and teeth density, but calcium also plays an imperative role in muscle function (contraction and relaxation), blood clotting, heart function, nerve transmission, hormone secretion and intracellular signalling.
Embrace the grain
Enjoy ivory or brown varieties of teff in their whole form or milled to a flour. Teff grain is fast-cooking boiled on the stovetop, and is a great addition to a wholegrain porridge with oats and quinoa. Teff flour, while gluten-free, is best combined with other gluten-free flours for baking, as teff lacks the binding strength in baking of oat or rice flours. Traditional cooking in Ethiopia uses teff to make a fermented bread (much like a wrap) called injera.
3 ways with teff
- Try out some new baking ingredients with a teff fruit bread or teff pumpkin and date loaf. Warming flavours with richer sources of protein, calcium and iron from a traditional fruit bread.
- Got teff? Make tabbouleh, a simple yet still wonderfully nutritious alternative to freekeh or other tabbouleh grains. Use a combination of both ivory and brown teff grains and serve it up with a piece of citrus-glazed salmon for a divine meal with mates.
- Remake your idea of pizza with a teff flour pizza base. Combine teff flour with arrowroot and brown rice flour to produce a pizza with nutrition to boot.
Spelt Flour Pancakes
Makes 8–10 hotcakes to serve 3–4
Bulgar Greens & Feta Salad
Serves 4 as part of a shared meal
Millet Buckwheat Wraps
Makes 9–10 wraps
Cooking with ancient grains
Discover some of our favourite ancient grains from farro to spelt, millet, bulgar and teff and how to prepare and cook them.
- 200g bulgar, rinsed
- ½ cup shredded kale leaves
- ½ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
- ½ cup chopped fresh dill leaves
- 2 medium Lebanese cucumbers, diced
- 180g Greek feta, crumbled
- Sea salt & black pepper
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp honey
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add bulgar and cook for 10-15 mins or until tender. Drain and set aside to cool. Once cooled, combine with kale, mint, dill, cucumbers and feta and season with sea salt and black pepper.
- Whisk together ingredients for dressing in a small bowl.
- Pour dressing over salad ingredients, toss and serve.