Ancient Grains

Ancient grains are becoming part of modern menus.

Ancient grains are becoming part of modern menus.

Quinoa has been all the rage lately receiving praised as a source of high protein. It is one in a category of ancient grains that has been rediscovered.

The term “ancient grains” or “heritage grains” as they’re sometimes called, is popping up more and more on food labels, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive definition for the category. A blog on the website (found at defined them as “whole grains which have been cherished and cultivated by mankind for thousands of years.” Some of these grains can trace their genealogy back to the times of the pharaohs, and beyond.

In our modern day hyperbole, they’re called super grains because they’re high in proteins, fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron and a lot of other healthy nutrients. And some of them are gluten-free, which makes them an ideal addition to the diets of people living gluten-free diets.

Here are a few of them that can now be found at supermarkets and health food stores. I culled this list from (found at  and Cook’s Illustrated:

  • Quinoa (KEEN-juan). The Incas called it the “mother of all grains” although it’s actually a seed. It’s a nutritionally complete protein and cooks up fluffy with a slight nutty flavor.
  • Amaranth (AM-ah-ranth) A major source of protein for both the Incas and the Aztecs, this tiny grain has a nutty, sometimes peppery, flavor. Popped amaranth is a popular street snack in South America. It’s also rich in calcium.
  • Farro. Egyptians originally cultivated these hulled whole-wheat kernels and the Romans brought it to Italy. It’s sweet, nutty flavor makes it a favorite ingredient in Tuscan cooking. Although it’s available in three sizes, it’s the midsize type that you’ll commonly find in the U.S.
  • Wheat berries. They’re not berries but whole, husked wheat kernels with an earthly flavor and a firm chew. Great in salads because they remain firm and separate when cooked.

It can be so tempting to grab a box or bag of these grains off the store shelf and immediately start cooking. But I suggest doing some research first. Each grain needs its own special treatment to bring out its best flavor. Some need to soak overnight, like beans. For others, like bulgar, it’s recommended adding lemon or lime juice to the soaking water. The two links I’ve included in my blog will get you started, and there’s plenty of other good advice on ancient grains available on the Internet.

Calling these ancient grains “super” is an exaggeration; all whole grains are healthy and good for you. But these newcomers (or, since they’re called ancient, should that be old comers?) to the grocery store shelves offer many options for adding healthy grains to your diets.

Cora Weisenberger has been writing about food since 1997, first for her hometown newspaper and later for national magazines. She’s a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, and can be found rattling about her suburban Chicago kitchen preparing goodies for hubby, Greg, and sons David and Jonathan. Read all of her blogs at

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