Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains Every Day
Whole grains are a staple of plant-based diets, but if you’ve ever wound up with a pan full of gummy rice, you know cooking them the right way is essential if you actually want to enjoy what you’re eating.
No worries, we’ve all been there! (Ask me about my adventures with buckwheat, for example…) Fortunately, cooking whole grains isn’t hard once you know the right amount of water to use, the optimal length of time to cook each grain and the how to achieve a deliciously fluffy texture. You’re probably already familiar with a few like oats and brown rice, or you might be new to the world of whole grains. Either way, let me share what I’ve learned experimenting with plant-based cooking and few tips from other talented cooks to help you master the technique of cooking perfect grains.
Why Whole Grains?
I covered the basics of whole grains in my previous post about “carbs,” but here’s a quick run-down of the reasons to make them part of your daily diet:
- A whole grain has three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm
- The majority of the nutrients, including protein, minerals, B vitamins and fiber, are in the bran and germ
- Refined (“white”) grains are stripped of one or more parts and the associated nutrients
- “Enriched” grains only have a handful of nutrients added back after refining
Most of the grains in the standard Western diet are refined, but switching to whole grains brings back all the missing nutrients and gives your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy instead of delivering a bunch of empty calories. When you eat grains their whole forms you:
- Improve cardiovascular health
- Lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
- Lower your risk of digestive cancers
- Boost your gut health
- Reach your weight goals more easily
This is all thanks to making one simple swap in your diet. As part of a completely plant-based lifestyle, whole grains contribute to a balanced diet and complement the benefits of everything else you eat.
Cooking Whole Grains: The Basics
The most common method for cooking whole grains is to simmer them in water on the stovetop. To add extra flavor, use low-sodium vegetable broth instead of water or toast the grains over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, before cooking. Toasted grains are done when they smell nutty and are lightly browned.
For basic stovetop cooking:
- Place the grains and water in a saucepan or stock pot
- Cover and bring to a boil
- Reduce the heat to a low simmer
- When the liquid is absorbed, remove the pan from the heat
- Let rest for 5 minutes with the lid on
- Remove the lid, fluff and serve!
The ratio of liquid to grains differs depending on what you’re cooking, as does the cooking time. Here are the basics for the grains you’re likely to use most often on a plant-based diet:
- Brown rice: 2 cups liquid to 1 cup grain (2 to 1), 40 to 45 minutes
- Quinoa: 1 1/2 to 1, simmer for 15 minutes, turn the burner off, let sit for 15 minutes
- Note: Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh sieve first to remove the natural bitter coating
- Millet: 2 to 1, 20 to 25 minutes
- Barley (pearled): 2 to 1, 40 to 45 minutes
- Oats (rolled): 2 to 1, 5 to 10 minutes
- Oats (steel cut): 3 to 1, 20 to 30 minutes
If you want to cook large batches of grains, a pressure cooker or Instant Pot is more efficient. Liquid ratios and times are different from stovetop cooking, so consult the booklet that came with your cooker for the best cooking method. You can also refer to the charts for whole grains and rice from Hip Pressure Cooking, which I find to be the most accurate of all I’ve used.
What Whole Grains are Best to Eat?
If a client asked me this, I honestly would have to say, “ALL of them!” Every time you choose whole grains over refined, you do your body a huge favor. But there are some grains that are more nutrient-dense than others, meaning they have more nutrients per calorie. Whether you’re completely plant-based already or making the switch, you want to include as many nutrient-dense foods as possible to maximize the health benefits of your diet.
When it comes to whole grains, the best choices include:
- Whole rye
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat
What makes these the best? They’re high in fiber, trace minerals and antioxidants, and they contain ample protein. Many of these grains are also beneficial if you’re trying to keep your blood sugar in check.
Getting Started with Grains
Use the cooking guidelines in this post to experiment with as many whole grains as you want. If you have access to a store with a bulk department, such as Whole Foods or a co-op, spend some time browsing. Pick up a few grains you’ve never had before, and try adding them to meals or experimenting with recipes like these:
The USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest 5 to 8 servings of whole grains per day, and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recommends at least five. A serving works out to about 1/2 cup cooked grains, 1 slice of bread, 1/2 of a bagel or 1/2 of an English muffin. Whole grain pasta serving sizes vary, but the most common is 2 ounces of dry pasta.