9 Ancient Grains That Deserve a Spot on Your Plate

What Are Ancient Grains and How Should You Eat Them?

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Think back to your last few meals. Chances are there was some form of rice, oats, modern wheat, or perhaps another common grain on your plate. But what about teff, amaranth, or sorghum? These, along with several other cereals and seeds, are known as ancient grains—and each has a unique flavor and texture to add variety to your dish.

There’s actually no official definition for an ancient grain, but most in the food industry classify it as a grain which has remained largely unchanged over the years. In other words, the structure and composition of the grain is quite similar to when it was cultivated hundreds to thousands of years ago.

Up until now, ancient grains have maintained a low profile, but they’re working their way into mainstream popularity. These nine are some of the most popular.

Amaranth

Slightly nutty and sometimes described as a bit gritty, amaranth is technically an edible seed. Because its nutritional composition and uses are similar to traditional grains, it’s frequently categorized as such.

Amaranth was grown widely in Mexico during the Aztec civilization in the 1400s, though use dropped off after that. In the United States, amaranth was never a major player in the grain game until recently, thanks to a growing health-conscious segment of the food market.

Nutritionally, amaranth is a valuable addition to your diet. Its protein content stands around 13 to 14 percent, so one cup of cooked grain contains about nine grams of protein. It’s considered a complete protein thanks to adequate levels of lysine, an amino acid that’s typically low in other grains.

This ancient grain is also a good source of fiber (to keep that digestive system in tip-top shape) and iron (for blood health). Plus, it’s naturally gluten-free, making it ideal if you have celiac disease.

Ways to Enjoy Amaranth

  • Use amaranth as a hot breakfast cereal: It’s a great alternative to oatmeal. Cook it until it’s tender, then mix in flavorings of your choice, like coconut milk and blueberries, or some sliced bananas, peanut butter, and walnuts.
  • Pop amaranth on the stovetop, similar to how you would pop popcorn. This can be eaten as is, mixed into homemade granola bar recipes, or sprinkled on top of salads.
  • Add amaranth to chili or vegetable soup recipes for extra heartiness.
  • Try an amaranth and mushroom “polenta” or “risotto.” Cook the amaranth in stock, then mix in sautéed mushrooms, shallots, and parmesan cheese.

Buckwheat

Despite the name, buckwheat isn’t related to wheat at all. It’s actually a gluten-free pseudo-cereal. It was first cultivated around 4000 BC in Europe, but really took hold years later in Southeast Asia. You’re probably most familiar with buckwheat from one of the staple foods of this region—soba noodles.

From a nutrition standpoint, buckwheat is high in soluble fiber, helping your body better regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Similar to amaranth, it also has a well-balanced amino acid profile, including lysine.

You’ll find buckwheat on the market in several forms, such as flour, buckwheat groats (the intact grain), or in processed products like noodles and baking mixes.

Ways to Enjoy Buckwheat

  • Make a cold soba noodle salad with fresh veggies and peanut sauce.
  • Start your morning with these banana and cocoa stuffed buckwheat crepes.
  • Try kasha, a porridge made from buckwheat groats which are roasted, soaked, and then cooked. You can make it savory by cooking it with stock and adding butter and salt to season, or you can make a sweet version by cooking in milk and flavoring with brown sugar and fruit.
  • Switch out your regular wheat flour for buckwheat flour in your favorite pancake or waffle recipe, like in these buckwheat waffles with key lime curd.

Einkorn Wheat

Einkorn was one of the first species of cultivated wheat, and it’s currently the only form on the market that has not been hybridized (in other words, it hasn’t been cross-bred). Compared to modern wheat, einkorn has more protein and less starch. 

A study in the journal Nutrients found that einkorn wheat was rich in health-boosting phytochemicals. Other research suggests this type of wheat may better reduce cardiovascular disease risk and inflammation, though there’s very limited evidence on this front.

Anecdotally, some people with gluten sensitivities (not a gluten intolerance, or celiac disease) report that they are able to tolerate einkorn flour better compared to modern wheat. Unfortunately, there’s no scientific evidence for this to date. Keep in mind anyone with celiac disease must avoid einkorn, as it does contain gluten.

Want to experiment with einkorn? You can find it easily online these days.

Ways to Enjoy Einkorn

  • Use einkorn as a 1-1 substitute in most quick bread and pancake recipes. You may need to slightly reduce the liquid in some recipes to achieve the best results.
  • Bake chocolate chip cookies using einkorn wheat flour instead of all-purpose wheat flour.
  • Create a tasty loaf of einkorn sourdough bread. The smell of it baking is perhaps one of the greatest joys in life!
  • Make homemade pasta using einkorn flour.

Farro

Farro refers to several varieties of whole wheat grains. Though other countries use the term interchangeably for such varieties, in the United States farro is typically derived from emmer wheat. It is sold in dried whole form, which can be cooked and used salads and entrees.

One serving of farro contains 5 grams of fiber along with 15 percent of your daily zinc needs. Keep in mind that because farro is a type of wheat, it is not gluten-free, so you should avoid it if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.

For those who can eat gluten, though, consider these delicious ways to enjoy farro.

Ways to Enjoy Farro

  • Try this herbed farro salad recipe! You'll combine hearty farro along with sweet pomegranate, salty feta, and toasted walnuts.
  • Embrace the bounty of summer produce in this Mediterranean corn and farro salad, which includes tomatoes and zucchini in addition to that summer corn. Plus, it’s topped with halloumi to add extra flavor!
  • Add farro to other favorite salad recipes to make them heartier, like an arugula and farro salad with fresh citrus fruit, pecans, and a vinaigrette dressing.

Freekeh

Freekeh is another variety of wheat—in this case, young green wheat kernels that are roasted to perfection! Many people describe freekeh as slightly nutty with a subtle hint of smokiness.

While it’s been a staple in Mediterranean diets for quite some time, freekeh is a relative newcomer to the food scene in the United States. Its versatility makes it likely that it’ll stick around, though.

Nutritionally, a cup of cooked freekeh clocks in around 5 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein. Keep in mind that because freekeh is derived from wheat, it’s not a gluten-free grain.

Ready to get your freekeh on? Try one of these ideas.

Ways to Enjoy Freekeh

  • Use freekeh as the base for any grain-based salad, from Mediterranean flavors with tomatoes and olives, to Mexican flavors with spicy peppers, beans, and avocado.
  • Substitute freekeh for barley in any soup that calls for it.
  • Instead of steel cut oats, try a hot breakfast cereal made with freekeh instead.

Millet

Millet encompasses several types of small-seeded gluten-free grains from the grass family. These include:

  • Pearl millet – Despite being the most widely cultivated type of millet worldwide, in the United States the most common use for pearl millet is animal feed.
  • Foxtail millet – This is one of the oldest types of grains, and is very popular in China.
  • Finger Millet – Typically grown in Asia and Africa, this form of millet is often ground down and used in flatbreads and baked goods.
  • Fonio – This West African grain has been slow to take hold in the United States, but has many interesting culinary applications.

All types of millet are thought to have high antioxidant activity and be a good source of magnesium, so they’re certainly worth whipping up in your kitchen.

Grab millet from your favorite health food store and give these ideas a spin.

Ways to Enjoy Millet

  • Add millet to vegetable soups or beef stews for a more filling dish.
  • Try using millet in this hot breakfast cereal, with added flavor from cardamom and coconut.
  • Grind millet into flour, and use it to replace some of your all-purpose flour in baking. It’s recommended to limit millet to around 30% of the total flour. If you’re on a gluten-free diet, you can use millet as one type of flour in your gluten-free baking blends.
  • Make a mashed millet cauliflower side dish! Cook millet to a soft consistency, add in cooked cauliflower, and mash or puree. Top it with sautéed mushrooms and a rich gravy.
  • Switch out rice for millet in your favorite stuffed peppers recipe.

Quinoa

Quinoa is arguably the most popular ancient “grain” these days, despite the fact that (similar to several others on this list) it’s technically a seed. 

It’s easy to understand the widespread love for this pseudo-cereal, though. Quinoa is versatile, easy to find at any major grocery store, and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.

Originally consumed in South America, quinoa’s popularity has expanded across the world. While you’re probably familiar with the white variety of quinoa, there are actually more than 120 varieties known to man. Not all are commercially sold, but you may be able to find red quinoa and black quinoa these days in addition to the white.

Nutritionally, quinoa is a good source of protein and fiber, with one cup cooked clocking in at 8 grams and 5 grams respectively. Other nutrition benefits of quinoa include being a good source of iron and magnesium. It’s also naturally gluten-free, making it an excellent option for those with celiac disease.

You’ll be a keen cook with quinoa using these scrumptious suggestions.

Ways to Enjoy Quinoa

  • Sauté apples and cranberries with a little butter and brown sugar, then toss with cooked quinoa for a sweet breakfast bowl.
  • Serve this salmon with Mediterranean quinoa, where olives and sundried tomatoes are added to this ancient grain for a flavor-packed dish.
  • Enjoy a unique take on a childhood classic with this PB&J quinoa bowl!
  • Create quinoa salads that feature your favorite seasonal produce. For example, in the summer, mix quinoa with tomatoes and cucumbers and toss it all in a nice vinaigrette.
  • Whip up this yellow dal with quinoa. Rich in fragrant spices, the house will smell amazing while it cooks!

Sorghum

Sorghum is a crucial cereal grain in Africa and Asia; a base for many different culinary creations. While its use in the United States was previously limited to primarily livestock feed and ethanol production, sorghum has slowly been making its way onto the table here too.

As a key source of Vitamins B6, niacin, and magnesium, sorghum is a vitamin-packed addition to your meals. It’s also naturally gluten-free, provided there is no agricultural or manufacturing cross-contamination.

You can purchase sorghum as whole intact grains, or ground into a flour. Try these unique ways to incorporate sorghum in your meal plan.

Ways to Enjoy Sorghum

  • Try this sweet shrimp over a sorghum black bean saladYou’ll get protein in the shrimp, whole grains in the sorghum, and veggies from the beans, peppers, and tomatoes.
  • Pop it! You can do this at home using the same method as popping popcorn, or you can buy commercially produced popped sorghum.
  • Sorghum works well in any grain bowl. Think about creating a burrito bowl with sorghum instead of rice.
  • Use sorghum flour as an alternative to wheat flour in baking.

Teff

Native to Ethiopia, teff is a tiny grain—the size of a poppyseed—that’s commonly ground into flour. You might be familiar with injera, a fermented flatbread made from teff commonly served with Ethiopian cuisine.

From an agricultural standpoint, teff is relatively easy to cultivate in the right regions. It can be spread easily across a field thanks to the tiny size of the grain, and it can grow in both waterlogged and drought conditions. However, it is a bit more difficult to harvest, as the grain is small and delicate.

Teff has several nutritional advantages. It leads the way in calcium content for grains, with 12 percent of the daily value in a cup of cooked teff. For those who don’t eat dairy products—or those simply looking for additional nutrient-dense foods—teff can be a valuable choice to help meet your daily calcium needs.

Like most grains, teff is rich in carbohydrates—but it is towards the top of the chart when it comes to the proportion of resistant starch. This type of starch may help with better blood sugar control and weight management. According to The Whole Grains Council, approximately 20 to 40 percent of the starch in teff is resistant starch.

If you are thinking about cooking with teff, consider these ideas.

Ways to Enjoy Teff

  • Scope out recipes to make traditional injera flatbread, which tastes amazing with any kind of spicy stew.
  • Check out products on the market that contain teff flour, like certain brands of tortillas and breads.
  • Use teff in a breakfast porridge recipe.
  • Create a unique yogurt parfait: layer cooked teff with greek yogurt and fruit of your choice.
  • Add teff to muffin and pancake recipes for a nutritional boost.
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