Tips help mix quinoa, spelt, millet, barley, freekah

Judy Hevrdejs
Chicago Tribune

So you’ve cooked up a batch or two of quinoa. Sprinkled chia seeds on your steel-cut morning oats. Found packages of grains labeled spelt, millet, teff and kaniwa sitting next to the barley and oats at your supermarket. And savored restaurant creations starring grains of many textures, colors and flavors.

Unfortunately, your attempts at grain mash-ups have been more mush than masterful.

Don’t give up. A little understanding of grains and a few tips from a grain-cooking pro should help you become a master at mixing them.

“Cooking with some of the lesser known grains needn’t be daunting,” writes Ghillie James, in her book “Amazing Grains: From Classic to Contemporary, Wholesome Recipes for Every Day” (Kyle Books, $29.95). “There are so many ways to combine the textures and flavors of different grains in everyday cooking.”

James tackles more than a dozen grains in her book, from the usual suspects — barley, bulgur and rice — to their more unusual cousins such as farro, freekeh and spelt. She also includes amaranth, buckwheat, chia and quinoa, often called “pseudograins,” “because of their similar nutrient profile and the fact that they can be used in a very similar way to cereals,” she writes. “They often look like grains, too.”

Sometimes these grains come in different colors. Sometimes whole grains are transformed — cracked, pearled, toasted or ground — which can influence how long they are cooked, as well as their cooked texture. Color, flavor and texture all will come into play when you mix and match.

James likes to mix mild, crunchy quinoa with the nutty, slightly malty amaranth in a salad with roasted pumpkin wedges and macadamia nuts. In another salad, she mixes nutty, earthy buckwheat with mild quinoa before adding green beans, arugula, peaches, mozzarella and prosciutto.

There is a method to mixing and matching grains, she explains. For example, by using a mix of whole and pearled grains or pseudograins, you can make a recipe lighter, as well as change the taste of the dish, all while upping the nutrients.

Among her favorite pairings: quinoa and buckwheat, amaranth and couscous, quinoa and whole-grain couscous. The mild quinoa and couscous stand up to the sturdier buckwheat and amaranth.

“You can add chia to pretty much everything, especially oats,” James wrote in an email. She’ll also add chia to cookies and flapjacks “to give extra energy” and crunch.

“Amaranth can be a bit stodgy and unsubstantial, so I tend to cook it and then stir it into other bigger grains — freekeh, buckwheat cracked wheat and bulgur to name a few,” she added. “You don’t need ... lots though, just add a couple of tablespoons because a little goes a long way.”

A few caveats

Follow grain-cooking instructions. “It’s a bit like baking — you need to cook grains precisely,” she wrote. “You shouldn’t just presume you can throw all the grains together and boil them, or you will end up with a stodgy mess!”

If you follow package directions the first time you cook an unfamiliar grain, you can discover its taste and cooked texture. It’s also why some recipes cook different grains separately before combining them — or add quick-cooking grains later to a pot of slow-cooking grains.

And pay attention to proportions of ingredients.

“People often cook way too much grain and not enough added extras,” James says. “Think of the grains as the canvas and add a colorful variety of things to it.”

Tips on cooking

A few more pointers from Ghillie James:

“Cooking times for grains vary depending on the brand and ... age of the grains.”

Make sure grains are not stale.

Cooking times can vary from 10 minutes (buckwheat) to 60 minutes (rye berries), or they may require no cooking at all (chia seeds).

Whole grains generally require longer cooking times than pearled (refined or processed) grains.

If you like grains with bite, “keep testing so you don’t overcook them.”

“I like to combine grains with pulses (beans, peas, legumes) not only for their difference in taste and texture but also for the nutrients they provide.”

Toast grains for extra flavor: Place grains (i.e. millet, bulgur wheat) in a dry skillet; heat gently, stirring, until evenly toasted. Then, cook as usual.

Five-step salad

A perfect example and a good way to try out James’ grain-mixing method? Her quick-fix, five-step everyday salad. Follow the formula to mix and match your favorite flavors and textures.

Cook some grains (whole grain couscous, cracked or bulgur wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, wheat berries, spelt or pearl barley are her favorites).

Add some fruit/vegetables (cucumber, scallions, radish, celery, peppers, tomato, corn, asparagus, apple, avocado, grapes, grated carrot, dried apricots, green beans, snow peas).

Throw in some crumbled feta, drained canned tuna, cold crispy bacon, leftover roasted meat or sausages, shrimp, goat cheese, white beans or chickpeas.

Sprinkle with some nuts and seeds (pumpkin, chia seeds, toasted almonds, pine nuts).

Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season well.



Color: Sand-colored seeds

Taste: Mild, nutty, slightly malty

Texture: Some crunch, slight oatmeal-like consistency. Can get gluey, so mix with a drier grain, such as oats.

Use: Boil whole for salads or sides. Or toast in a dry skillet.


Color: Oval seeds, with dark red brown markings

Taste: Mild

Texture: Seriously crunchy

Use: Soups and stews as a thickener. Muffins. If not cooked, grind before using to get nutritional benefits.


Color: Cream to black

Taste: Creamy; nutty if toasted

Texture: Creamy when cooked longer

Use: Cook whole for stews or salads. Add to breads or toast in a skillet.


Color: Usually white; also black or red

Taste: Mild, slightly grassy flavor

Texture: Slightly crunchy

Use: In soups and stews. Works in salads. Add to fritters and burgers.


Color: Tiny brown to reddish-brown seeds

Taste: Malty

Texture: Crunchy

Use: Whole grains in soup. Add to vegetables or salads. Stir into couscous or rice.