Everything You Need to Know About Ancient Grains

Kate Chynoweth
by Kate Chynoweth
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Everything You Need to Know About Ancient Grains

You don’t have to love quinoa to love ancient grains, because from amaranth to sorghum, there are lots to choose from. Many are gluten-free, providing great alternatives for people with wheat sensitivity. All tend to be higher in protein and fiber than refined grains and pasta, making them “good carbs” that are satisfying and filling.

While there’s no official definition, ancient grains are loosely defined as those that have remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years — and all of them are increasingly popular. With so many to choose from, we rank seven popular ancient grains in order of best total package: how they taste, how the nutrition stacks up and how easy they are to incorporate into everyday meals when we’re all so busy.

Chewy and satisfying with a crunchy, nutty taste, this high-protein wheat grain lets you  refresh and rethink your grain bowl. Fiber-rich with a low-glycemic index, it also contains iron, magnesium and zinc. Cracked freekeh cooks in approximately 20 minutes on the stovetop, whereas whole freekeh requires overnight soaking and longer cooking times, so double check what your purchase before you bring it home.

Quinoa is the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Fiber, magnesium, B vitamins, iron and beneficial antioxidants, plus a cooking time of 20 minutes or less, make it an easy winner.

Light in flavor, with a fluffy yet chewy texture, and nearly transparent color when cooked, it’s an acquired taste for some and adored by others. Kaniwa, sometimes called “baby quinoa,” is also worth a try, offering a similar nutritional profile in a smaller grain with a bit more crunch.

The most common type is farro medio, also called emmer: It’s pleasantly nutty with a nice chewiness and gets a nutritional boost from niacin and magnesium. The semi-pearled variety is quicker cooking and an efficient choice for weeknight suppers.

There’s also a variety called einkorn (farro piccolo), which is the smallest of the ancient wheats: It’s mild in flavor but rich in the antioxidant lutein and the B vitamin thiamin. Spelt, the largest type of farro, has a reddish, round kernel, plenty of magnesium and iron and the longest cooking time of the three.


Sorghum is the new quinoa. This trendy ancient grain is packed with iron and B vitamins. With a pleasing size and shape similar to Israeli couscous and an al dente quality, sorghum is a go-to for healthy grain salads. Its only drawback is preparation time: It requires an overnight pre-soak plus about an hour of cooking time. Yet, with a little pre-planning, it’s well worth the effort.

With a high calcium content (347 mg in 1 cup of cooked teff) far superior to all other grains, this small-grained option has yet to go mainstream. When cooked, its soft texture is compared to  polenta, yet its darker coffee color and nuttier taste sets it apart. It cooks easily in 15–20 minutes making it a great grain to experiment with when you’re ready to expand your ancient grain repertoire.

Fluffy and comforting with a mild flavor some consider bland, millet is nonetheless a quick-cooking grain that uses the same liquid and time ratio as quinoa. Providing a hit of fiber, magnesium and antioxidants with each serving, it’s also among the most affordable ancient grains, so stock up. Its neutral taste makes it perfect to toss into all kinds of dishes from soups to salads.

These tiny grains, about the size of poppy seeds, are not highly versatile beyond breakfast porridge or pudding and they can become sticky when simmered too long. Yet with protein and the essential amino acid lysine, they enhance the nutritional profile of your morning bowl of oatmeal. An added bonus: The small size translates into cooking time of less than 30 minutes.

How do you cook your favorite ancient grain? Comment below!

About the Author

Kate Chynoweth
Kate Chynoweth

Kate’s writing about food and lifestyle has appeared in The Huffington Post, Live Happy, Real Simple and Sunset. She’s also the author of “Lemons,” “The Bridesmaid Guide” and other books. She lives in Berkeley, California, where she enjoys lowbrow pop culture and top-shelf booze.


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