Rich in iron, fiber and protein, whole grains can keep your body running at its best. To help you easily include them in your diet, our guide and infographics below show you how to cook and store a wide variety of grains.
Fiber is a nutrient most of us could all use a lot more of, especially when derived from real food. Whole grains are a great source of fiber, which means they’ll keep you feeling full longer than refined grains. Not only are they good for you, they’re also tasty, satisfying, and an inexpensive way to get a whole host of other nutrients. If you follow the USDA’s MyPlate Initiative, they recommend that half of your grain intake comes from whole grains.
There are many health benefits to eating whole grains. According to these studies listed on the Whole Grains Council website, enjoying a diet with whole grains can reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, cognitive aging, and respiratory issues.
The best part? You don’t need any special cooking skills to cook whole grains. Just a pot of water will do. In just a few simple steps, you’ll have a bowl of warm cooked grains, a perfect foundation for building meals around.
To help you get to know this food group better, we’ve put together a guide here, covering:
The Anatomy of a Grain
Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel, which we’ll break down for you in a bit, whereas refined grains have been stripped of the bran and the germ. This process, called milling, gives grains a finer texture and a longer shelf life, but in so doing, it removes much of the good nutrients, including fiber. Many refined grains are enriched by adding certain B vitamins and iron (but unfortunately not fiber) back into the grains after being milled.
For example, brown rice is a whole grain because the bran and germ are intact (the reason it’s brown). White rice is a refined grain because these parts have been removed, leaving just the white endosperm behind.
For a better understanding of whole grains, let’s take a closer look on what makes up a whole grain:
- What: the inedible outer layer of a whole grain that protects the inner kernel from sunlight, pests, water, and disease
- What: the multi-layered outer skin of the kernel. It’s often ground into bran flour.
- Nutritional value: fiber, antioxidants, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, B vitamins, and phytonutrients (disease-preventing chemicals found in plants)
- What: the embryo
- Role: It will sprout into a new plant if fertilized by pollen.
- Nutritional value: antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin E, phytonutrients, and unsaturated fats
- What: the food supply
- Role: The endosperm surrounds and provides nutrition to the germ.
- Nutritional value: carbohydrates, protein, plus a small amount of vitamins and minerals
Here is the nutritional contribution by each part of the whole grain kernel:
Because there’s such a wide variety of whole grains and whole grain preparations these days, it can be a bit confusing to know if you are in fact eating a whole grain. Because of all the different types and terminology, a lot of questions crop up, such as “What does it mean if a grain is hulled or pearled?” or “What exactly is a groat?”
Our grain glossary will clear things up a bit, so that you’ll know exactly what you’re cooking, eating, and putting into your body.
Cereal: A grass that’s grown for its edible grains. A true whole grain must come from a cereal crop.
Pseudo-cereal: Non-grass plants that are often treated and eaten just like cereal grains. Examples of this are buckwheat and quinoa, which are actually seeds and not true grains. We include some pseudo-cereals below for broader usage of this information.
Whole grains: Cereal grains in their natural form, retaining the germ, bran and endosperm. As you can see from our Anatomy of a Grain, there’s a lot of nutritional value contained in the germ and bran, which means choosing whole grains will give you the maximum nutritional punch!
Wheat: Wheat is a type of grain. The wheat family includes grains like emmer, spelt, and durum. Most commonly wheat is grown for bread flour (this type of wheat is literally known as common wheat). Whole wheat flour is made from wheat grains with their bran and germ in tact. Look for this label if you’re trying to purchase whole grain products.
Groats or berries: These are whole grains or pseudo-cereals that have been broken into fragments.
Refined grains: These grains have had the germ and bran removed, leaving only the endosperm.
Hulled: A hulled grain is simply an edible whole grain since the hull is always removed for consumption.
Pearled: Pearled grains have had the bran layer removed so are not considered a whole grain. Grains that are often pearled are barley and farro.
How to Cook Whole Grains
Once you know how to cook one whole grain, you pretty much know how to cook all whole grains! We’ve selected 10 of our favorites to get you started. Remember, we’re using a broader definition of whole grains and including some pseudo-cereals too.
How to Cook Whole Grains (Stovetop Method)
This guide has cooking times of 10 whole grains, so you know how to cook a variety of grains easily.
Our classic stovetop method follows these steps:
- Give grains a rinse (optional).
- Heat a saucepan over medium heat.
- Add a small pad of butter or a spoon of oil.
- When melted or heated, add grains (be careful of splattering if you rinsed first). Stir and toast for a ~1 minute.
- Add water (or stock) with a pinch of salt.
- Cover, turn up heat, and bring to a boil.
- Lower heat and simmer covered until grains are cooked.
- Remove from heat and let sit for ~10 minutes.
- Fluff with a fork and let sit uncovered for another few minutes before eating.
Some grains – such as barley, bulgur, and buckwheat – can be cooked just like pasta. For these grains, just bring a pot of water to boil, add grains with some salt and simmer until tender and cooked through. Then drain.
For an even simpler, quicker method, try our 5 Step Stovetop Method:
- Give grains a rinse.
- Combine water, whole grains, and a sprinkle of salt in a saucepan.
- Cover, turn up, and bring to a boil.
- Lower heat and simmer covered until grains are cooked.
- Remove from heat and let sit for ~10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let sit uncovered for another few minutes before enjoying!
To shorten cooking times, you can also soak the grains ahead of time.
For those of you who have a rice cooker, check out our cooking instructions and times to cook these 10 whole grains in a rice cooker:
How to Cook Whole Grains (Rice Cooker)
Cooking instructions and times to cook 10 of our favorite whole grains.
Now that you’re a pro at cooking a variety of whole grains, try dressing them up in a whole grain bowl. Add chopped raw veggies, sauteed veggies, vegetarian proteins, nuts / seeds, and homemade vinaigrette to cooked whole grains for a healthy and tasty #meatless meal that is quick to put together. Watch how we do it here:
How to Build a Vegetarian Whole Grain Bowl
See how easy it is to build a tasty, satisfying and healthy vegetarian whole grain bowl!
Whole Grain Flours
Whole grains are often ground into flour and can be used in a variety of baked goods. They add different flavors, textures, and more nutritional value. Here are some common whole grain flours:
- Buckwheat – has a strong, earthy, savory flavor
- Millet – mild, nutty flavor, a little similar to corn
- Oat – mild and nutty
- Quinoa – strong, nutty flavor with a slight bitterness
- Brown rice – mild and nutty
- Rye – dark, heavy, and sweet flavor that is somewhat grassy and fruity
- Sorghum – similar to wheat, but a bit sweeter
- Teff – strong, malty flavor
- Wheat – sweet and nutty
Note: With the exception of rye and wheat, everything else is gluten-free.
When purchasing grain flours or products with grain flours, make sure they’re whole grain by looking for these words in the ingredients label:
- Whole [name of grain]
- Whole wheat
- Stone ground whole [grain]
- Brown rice
Storing Whole Grains
Unlike refined grains, whole grains still have their germ, which contains all the healthy oils, which in turn can be affected by light, heat, and moisture. That’s why it’s important to properly store whole grains.
If uncooked, you can store whole grains in airtight containers in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months, and in the freezer for up to 1 year. Whole grain flours spoil more quickly than intact whole grains. Since flour requires breaking up the bran layer, more parts of the grain is exposed to oxygen.
Cooked whole grains freeze well and can be stored for 6 months. Since whole grains can take some time to cook, we recommend cooking larger batches and then freezing them in standard serving amounts (like servings of 4) in freezer-friendly bags or containers. For more tips on how to properly freeze foods, check out our Guide to Frozen Food Storage.
We hope our Guide to Whole Grains has given you all the smarts you need to incorporate more whole grains into your healthy, home cooked meals. If you want to dive even deeper, check out the Whole Grains Council website.
Our full infographic can be viewed and shared below, and of course, can be downloaded and printed for free. Keep this guide handy to help you out in the kitchen and to reference any time you cook.
Guide to Cooking with Whole Grains
Learn more about this food group and how to make whole grains a healthy part of your diet.