I turned to registered dietitian and gluten-free blogger, Cheryl Harris, for advice last summer to help fine tune my gluten-free diet. Cheryl joins me to introduce gluten-free whole grain choices that add fiber and nutrients to gluten-free meals.
Cooking with Great Gluten-free Grains
By Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, LD
Health experts agree that whole grains play a role in weight management, lowering risk of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and inflammation. When people think whole grains, often thoughts of wheat bread and oat bran come to mind. So where does that leave the gluten-free community? There are a few gluten-free whole grains that most people are familiar with, like brown rice and wild rice, but most are brave new territory. The good news is that whether you enjoy crunchy, chewy or soft grains, there's one that will work for you, and there are plenty to choose from.
Brown rice: This doesn't require a lot of explanation. It's readily available and inexpensive. It takes a long time to cook (around an hour). However, rice freezes very well. It's easy to prepare a large batch, let it cool to room temperature and freeze it in portions. It can be reheated on the stovetop or in the microwave. Or just buy it frozen! Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Wegman’s and other sell frozen brown rice. To keep things interesting, there are varieties like Bhutanese Red Rice, which cooks in 25-30 minutes, or Chinese Black Rice, which turns a beautiful purple color when cooked.
Wild rice: It's widely available, and has nearly double the potassium and more protein than brown rice. It has a nutty flavor, and works very well in soups, hot or cold salads, casseroles, as a stuffing for poultry or vegetables, or as a pilaf. Like brown rice, it freezes well.
Oats: now this is a bit of more controversial territory. Pure oats do not technically contain gluten, but the most recent studies show that conventional oats are all cross-contaminated with gluten. Only oats marked “certified gluten-free” may be acceptable for people with Celiac Disease. Even McCann’s and Irish oats not specially marked DO contain traces of gluten. And not all people with CD can tolerate gluten-free oats—the protein in oats, called avenin, causes a reaction just like gluten does in some Celiacs, so do check in with your health care team and proceed with caution. But, if you tolerate oats, that’s fabulous news, because in addition to providing fiber, oats are a good source of magnesium, B1, phosphorous and more.
Quinoa: this is one of the easiest "beginner" gluten-free grains. In the past few years, it's gained popularity among gluten eaters and non-gluten eaters alike. Quinoa is actually not a grain, but the seeds of a plant. Quinoa is a traditional Incan food and is considered a "superfood" due to the fact that it's a wonderful source of iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and zinc and a vegetarian complete source of protein, meaning it has all of the amino acids that are needed in the body. Quinoa is a relatively firm grain with a consistency like couscous, just a little larger. It cooks in just 15-20 minutes. It works well in casseroles, pilafs, as a stuffing for vegetables or poultry, or just by itself. Quinoa flakes are also available, and these substitute well for oatmeal in cooking and baking.
Now we're heading into more exotic territory…
Buckwheat: There’s much more to buckwheat than pancakes! Buckwheat is completely unrelated to wheat and actually is a distant relative of rhubarb. Buckwheat is a great source of protein, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, potassium, and several B vitamins. The edible portion, or groat, is also known as kasha. It has a nutty flavor, which becomes stronger if toasted (whether that is desirable is a matter of personal preference). Buckwheat is a great pilaf, side dish, stuffing, or hot breakfast cereal and cooks in just 20 minutes. It is also sold as Soba noodles, but check labels carefully: most Soba noodles are a mix of buckwheat and wheat.
Millet: I bought millet for years and never even knew it! Millet is commonly found in bird food in the US though it has been used in India, Asia and Africa for years. Millet is rich in folate and fiber and a good source of other B vitamins and trace nutrients It has a soft texture, and a mildly sweet flavor. It is good as a hot breakfast, as a stuffing or pilaf and cooks in 25-30 minutes. Try my recipe for Apple Cinnamon Millet for breakfast.
Teff or Tef: This tiny grain is a nutritional powerhouse. It is a great source of calcium, iron, magnesium, thiamin and zinc. It was traditionally grown in Ethiopia, but has been increasingly available in the West. It is good as a hot breakfast cereal or as an addition to another hot cereal, as a pilaf or as a thickener for stews. It has a somewhat gelatinous texture, and somewhat of a crunch, even after it is cooked.
Amaranth: This is another one of the “pseudo-grains”. Amaranth is a seed and a great source of iron, fiber, zinc, magnesium, calcium and protein. Amaranth can be used as a hot breakfast cereal, in soups and pilafs. In Central America, the seeds are popped to make a sweet treat (it’s done much like popping popcorn, but with MUCH smaller yields). This small grain has a crunch, even when cooked, and a somewhat gelatinous texture. Amaranth cooks in 20-25 minutes. Adventurous gardeners can even grow amaranth at home, but it does grow to 5-7 feet.
Sorghum: The gluten-free community is familiar with sorghum flour, but sorghum grain is becoming increasingly available. Like the flour, sorghum is a great source of phosphorous and potassium, and contains fiber, B vitamins and iron, too. Sorghum can be soaked and cooked as a pilaf, and makes a good addition to slow cooking stews or soups.
By now, hopefully you’re convinced that there are a lot of great gluten-free grain options out there. But for most people, the hardest hurdle is just getting started trying them! If someone put a bowl of plain rice in front of you, chances are you wouldn’t be terribly inspired by the taste. So here are a few hints for cooking whole grains:
- Cook the grains in broth instead of water.
- Sauté some garlic or ginger and/or vegetables, then add in the required amount of broth or water and grains, and cook as directed.
- Add in herbs, spices, a squirt of lemon, etc.
If you’d rather start with a formal recipe, check out these website for good ideas:
Enjoy exploring the world of gluten-free grains, and bon appétit!