Welcome to part two of our article on grains. Grains are great! They’re a foundation of our diet and…although you’ve heard of many of them, you may not be totally sure what the differences are. We’re here to clear up this confusion. This article will be focused on grains that contain gluten. (Our first article focused on grains in general while our third will focus on gluten-free grains.) We will be detailing some characteristics of each as well as suggesting ways you could use them. Lets get started!
Barley – Barley has an interesting history. Besides being one of the earliest cultivated grains, did you know barley could also make due for a ruler in a pinch? It’s true. In 1324, King Edward II standardized the inch as equal to, “Three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise.” How’s that for clarification?
Barley has a reputation for being a very healthy grain, particularly because of its high fiber content. A study conducted in the journal “Nutrition” found that eating barley significantly lowered certain cholesterols and increased stool size. They concluded that barley, “Should be recommended to prevent chronic diseases.”
While the majority of barley grown today is used for animal feed, barley is still found in many recipes. It has a tasty somewhat nutty flavor and is often mixed with wheat to make different flours. Many recipes call for it to be added to soups, stews, and casseroles. Feel free to experiment. A quick glance online reveals recipes for barley breads, barley pilafs, and even barley cookies. It also makes a great porridge in the morning.
Because barley is encased in a particularly tough hull, some of the bran is often lost in the dehulling process. Thankfully, modern processes are now able to better preserve the bran, and thus, the integrity of the grain. But one word of caution, pearled barley is not a whole grain.
Oats* – The usefulness of oats far exceeds the common porridge. Typically viewed as an Irish or Scottish food, oats thrive in cold, rainy areas where barley, wheat, and even rye are difficult to grow. No doubt their heartiness has influenced their popularity across Northern Europe and Russia.
Like barley, oats are full of fiber and are great for lowering cholesterol. Oats also have the highest protein content of any cereal. In cooking, they can be used in a variety of ways. Try making oatcakes, oat burgers, or oatmeal cookies. Oats are also a necessary ingredient in müsli, granola, and many other cold cereals.
One great thing about oats is that they are almost always sold as a whole grain. That being said, not all oats are alike. For example, quick oats have been steamed and rolled paper-thin, while ‘old fashioned’ oats are left a bit thicker. (This explains their different cooking times.) For a healthier option, try steel cut oats (also called Irish or pinhead oats). These are oats that have only been sliced once or twice to speed up the cooking process—which still takes 20-30 minutes. Besides being more flavorful, they have a lower glycemic-index and will keep you full much longer than regular oatmeal.
* There is much debate as to whether oats should be classified as gluten-free or not. While oats do not inherently contain any gluten, they are often cross-contaminated with wheat during growing or processing. The good news is this: gluten-free oats do exist. Several companies have gone the extra mile to ensure that their products do not come in contact with gluten. These ‘gluten-free’ oats are widely available and are pretty inexpensive as well.
Rye – My favorite grain. Rye is generally known for the rich, hearty taste it brings to dark breads. However, for many years, rye was regarded as a weed in wheat crops. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote that rye, “Is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation.”
Despite Pliny’s assessment, rye eventually became important to the people in Northern and Eastern Europe due to its stoutness. Rye has a well-developed root structure and is able to grow in areas with poor soil or poor weather, which are inhospitable to other grains. Historically, rye was often sewn together with wheat to reduce the risk of poor yields in wheat production—and thus avert starvation.
Rye has a strong flavor and is typically mixed with wheat flour to make different types of bread. But if you’re looking for something more adventurous (and even more delicious), you should give real German pumpernickel or Scandinavian crisp breads a try. These breads really allow rye’s character to shine. Rye can also be bought in a rolled form like oatmeal and makes a robust hot cereal.
As an added bonus, a study conducted at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (of all places) found that the soluble fiber found in rye (compared to that of wheat) works as an appetite suppressant during the time after a meal. These findings suggest that rye could be used to promote weight loss. Rye also has a low glycemic index, which makes it a great choice for diabetics.
Triticale (trit-ih-KAY-lee) – By far the youngest of our grains, triticale is a hybrid of durum wheat and rye. It was crossed to combine the taste and yield of wheat with rye’s robustness, i.e. it’s ability to survive in poor weather and soil. Early versions of triticale were sterile; but in 1888, German botanists (who else?) produced the first fertile type of triticale. Today’s Triticale contains 1 set of rye chromosomes and 3 sets of wheat chromosomes. (In the photograph, wheat is pictured to the right, rye in the center, and triticale is pictured on the left.)
Despite its benefits, the adoption of triticale has been slow. Part of this may due to the different machinery required in processing it. Nevertheless, its production is growing and it seems to have found a niche in organic farming.
Nutritionally, triticale has a slightly higher protein content than wheat and a more balanced amino acid composition. You can find triticale at your local health food store and use it the same way you would use wheat or rye.
Wheat – The tragic hero of grains. Wheat wins the award for being the most loved and the most hated. It is grown worldwide and covers more of the earth surface than any other crop. Wheat is known for its pleasant flavor and its high gluten content. High gluten helps bread to rise and attain a chewy satisfying character. In addition to your standard 100% wheat loaf, most other breads contain some amount of wheat combined with other grains. Other grains simply do not rise well without some added wheat.
Nutritionally, wheat provides a very high amount of food energy (only maize provides more) and a large amount of protein. Wheat is also rich in B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and manganese. However, due to the large amount of wheat we tend to consume, many people are developing allergies to wheat. We need to focus on varying the type of grains we consume. We love wheat, but we want to learn to appreciate other types of grain as well.
Technically, wheat refers to a family of similar grains. The types actually have varying nutritional contents and uses. For example, hard red winter wheat is used mostly for breads and all-purpose flour, while soft red winter wheat is used more for cookies, cakes, crackers, and pastries. Durum wheat, which is used to make pasta, is also the source of bulgur and semolina (which are detailed below).
Bulgur – is a product made from wheat (most commonly durum wheat). The wheat berries are parboiled (partially boiled), dried, and then cracked. This process results in broken pieces that are called bulgur. Bulgur is still considered to be a whole grain as very little bran is removed in the cracking process. Bulgur is traditional in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods. For example, it is a main ingredient in tabbouleh. It can also be used in pilafs, soups, stuffed vegetables, and baked goods.
Emmer – Often called by its Italian name ‘farro’, emmer is an ancient type of wheat. It was once very popular and was actually a staple for Roman legions; however, durum wheat eventually replaced emmer, as it was easier to hull. Emmer—or farro—is often used in several traditional Italian recipes. It is also starting to appear in gourmet recipes and at health food stores.
Kamut® – This grain is so trendy it has its own trademark! It’s basically an ancient type of wheat with large kernels and an interesting history. No one is quite sure where the original grains came from, but 36 kernels were sold to a US airman stationed in Portugal. The seller told him they came from the pyramids of Egypt. The airman—who apparently believed this story—mailed them back home to his wheat-farmer father who planted them and eventually showed his harvest at the county fair, calling it “King Tut’s Wheat”. It didn’t catch on at the time, but was later resurrected by an agricultural scientist who remembered seeing the wheat as a boy. He planted and began selling what we now know as Kamut® or khorasan wheat.
Kamut®, as mentioned above, has large kernels—about twice the size of regular wheat. It nutritious, trendy, and reportedly tolerated well by those intolerant to regular wheat.
Semolina – Usually made from durum wheat. Semolina is a coarsely ground flour, usually used to make pasta, bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals, and couscous. If you’ve ever eaten Cream of Wheat, you’ve eaten semolina. In many parts of Europe, semolina flour is also used to make different sweet deserts. In the Middle East, it is often used to make the traditional sweet ‘halva’.
Spelt – Another variety of wheat, also called ‘dinkel wheat’. Spelt was a staple grain in Europe and was also grown across North America for some time. Eventually, spelt was replaced by bread wheat as industrialization changed the face of farming. Many people intolerant to wheat use spelt as a substitute. Many find spelt is the ideal ‘wheat’ substitute because its taste and cooking properties of spelt are almost identical to regular wheat.
In Germany, unripe spelt (with only 50% of the grain grown) is also harvested, dried, and eaten. This food is called Grünkern, which means ‘green grain’. In the Middle Ages, people began producing Grünkern as a safeguard from bad weather. For example, a storm could destroy a field of spelt before it was ready for harvest. If this happened, the people would still have some Grünkern to sustain themselves in the winter.
So there you have it! Hopefully you’ve learned a bit about grain and feel inspired to try something new. Who knows? You may soon discover your new favorite food. Remember, stick to whole grains and stay tuned for part 3 dealing with gluten-free grains. Head over there even if you’re not on a gluten-free diet. Remember, variety is the spice of life. Enjoy!
If you’re looking for information on whole or sprouted grains, be sure to check out part 1.
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