After quinoa’s popularity went mainstream in 2013 when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared it to be the International Year of Quinoa, the concept of ancient grains started to resonate with consumers. For chefs and product developers, quinoa’s rise marked the start of a culinary journey into a diverse world of ingredients with superstar potential.
Most ancient grains — and seed-like, pseudo-cereals like quinoa — have largely been ignored until recently by Western palates. This is changing, and certain grains, like millet, farro, amaranth and teff, are inching closer to mainstream menus and retail shelves now that chefs have discovered how to leverage each grain’s unique nutritional and culinary properties.
“As the culinary scene continues to evolve, we see ancient grains as a trending ingredient,” said Chef Bruce Bromberg of Blue Ribbon Restaurants, New York. “They are so versatile and can be used in a variety of preparations — savory, sweet, sour, bitter, you name it.”
When it comes to cooking with ancient grains, nothing beats their flavor, according to Chef Michael Fiorelli of Love & Salt, an Italian-inspired restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “It is the first thing that comes into play when making a decision on what to use in any dish and whole grains deliver that deep, soul-satisfying touch,” he said.
“Since every ancient grain offers a unique taste and texture, they all have a place in a variety of applications,” said Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing, Bunge, St. Louis. “Some have an earthy or nutty flavor and some contribute an enjoyable crunch. They can also be a great way to incorporate natural colors into applications. Additionally, ancient grains can be blended together or with other grains to increase color and texture in the finished application.”
With the wide spectrum of grain ingredients, product developers may also tap ancient grains for their unique nutritional content.
“Ancient grains have remained unchanged by modern science and breeding technologies,” said Tara Froemming, marketing coordinator, Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, N.D. “This often makes them a richer source of nutrients than modern grains and a healthy alternative to other whole grain counterparts.”
It is likely a matter of time before more ancient grains go mainstream. One with potential is millet. Grown domestically, millet is a tiny, gluten-free, seed-like grain that is easy to digest. It has a bland, neutral flavor and cooks like rice.
“Millet is one of the most sustainable crops,” said Lindsey Cunningham, co-founder and chief operating officer of RollinGreens Food, Boulder, Colo. “It grows great here in Colorado, and has one of the lowest water requirements of any grain crop. We believe it is one of the most underappreciated grains and will really gain the notoriety it deserves in the next five to 10 years.”
Since 2015, the company has been producing Millet Tots for the retail sector. The frozen tots are a source of protein, vitamins and minerals, unlike their traditional potato counterpart.
“They are our version of potato tots but made with an organic ancient whole grain,” Ms. Cunningham said. “Millet on its own has a slight bitter taste, but it absorbs flavor. It’s a great canvas for ingredients such as garlic, basil and chilies.”
Food writer Maria Speck, author of “Simply ancient grains” and “Ancient grains for modern meals,” agreed that millet absorbs flavor. “You can cook it in a variety of liquids, everything from milk to broth,” she said. “It can be a savory side or a dessert.
“Creamy desserts are a perfect foil to showcase millet. They provide enough cover to hide the small grain from plain view yet plenty of appeal to highlight millet’s delicate texture.”
To make a dessert similar to rice pudding that can be topped with fruits and nuts, she suggested cooking one part millet with two parts water, and then adding about two-thirds part whole milk. Cook to a creamy consistency.
Millet in dehulled whole form may add a crunch that is maintained throughout most processes. This is true even in bread baking, which typically adds enough water to soften most grains.
“This ‘millet crunch’ can be advantageous in products such as bars, baked good toppings, and even breadings and batters,” said Vanessa Brovelli, manager of product development, Bay State Milling, Quincy, Mass. “Millet also has the unique ability to pop when heated if the hull is not removed.”
For applications that require a smoother mouthfeel, whole millet may be boiled and then added to an application, or millet flour can be used. Sprouting millet can alter the water holding capacity as well as the flavor and may be an interesting choice for variety and nutrition in several applications.
“I’ve been hoping that millet would take off, since it cooks quickly, is mild and sunny yellow, and is easy to grow domestically," said Minneapolis-based Robin Asbell, chef and author of “The whole grain promise.” “Photo-conscious operators would do well to think about color on the plate. That yellow is a fantastic backdrop for colorful vegetables, or as a bed for main courses.”
“Farro is starting to get on more plates thanks to the popularity of Italian food,” said Ms. Asbell. “Farro is easy to make ahead of time, making it perfect for food service. Unlike noodles, farro can sit in hot soup for hours, or bake in a casserole with no loss of character.”
Farro, which also goes by such names as einkorn, emmer and spelt, varying by country of origin, is part of the wheat family. Because of the grain’s low-gluten content, it is often favored by those who cannot tolerate wheat. However, because of the low-gluten content, the grain is not typically used in bread production. It contains about 40% more protein and 15% less starch than commercial wheat, and is abundant in B vitamins and trace minerals, including iron. It has a nut-like flavor with a hint of sweetness, making it very versatile.
“Farro is a great introductory ancient grain because of its mild flavor profile,” Ms. Speck said. “It’s an easy add-in to soup. It adds flavor, texture and nutrition.”
Chef Fiorelli concurred. “Farro is great. You can cook it or mill it,” he said. “I love the idea that I can eat something whole or turn it into a flour to make a super-satisfying dessert, pasta or flatbread.”
He is currently featuring ancient grains in several dishes, including the Freekehlicious Salad. It is made with five grains (freekeh, red quinoa, farro, fregola and black rice), five herbs (rosemary, sage, parsley, mint and basil), shaved radish, black currants and toasted hazelnuts. There’s also Rabbit Porchetta, which is served atop a bed of black rice and farro.
Within the past year, Blount Fine Foods, Fall River, Mass., introduced an ancient grain minestrone refrigerated soup for retail. The organic vegan soup features vegetables along with barley, farro and quinoa.
Amaranth and teff
Amaranth and teff are two additional rising stars in the world of ancient grains. Both cook in a similar fashion to porridge. They are increasingly used in hot cereal and polenta-style dishes.
Teff is a gluten-free grain best known for being high in calcium and fiber. It has a sweet, nutty, molasses-like flavor.
“Teff has a beautiful aroma with hints of coconut and cocoa,” Ms. Speck said.
Amaranth, technically a seed, also has a nutty flavor but is earthier with spicy, peppery notes. The raw, toasted seeds of both may be sprinkled into breads, muffins and other baked goods.
Earnest Eats, Solana Beach, Calif., offers a Hot & Fit Superfood Cereal. The hot cereal blends amaranth and quinoa with oats, to provide more protein, fiber, flavor and texture than oats alone.
“Uncooked amaranth is added as an inclusion for visual appeal, texture and nutrition to bars, chips, tortillas, bread and multigrain side dishes,” Ms. Brovelli said. “Amaranth’s flavor profile is somewhat changed through sprouting. Sprouted amaranth is an option for product developers for less bitterness and a more balanced flavor profile.”
When amaranth cooks it has a sticky, gelatinous texture, which lends itself to function as a thickener in such viscous foods as soups and sauces. Its peppery profile adds flavor dimension.
“Soups are probably one of the easiest culinary applications for ancient grains,” said Nicholas Ahrens, product applications technologist and chef at Bay State Milling. “Sprouted amaranth and quinoa pair perfectly with a Latin posole. Ancient grains can be toasted prior to being added into the soup to bring out an extra nutty flavor.
“Rice side dishes are easily converted to flavorful and nutritious pilafs by the simple addition of an ancient grain blend.”
Flatbreads and pizza crusts make sense for ancient grains, too. Smart Flour Foods, Austin, Texas, a manufacturer of ancient-grain based frozen pizzas, is introducing frozen Snack Bites, which are made with the company’s proprietary flour blend of sorghum, amaranth and teff.
Chef George Pagonis of Kapnos in Washington, D.C., said many ancient grains complement Greek and Mediterranean dishes.
“My most pronounced use of grains is with a spit roasted lamb shoulder that is served with grain salad,” he said. “It consists of toasted quinoa, couscous, bulgur and wild rice. Every grain is cooked separately in flavorful bouillon, then mixed together. All the grains are mixed in with cucumbers, red onion, mint, dill, parsley and sumac. Puffed amaranth is used on top for texture.”
Ancient grains are being explored as a source of plant protein for vegan foods and better-for-you snacks. Austin, Texas-based NurturMe, a company known for its quinoa baby food and toddler snacks, is rolling out the first and only organic ancient grain-based cookies with probiotics. Free from gluten, dairy, soy and egg, the cookies combine quinoa, amaranth, millet and sorghum to deliver a complete and balanced protein with all essential amino acids and immune-boosting antioxidants.
“Increased consumer interest in food from mission-based restaurants, millennial values, animal welfare and a desire to be part of a ‘food tribe’ are also fueling growth for sustainable and plant-based ingredients like ancient grains,” said Jane Dummer, a registered dietitian based in Ontario, Canada, and author of “The need for seeds.”
“We know vegetarian and flexitarian dietary patterns are continuing to trend. This is driving the popularity of nutrient-dense ancient grains.”
“Culinary professionals will continue to be plant focused,” concluded Ms. Dummer. “The preference for whole, simple, alternative protein and transparent ingredients will drive continued growth for ancient grains on both restaurant menus and at home.”