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How to Cook Whole Grains

Whole grains are easy to cook on the stovetop (as you would cook rice or pasta), or in a countertop steamer. I always cook one pound (2½ cups) of whole grains at a time (as much as my steamer will hold), since they keep well -- refrigerated or frozen. Leftovers can be reheated in a microwave or used in salads. I make my own "instant grains" by packaging ½-1 cup portions in baggies and storing them in the freezer. They take a minute or less to thaw in the microwave.

Ignore the instructions on packages of whole grains -- use the charts below instead. The first time you cook a new grain, check them 5-10 minutes before the end of the cooking time to make sure they are not getting mushy. If they aren't tender enough to suit you at the end of the recommended time, cook a little longer. You do not need to rinse or pre-soak whole grains.

Cook grains in bouillon or other flavored liquid; 1 cup bouillon = 1 cup water + 1 bouillon cube or 1 teaspoon bouillon granules, or 1 cup of any other flavored liquid of your choice. If you don't use bouillon that contains salt, be sure to add a little salt to the cooking liquid. Whole grains cooked without salt taste hopelessly flat. Vegetable or chicken flavored bouillon yields neutral-flavored grains that can be used for anything – breakfast cereal, main dishes, salads or desserts.

Cooking whole grains in an electric countertop steamer
If you are serious about following a low-fat, high-fiber diet, I strongly recommend that you invest in one of these handy appliances. This is by far the easiest, most convenient way to cook all of the whole grains. I recommend the Black and Decker Handy Steamer Plus (with an 8-cup capacity rice bucket and 75-minute timer.) Countertop steamers come with instruction booklets with detailed information on cooking vegetables and seafood. Follow these instructions for cooking whole grains, using the times and amounts shown in the chart.

Fill the steamer base with water to the top line. (Do not use the drip tray.) Place the steamer basket on the base. Place the grains and bouillon (use amounts from the Steamer chart below) in the rice bowl and set the rice bowl in the steamer basket. Cover, plug in, set timer. When the timer rings, let the grains sit until cool OR remove the cover carefully to avoid steam burns. Drain the grains in a colander if there is excess liquid. Note: I let the grains sit for at least 20-30 minutes after the timer rings before removing the lid.

On the stovetop
Any of the whole grains can be cooked in a pot just as you would cook white rice, but they take longer and will use more liquid. This is my least favorite method because you have to stand around and watch the pot. After you've done this once or twice, you'll want to go out and get your countertop steamer.

Use a medium-size pot with a tight-fitting lid. Bring the bouillon (see the Stovetop chart below for amounts) to a boil in the pot, stir in the grains and return to boiling. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer until the grains are tender and most of the water is absorbed.

You can add raw grains to soups or stews while they cook. My only concern is getting everything done at the same time without overcooking any of the ingredients. Some of my recipes use this method, but most recommend cooking the grains separately. Do whatever seems easiest for you.

Other appliances can be used to cook whole grains; try what you have on hand:
Rice cooker: if you have a rice cooker with a metal container and no timer, you may be able to use it to cook your whole grains, but you will need to experiment. These cookers use a sensor to determine when the liquid has been absorbed. Start with the quantities listed on the steamer chart, below, and add more liquid if your grains come out too hard, less if they are too soft.
Crockpot: Put the quantity of grains and liquid listed on the steamer chart (below) in the crockpot or slow cooker, turn it on and leave it for 6-8 hours.
Microwave: you can cook whole grains in one of the plastic rice steamers specifically designed for microwave use, but I haven't been too pleased with the results. You don't save much time, and you have to stick around to change the power setting and stir midway through the cooking process.
Pressure Cooker: If you're comfortable using a pressure cooker, they work just fine for whole grains. Follow the stovetop cooking charts and adjust the cooking times as you would for any other food (usually about half the regular time.)

Chart 1. Cooking Whole Grains in a Steamer

For 2½ cups (1 lb.) Grains: Amount of bouillon Cooking Time
Wheat Berries 4 cups 75 minutes
Kamut 4 cups 75 minutes
Spelt 4 cups 75 minutes
Rye 4 cups 75 minutes
Triticale 4 cups 75 minutes
Oat Groats 4 cups 75 minutes
Barley 4 cups 75 minutes
Brown Rice 4 cups 65-75 minutes
Wild Rice (½lb.) 4 cups 75 minutes
Job's Tears 4 cups 75 minutes
Millet 4 cups 40 minutes
Quinoa 4 cups 30 minutes
Amaranth 4 cups 30 minutes
Teff 3 cups 40 minutes
Kasha (Buckwheat Groats) 4 cups 15-20 minutes
Bulgur 4 cups 20 minutes

Chart 2. Cooking Whole Grains on the Stovetop

For 2½ cups (1 lb.) Grains: Amount of bouillon Cooking Time
Wheat Berries 6 cups 60 minutes
Kamut 6 cups 60 minutes
Spelt 6 cups 60 minutes
Rye 6 cups 60 minutes
Triticale 6 cups 60 minutes
Oat Groats 6 cups 60 minutes
Barley 6 cups 60 minutes
Brown Rice 5 cups 45 minutes
Wild Rice (½lb.) 6 cups 60 minutes
Job's Tears 6 cups 60 minutes
Millet 5 cups 20 minutes
Quinoa 5 cups 15 minutes
Amaranth 5 cups 20 minutes
Teff 4 cups 30 minutes
Kasha (Buckwheat Groats) 6 cups 15 minutes
Bulgur 5 cups 20-25 minutes

June 21st, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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