Whole Grain Cooking Guide
Cash in on the benefits of whole grains with our primer on how to cook whole grains—including cooking times, liquid ratios and nutrition information—for barley, brown rice, bulgur, farro, millet, quinoa, spelt, wheat berries and wild rice.
Trying to eat more whole grains? Keep trying! There are so many health benefits of whole grains: unrefined grains, such as quinoa, millet and brown rice, provide a healthy boost of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Nutty-tasting, hearty whole grains make a delicious and satisfying base for all sorts of easy meals, including healthy grain bowls, fried rice, soups, grain salads, burritos and burrito bowls, breakfast porridges and more.
Grains are also rich in carbohydrates-which are the body's main fuel supply so we need a fair amount daily (despite what low-carb/no-carb gurus say). The key is to keep portions moderate and skew strongly to whole-grain versions as often as you can. While the government guidelines urge you to "make half of your grains whole," we say aim for making most, if not all, of your grains whole. You'll feel fuller longer, since their fiber takes longer to digest. And once you've made the transition to whole grains, you might find that you prefer their robust flavor to that of their refined counterparts.
The first place to look for whole grains, especially more common ones like bulgur and barley, is near rice at most markets. Less common grains can be found in the bulk bins at well-stocked supermarkets and natural-foods stores. Here are some shopping tips, basic prep and cooking instructions for nine whole grains.
How to Cook Barley
Pictured recipe: Wild Mushroom & Barley Risotto
Barley's chewiness makes it great in the classic beef and barley soup, of course, but don't overlook our other barley recipes-the grain is great in salads, pilafs and many recipes that are usually made with rice. Barley has a tough hull that is difficult to remove without losing some of the bran. Hulled barley, available at natural-foods stores, retains more of the whole-grain nutrients but cooks slowly. More readily available, and more convenient, are "pearl" barley (the bran has been removed) and "quick-cooking" barley (parboiled). Technically neither are whole grains but, nutritionally speaking, they count toward your whole-grain servings because of their high fiber content.
To cook pearl barley:
Bring 1 cup pearl barley and 2 1/2 cups water (or broth) to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer; cook, covered, until tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, 40 to 50 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes. Makes 3 to 3 1/2 cups.
Pearl barley nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
97 calories; 0 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 22 g carbohydrate; 2 g protein; 3 g fiber; 2 mg sodium; 73 mg potassium.
To cook quick-cooking barley:
Bring 1 3/4 cups water (or broth) to a boil; add 1 cup quick-cooking barley. Reduce heat to a simmer; cook, covered, until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 2 cups.
Quick-cooking barley nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
86 calories; 1 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 19 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 3 g fiber; 2 mg sodium; 64 mg potassium.
How to Cook Brown Rice
Pictured recipe: Vegetable Fried Rice
Just about any recipe that can be made with white rice can also be made with brown rice-and we have dozens of healthy brown rice recipes to prove it! Brown rice has been minimally processed, just enough to sort and remove the inedible outer husk, leaving the nutritious outer bran layer intact. You can find brown versions of most types of rice, including short-, medium- and long-grain, jasmine and basmati.
To cook brown rice:
Bring 1 cup brown rice and 2 1/2 cups water (or broth) to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, 40 to 50 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Makes 3 cups.
You can also find "quick-cooking" or "instant" brown rice, which is ready in 5 to 10 minutes. Follow cooking instructions on the package.
Brown rice nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
108 calories; 1 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 22 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 2 g fiber; 5 mg sodium; 42 mg potassium.
How to Cook Bulgur
Pictured recipe: Parsley Tabbouleh
Browse through our healthy bulgur recipes and you'll find classic uses like tabbouleh, but also meatloaf and even dessert. Bulgur is available in fine, medium and coarse textures. (If it's not labeled, it's usually fine or medium.) Unless a recipe calls for a specific texture, any type can be used. Don't confuse bulgur with cracked wheat, which is simply that-cracked wheat. Cracked wheat must be cooked for up to an hour; bulgur is cracked wheat that's been parboiled so it simply needs to soak in hot water for most uses.
To cook bulgur:
Bring 1 cup bulgur and 1 1/2 cups water (or broth) to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes. (Or pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water (or broth) over 1 cup bulgur. Let stand, covered, until light and fluffy, about 30 minutes. If all the water is not absorbed let the bulgur stand longer, or press it in a strainer to remove excess liquid.) Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups.
Bulgur nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
76 calories; 0 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 17 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 4 g fiber; 5 mg sodium; 62 mg potassium.
How to Cook Farro
Pictured recipe: Bacon, Tomato & Farro Salad
Farro (aka emmer) is usually sold in the U.S. semi-pearled (sometimes labeled semiperlato), meaning some of the bran layer has been removed. If you find farro that is not semi-pearled, it will need to be soaked in water overnight before cooking and will need an additional 30 to 45 minutes of cooking time to become tender. Farro has a satisfying chewy texture and nutty flavor. It can be used in baked goods, soups and risottos and is particularly good in make-ahead salads-like this packable turkey and farro salad-because it holds its shape and doesn't become mushy.
To cook farro:
Bring 3 cups water (or broth) and 1 cup farro to a boil. Stir, reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until tender, 15 to 25 minutes. Drain. Makes 3 cups.
Farro nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
111 calories; 1 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 23 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 3 g fiber; 0 mg sodium; 139 mg potassium.
How to Cook Millet
If you are looking for a gluten-free grain alternative to quinoa, give nutty-tasting millet a try in salads, savory millet cakes and fillings for stuffed peppers. Millet is sold hulled: the outer husk has been removed, leaving the grain-tiny yellow balls-intact. Toasting millet in a large dry skillet over medium heat for 4 minutes before cooking helps it retain its shape.
To cook millet:
Bring 2 1/2 cups water (or broth) to a boil; add 1 cup millet. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 3 cups.
Millet nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
104 calories; 1 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 21 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 1 g fiber; 2 mg sodium; 54 mg potassium.
How to Cook Quinoa
Pictured recipe: Quinoa Avocado Salad
Quinoa is a delicately flavored grain that was a staple in the ancient Incas' diet. It has a mild flavor and cooks quickly, so it's the ideal base for salads, pilafs, stir-fries and grain bowls-check out our healthy quinoa recipes for tons of ideas, including plenty of hearty quinoa salads. Rinsing removes any residue of saponin (quinoa's natural, bitter protective covering). Toasting the grain before cooking enhances its flavor. See the basic cooking method below, then check out our in-depth quinoa cooking guide for more details on this popular gluten-free grain, including its health benefits.
To cook quinoa:
Bring 2 cups water (or broth) to a boil; add 1 cup quinoa. Cover and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Use a fork to fluff and separate the grains. Makes 3 cups.
Quinoa nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
111 calories; 2 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 20 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 3 g fiber; 6 mg sodium; 159 mg potassium.
How to Cook Spelt
Spelt is a cereal grain with a mild nutty flavor and a relatively high protein content. Spelt flour is used in baking, and whole-grain spelt can be used just like farro and other sturdy whole grains in grain salads, bowls and pilafs.
To cook spelt:
Bring 2 cups water (or broth) to a boil; add 1 cup spelt. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender, about 1 hour. Makes 3 cups.
Spelt nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
123 calories; 0 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 18 g carbohydrate; 5 g protein; 4 g fiber; 5 mg sodium; 139 mg potassium.
How to Cook Wheat Berries
Pictured recipe: Black Bean, Mango & Kale Wheat Berry Salad
Wheat berries have a wonderful chewy texture that makes them perfect for salads and any recipe in which you want the grain to hold its shape-it's almost impossible to make mushy wheat berries. Check out our healthy wheat berry recipes for salads, soups, pilafs and even an easy whole grain breakfast idea. Wheat berries of any variety (hard, soft, spring or winter wheat) can be used interchangeably. Labeling is inconsistent-you may find them labeled "hard red winter wheat" without the words "wheat berries." Some recipes instruct soaking overnight, but we found it unnecessary.
To cook wheat berries:
Sort through wheat berries carefully, discarding any stones, and rinse with water. Bring 4 cups water (or broth) and 1 cup wheat berries to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, but still a little chewy, about 1 hour. Drain. Makes 2 1/4 cups.
Wheat berry nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
151 calories; 1 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 6 g protein; 4 g fiber; 263 mg sodium; 0 mg potassium.
How to Cook Wild Rice
Pictured recipe: Wild Rice Pilaf with Sweet Potatoes & Brussels Sprouts
Wild rice, a staple of Native Americans in Minnesota, is not a rice at all, but rather the only aquatic-derived grain native to North America. But even if it's not actually rice, it's a wonderful stand-in or mix-in for plain rice in all sorts of recipes. Its toothsome texture makes it a welcome addition to casseroles such as this creamy chicken, mushroom and wild rice casserole recipe.
To cook wild rice:
Add 1 cup wild rice to a large saucepan of lightly salted boiling water (use at least 4 cups water); cook until tender, 45 to 55 minutes. Drain. Makes 2 to 2 1/2 cups.
You can also find "quick" wild rice-a whole-grain rice that cooks in less than 30 minutes-or "instant" wild rice that's done in 10 minutes or less. Follow cooking instructions on the package.
Wild rice nutrition facts per 1/2-cup serving:
83 calories; 0 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 18 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 1 g fiber; 2 mg sodium; 83 mg potassium.
Get Your Whole Grain On
Now that you know how to cook these whole grains, try making a big batch of one or more of them to add to salads, stir-fries and grain bowls throughout the week. Most cooked grains keep well for up to three days in the fridge or six months in the freezer. With a few batches of cooked whole grains on hand, your meal prep is at least halfway done!
WATCH: How to Make Quinoa