How to Cook Whole Grains

Want to eat more whole grains, but not sure how to do it? Here’s everything you need to know, the benefits of eating whole grains, and lots of recipes.

Whole grains

You’ve probably heard, “Eat more whole grains!” But what does that mean? Is it as simple as eating more whole grain bread? Well, not really. We’re here to show you what it means to eat a diet rich in these hearty grains. Alex and I went from not knowing a thing about them to cooking up things like quinoa tacos and farro soup on the regular. And let me tell you: whole grains can be some of the tastiest things on the planet, when they’re cooked correctly! Here’s everything you need to know, and then a bunch of our go-to recipes with whole grains.

What are whole grains?

Grains are the edible seeds of plants. Whole grains are grains that are in their whole form and have had nothing processed away by a manufacturer. (Geeky technical explanation: Whole form means that it contains the three key parts of a seed: the bran, germ, and endosperm.)

Here’s a list of common whole grains: Rice, quinoa, farro, bulgur wheat, corn, oats, teff, sorghum, buckwheat, and barley.

Are whole grains good for you? What are the benefits of eating them?

The reasons for eating grains is long and can be a little confusing! Here are some of the major benefits of eating whole grains; they are:

  • Are high in fiber: This helps you feel full and satisfied, and can help maintain a healthy body weight. (Source Mayo Clinic).
  • Help you live longer. A diet rich in whole grains is associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. (Source Harvard TH Chan School of Nutrition)
  • Reduce the risk of obesity. People who eat whole grains regularly have a lower risk of obesity, as measured by their body mass index and waist-to-hip ratios. (Source Whole Grains Council)

How to cook whole grains: the recipes!

Are you ready to start eating all the grains? For each one, we’ve provided a Master Recipe on how to cook it, and then a list of recipes with how to use it.

How to Cook Quinoa

How to Cook Quinoa

Some people claim quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is one of the world’s most perfect foods, due to its high nutritional content. It’s high in protein, calcium, Vitamin B, and iron. It’s also gluten-free. And—fun fact—apparently the Incas thought it was sacred, because eating it regularly appeared to provide a long, healthy life.

Is quinoa a whole grain? Quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain (a pseudocereal, to be precise!). However, it's generally considered a whole grain because of its similar properties.

Quinoa Recipes
Master Recipe: How to Cook Quinoa
Loaded Quinoa Tacos
Quinoa Vegan Chili
Artichoke & Quinoa Enchiladas
Quinoa Fried Rice
10 Easy Quinoa Recipes

Got an Instant Pot? Try Instant Pot Quinoa.

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How to Cook Farro

How to Cook Farro

Farro is a whole grain that’s chewy once cooked, kind of like barley. It’s considered an ancient grain, and it’s recently become quite popular. You can buy farro whole, semi-pearled, or pearled; pearled farro takes the least amount of time to cook and is likely what you’ll find at the store.

Is farro gluten free? Because farro is made from wheat, it is not gluten free. Make sure to stay away from farro if you have a strict gluten free diet (substitute quinoa or rice instead).

Farro Recipes
Master Recipe: How to Cook Farro
Farro Salad with Tart Cherries
Cozy Farro & Brussels Sprouts Soup
Farro & Roasted Vegetable Salad

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How to Cook Millet

How to Cook Millet

Technically a seed, millet is an excellent gluten-free substitute for couscous or even pasta. Millet is fairly high in protein, and it’s a good source of various vitamins and minerals. Millet comes in many different varieties, but your local grocery store most likely sells yellow proso millet. It has a slightly nutty flavor and makes for an easy side dish.

Millet Recipes
Master Recipe: How to Cook Millet
Roasted Brocolli Casserole with Millet
Easy Stuffed Peppers with Millet

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How to Cook Rice

How to Cook Rice

We're all familiar with rice: did you know that it's a whole grain? There are many types of rice, including white, brown, red and even black rice!

Why eat red, brown or black rice instead of white? Brown rice has an impressive amount of vitamins, minerals and beneficial compounds because it is less processed than white rice. White rice has its hull, bran and germ removed. Brown rice has only the hull removed and keeps the nutrient-packed bran and germ. As a result, brown rice retains the nutrients that white rice lacks such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants-- and it has more fiber than white rice.

Rice Recipes
Master Recipe: How to Cook Rice
Spinach Artichoke Rice Casserole
Buddha Bowl with Tahini Sauce
Vegetarian Red Beans & Rice
Instant Pot Wild Rice Soup

Got an Instant Pot? Try Instant Pot White Rice or Instant Pot Brown Rice.

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How to Cook Brown Rice

How to Cook Brown Rice

We're all familiar with rice: did you know that it's a whole grain? There are many types of rice, including white, brown, red and even black rice!

Why eat red, brown or black rice instead of white? Brown rice has an impressive amount of vitamins, minerals and beneficial compounds because it is less processed than white rice. White rice has its hull, bran and germ removed. Brown rice has only the hull removed and keeps the nutrient-packed bran and germ. As a result, brown rice retains the nutrients that white rice lacks such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants-- and it has more fiber than white rice.

Rice Recipes

Master Recipe: How to Cook Rice
Spinach Artichoke Rice Casserole
Buddha Bowl with Tahini Sauce
Vegetarian Red Beans & Rice
Instant Pot Wild Rice Soup

Got an Instant Pot? Try Instant Pot White Rice or Instant Pot Brown Rice.

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How to Cook Bulgur Wheat

How to Cook Bulgur Wheat

Bulgur wheat is a whole grain that originates in Middle Eastern cuisine. Ever had tabbouleh? It’s made of bulgur wheat. Bulgur is made of the cracked parboiled groats of several different wheat species. It comes in different grind sizes, which changes the cooking time significantly. We like fine-grind and medium-grind bulgur wheat, which is the quickest cooking. Generally we avoid coarse-ground or extra-coarse bulgur, since it takes longer to cook.

Is bulgur gluten free? Bulgur wheat is made of wheat, so it’s not gluten-free. If you eat a gluten-free diet, substitute quinoa. 

Bulgur Recipes
Master Recipe: Bulgur Wheat & Fried Eggs
Mediterranean Bulgur Salad

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How to Cook Oatmeal

How to Cook Oatmeal

Good news: oats are a whole grain too! According to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, oats are high in fiber, can reduce the risk of heart disease, and can be helpful for weight control. Oatmeal is part of our everyday breakfasts over here.

What's the difference between rolled oats and steel cut oats? They're made out of the same whole grain oatmeal. Steel cut oats have more of the grain kept intact and look more like pieces of rice! Nutritionally, steel cut and rolled oats have the same benefits: lots of fiber and plant-based protein to start your day. But an additional health benefit of steel cut oats is that since they are processed the most minimally, they may be digested more slowly and have a lower glycemic index.

Oatmeal Recipes
Master Recipe: The Best Toasted Oatmeal
DIY Instant Oatmeal

Banana Oatmeal Pancakes
Carrot Cake Baked Steel Cut Oatmeal
Apple Cinnamon Pressure Cooker Steel Cut Oats
Healthy Blueberry Muffins

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How to Cook Freekah

How to Cook Freekah

Move over quinoa, there’s a new grain in town. Freekah is an ancient grain that hails from the Middle East. Similar to bulgur wheat, it comes from the durum wheat plant, harvested when the wheat is green. It’s been part of Mediterranean and Northern African cuisine for centuries, and is starting to become more popular here in the US. It’s popping up in restaurants and cookbooks as the whole grain du jour.

Freekah has a nutty, almost smoky flavor and a chewy texture. The biggest plus? It takes only about 20 minutes to cook. It’s terrific in nourish bowls and soups, but it’s also a great side dish.

Freekah Recipes
Master Recipe: Freekah
Roasted Fall Vegetable Grain Bowl

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How to Cook Polenta

How to Cook Polenta

What is polenta? It's a cornmeal porridge that's a bit like grits, served with savory toppings. Here’s a simple, creamy cornmeal polenta recipe that requires few ingredients and very little effort. Cornmeal, water, and a little butter make for a polenta that’s thick and slightly sweet in flavor. All you have to do is boil water, then whisk in the cornmeal, stirring frequently to avoid lumps. Then cook the cornmeal polenta for about 20 minutes.

Polenta Recipes
Master Recipe: Perfectly Creamy Polenta
Vegetarian Polenta with Greens
Roasted Tomato Shrimp and Polenta
Vegetarian Tamale Pies

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How to Cook Popcorn

How to Cook Popcorn

Is popcorn a whole grain? Absolutely! Making stovetop popcorn is surprisingly easy, and it’s done in less than 15 minutes. Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable or coconut oil in a tall pot. Add a few kernels to the oil; you’ll know the oil is hot enough to cook the rest of the popcorn once those few kernels pop. Add in the rest of the kernels and the salt. Give the pot a little shake to evenly distribute the oil, and then wait for the magic to happen!

Popcorn Recipes
Master Recipe: How to Cook Popcorn on the Stove
Herb Popcorn
Chocolate Chip Popcorn Cookies

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

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