Cereal gets its name from Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and grain crops like wheat. Wild-harvested wheat has been a food source for people since prehistoric times and domestic cultivation of wheat began more than 10,000 years ago.
Wheat is a grass whose edible grains are one-seeded dry fruits that don’t open. The wheat genus Triticum offers many whole grains, sometimes called berries when in the form of whole, unprocessed kernels. Varieties include einkorn, spelt, wheat berries, kamut, emmer (called farro in Italy) and triticale, a wheat and rye hybrid.
In the Kitchen: Grain berries are a good substitute for rice in recipes and add flavor and a springy texture to salads, baked goods such as bread and muffins, soups, chilis or stews. For most dishes, it’s best to pre-cook these whole grains since they can take more than 45 minutes to cook, even with pre-soaking.
To decrease cooking time, some grain berries are processed through a pearling machine to remove all or part of the fibrous bran. Pearled or semi-pearled grains are no longer whole grains and result in a softer, sometimes soggy cooked texture due to moisture absorption. In addition, this process removes minerals, vitamins and flavorful phenolics from the grains.
If a package does not stipulate pearling, take hints from cooking times: 45 to 75 minutes indicates whole grain or not-pearled, fewer than 30 minutes suggests semi-pearled and 15 minutes or fewer indicates pearled grains.
There are four main cooking methods for grain berries:
- Pasta method: Add grains to salted, boiling water or stock and cook until tender before draining.
- Rice method: Cover grains with water or stock, per package instructions, and bring to boil. Cover pot, reduce heat and simmer until liquid is absorbed and grains are tender.
- Pilaf: Briefly toast dry grains or sauté with olive oil. Add aromatics such as minced onion and garlic, then follow the rice method above.
- Pressure cooker/multicooker: Follow device directions.
The pasta method creates an al dente texture that is desirable for contrast in vegetable bowls, casseroles, stuffed peppers, breads and dishes with sautéed greens and legumes. The pilaf method enhances natural flavors in grains and creates the base for aromatic side dishes, grain bowls and risotto-style meals such as “farrotto” with farro grains. For this application, do not pre-soak grains; unlike short-grain risotto rice, the low starch content of grain berries limits creaminess. If grains are soaked or precooked, refrigerate them to reduce the risk of sprouting and mold.
In Quantity: The fat content in grain berries makes them vulnerable to rancidity when exposed to heat, air or light. Store uncooked whole grains in a cool, dry place in an airtight container for up to six months or freeze for up to a year.
For grain berries, 1 cup dry typically yields 2 cups cooked. Some varieties of grains are available for foodservice pre-cooked in bulk quantities. If cooking in large batches, follow proper fast-cooling processes for grain products and store for up to four days in the refrigerator or frozen for three to six months.
Organic grain berries are available, but non-GMO labels are redundant since no genetically modified wheat varieties are grown commercially in the United States at this time. Labels also may incorrectly identify spelt as farro, which is a different wheat species (emmer) and has a much longer cooking time. Spelt also is a larger and chewier berry than farro, and farro is more likely to be pearled than spelt.
In the Clinic: Most Americans fail to meet the daily recommendation for consumption of whole grains. Whole-grain berries vary in nutrient composition but share many similarities and contribute to the reduction of nutrient inadequacies and shortfalls of dietary fiber, folate, magnesium, calcium and iron.
A ½ cup serving of cooked spelt, for example, is considered a 1-ounce equivalent of grains and provides approximately 5 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and 123 calories. Every part of a whole grain offers B vitamins and minerals; the bran provides fiber, lignans and flavorful phytonutrients; the healthy fat-infused germ contributes vitamin E and antioxidants; and the bulky, starchy endosperm provides protein and other nutrients.
Ongoing research, including a large meta-analysis, continues to associate consumption of whole grains with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Although some Triticum genus of wheat contain lower levels of gluten, they should be avoided by people with celiac disease.
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Grain Berries: Kernels of Nutrition | Food & Nutrition Magazine is written by Michele Redmond for foodandnutrition.org