Once, only a few grain types were in use in food processing. That’s no longer the case as research chefs and bakers rediscover the goodness and versatility of “ancient” and “heritage” grains. Today’s product developers are taking advantage of hundreds of available grain types and formats, from millet, quinoa, teff, and other grasses, seeds, to multiple rice varieties to wheat in forms such as couscous and freekeh.

Last year, the National Restaurant Assn.’s prediction for the hottest food trends placed ancient grains as No. 15 on the general list, and No. 1 in “Starches/Sides.” And more than that, lesser-known grains scored high as well, with black/“Forbidden” rice coming it at No. 3 in that category and Farro (a heritage wheat) at No. 5.

What are “ancient” or “heritage” grains? The definition varies as to source, but those most agreed upon include: Wheat relatives spelt, emmer, bulgur (a form of durum wheat), einkorn, Farro, Khorasan (best known by its trade name, Kamut), and triticale; barley, rye, oats; and millet, sorghum, buckwheat, and teff.

Pseudo-grains such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa (and kañiwa, also known as “baby quinoa”) are counted, as are chia and other seeds. Also now included are red and black rice and blue and purple corn as well. The key is, these grains date back to the beginning of recorded history and have remained largely unchanged through breeding in centuries.

Ancient grains often are sold in their whole state, and they confer similar nutritional attributes, being higher in vitamins, minerals and protein than more standard grains. Many, such as certified oats, millet, sorghum, teff, corn, rice, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa, are gluten-free and have capitalized on that trend in numerous baked items, crackers, cookies, snacks, desserts and in restaurant and foodservice preparations as sides and coatings.

Southern Comfort

Chefs and snack food makers are using more heritage grains in mainstream preparations as well. John Csukor, president and CEO of contract culinary consulting firm KOR Food Innovation, works on product development for the United Sorghum Check-off promotional group. Sorghum has been grown and used in the Southern US and Texas for generations, although largely for animal feed. But sorghum syrup, similar to a light molasses, has long been a favorite of the region as a substitute for maple syrup.

Csukor explains that sorghum is an excellent choice for foodservice and other formulations and can demand a premium price. He notes that the whole-grain kernels also are perfect for items such as paella and tabbouleh, where it gives a textural “pop” similar to bulgur. The kernels can also be used in side dishes and salads similar to bulgur, rice, quinoa, etc.

Csukor further notes that sorghum can fit most Mediterranean applications, including risotto. However, he cautions, for a risotto formulation, an increase in cream, and perhaps an addition of parmesan cheese, would be needed to achieve the required creamy texture.

Chefs need patience when cooking sorghum kernels, as they can take up to an hour for dishes such as a creamier, soft paella. Forty-eight minutes is probably sufficient for salads for a chewier texture. 

Sorghum flour works well for quick breads at 25% (of the flour), and adds a different nutrient profile as well as taste. However, when baking a traditional loaf of bread, 20% sorghum flour is about the maximum for good results.

Sorghum flour can also be used for gluten-free pasta and makes a great breading crust. Csukor recommends that, when baking with sorghum flour, hydration be increased by 5-8%, while letting the resultant dough rest more for optimal absorption. “Keep it soft and let it rise twice before shaping,” he says. 

When making a gluten-free product, sorghum flour partners well as a combination of mochiko (Japanese sweet rice powder) and golden flax meal.

Some ancient grains lend themselves particularly well to novel uses, such as popped versions of trendy whole grains like sorghum. Examples include Mini Pops Inc. and NextJen Media LLC/Just Poppin’ brands of popped sorghum. Popped sorghum, called jowar in India, is a popular snack in many African and South Asian countries. A dry heat cooking method can make quinoa and amaranth also pop.

Such popped ancient grains can be used as toppings for salads, desserts, or entrees, or as an ingredient in trail mixes, health/cereal bars, or even sweet products. If the grains are used cold, such as in salads, they might need an extra touch of sugar or salt to bring out their flavor.

Barley There

Barley often gets overlooked by the baking industry. Perhaps it is because barley is generally known for its use in beer, stews, and soups.

Andrew Ross, PhD, a professor at Oregon State University, and Brigid Meints, graduate research assistant at Washington State University, offer tips for formulators. For products using a whole grain barley, it is best to use hulless barley. This type of barley has been around since ancient times in the Himalayas, and new varieties are being bred in the Pacific Northwest to improve its yield and disease resistance. The hull threshes off like wheat, leaving the bran, germ and endosperm intact. In hulled barley, when the hull is removed through pearling, all of the germ and most of the bran is removed making for a whiter product.

Research is under way to develop colored barley such as black, blue and purple which are higher in antioxidants. A purple variety, called Karma, is available in bulk sizes, and a mixture of white, blue and brown barley called “#STRKR”  is on the market.

When baking with barley, it must be treated the same as gluten-free grains. This is because the gluten in barley does not function the same as the gluten in wheat. However, some persons with celiac disease still might react to the gluten-like proteins in barley. 

Some of the best uses for barley flour are for shortbreads or quick breads, items that don’t require a lot of rising. Barley flour also can be incorporated in small percentages in yeast breads. These doughs might become tacky if a lot of barley is used.

Just as barley can be malted into various flavors for beer, and malt syrups make interesting, flavorful breads. Barley flakes also are available for breading or enrobing breads. Barley has become an increasingly popular ingredient for use in hot breakfast cereal mixes, too.

Baking Straight

Lin Carson, PhD, a professional baker who has owned her own bakery café, worked at Wendy’s New Bakery Co.. and Dave’s Killer Bread Co. (now owned by Flowers Foods Inc.) Today, Carson operates an online technical resource and platform for the commercial baking industry. She recognizes that the trendy, healthy, and “adventuresome” foods both Millennials and Baby Boomers are seeking fit perfectly with ancient grains and unusual rice varieties, and that they often are willing to pay extra for such products. Recent research by trend-trackers such as Mintel and Ingredient Communications Inc. support both of these beliefs.

Marketing with the Grain

One of the best ways to market ancient grains is with their history. Noting that the grains go back thousands of years and fed numerous civilizations, imparting health and vigor. For example, scholars of Mesoamerican history have described how Aztec warriors believed amaranth gave them power and strength. Even today, amaranth carries on as a traditional Mexican street food, sold as Alegria (“happy”) and is served “pilafs” that can contains nuts, pumpkin seeds, chocolate bits, and sea-salt.

For those relying on regional ingredients, marketing may include information about the farmer and his family or community growing the grains. With nutrition such a big part of the marketing story, the health benefits of particular grains are especially well-positioned for an effective marketing approach. For example, quinoa is the only grain with the full complement of amino acids to comprise a complete protein. This makes it highly appealing to vegetarians and vegans, another angle for successful marketing.

“When we set out to make gluten-free hamburger buns and hoagie rolls, we opted for our signature Smart Flour blend,” says Josh Shurtleff, vice president of operations for Smart Flour Foods LLC. “That blend is a proprietary combination of the ancient grains sorghum, amaranth, and teff. Through extensive internal testing, coupled with constant customer feedback, we were able to fine tune our recipes to create hamburger buns and hoagie rolls that taste and perform as good, if not better, than many standard offerings.”

Shurtleff points out that, in addition to providing a hearty yet tender texture, the gluten-free ancient grains also possess a natural sweetness that “adds complexity and flavor, qualities often lacking in gluten-free foods.” The ancient grain ingredients also makes Smart Flour Foods’ products high in protein, calcium, and iron, attributes Shurtleff notes that health-conscious consumers appreciate. “The nutritional benefits and versatility of these whole grains are why they became the basis for all of Smart Flour Foods’ products,” he adds.

Dillion DeBauche, chef of the Little T American Bakery in Portland, Ore., regularly uses kamut, teff, einkorn, emmer, buckwheat, and four or five different barley varieties in his breads. One customer favorite is teff with apple, rye and spelt. He also crafts a 100% spelt bread that sells out daily.

More restaurant chefs are using barley these days as well. The Pike brewery and restaurant in Seattle sells a popular wild salmon with a wild mushroom and barley side dish. At the upscale Carlis restaurant, also in Seattle, a popular menu item is a barley porridge with geoduck, plum, and wood sorrel.

At the Cosmopolitan Restaurant in Telluride, chef Chad Scothorn takes a different approach to ancient grains. He is adamant about not using grain premixes, since not all grains cook to perfection at the same time. Some could remain slightly raw while others can become overcooked. Scothorn stresses that grains from different suppliers will cook differently as well, depending on the age of the grains. He recommends processors wishing to use a mix of grains cook them separately and then combine for reheating to serve.

Scothorn typically uses a starter for his breads, which are baked daily and are treated to a long fermentation (about eight hours). His bakers make a variety of interesting breads with flax, sesame, and sprouted wheat and, interestingly, although the bakery is at an elevation of 9,000 ft., no adjustments in baking are needed.

While Scothorn, as with many chefs, often cooks grains in chicken or vegetable stock, he employs other liquids for certain grains. For example, he uses coconut milk to soften some of the more “earthy-flavored” grains such as purple sticky rice. Also, the dark quinoa he uses grown in Colorado gets rinsed three times before he adds vegetables or spices into the final preparation. 

Quinoa, especially if it has been stored for a while, has compounds called saponins that can give it a soapy or bitter flavor. Rinsing will remove most of this.

Stacey Givens, chef of the Side Yard Farm & Kitchen in Portland, Ore., grows amaranth, quinoa, farro, and freekeh. She uses the flour from these home-grown heritage grains to make pasta and gnocchi, both she has discovered are easy to market to her catering clients.

A Matter of Technique

Michel Suas, founder and president of the San Francisco Baking Institute, also is one of the foremost ancient-grain-bakers in the US. The Institute is now a world-renowned center for artisan baking. Because of the rapidly growing interest in ancient grains, Suas says that even big commercial suppliers and baking companies are increasing efforts toward baking with these grains. He notes that having larger companies involved makes the ingredients more accessible and affordable.

Suas provides the following fast tips for getting the best results making bread with such grains. They include: more hydration for kamut; avoid overmixing spelt; shape ancient grain doughs gently and use long fermentations (including an overnight cold fermentation). He also notes that, while persons with celiac disease should not eat any wheat, barley, or rye, some persons with non-celiac gluten sensitivity might be able to tolerate them better. This is due to the longer fermentation times that break down the gluten structure.

When baking with multiple ancient grains, it is necessary to adjust for the reduced or absent gluten content and quality, as compared to standard wheat flour. Typical recommendations for including these grains range from 10-25%, depending on the product made (such as a risen bread versus a quickbread), the grains used, the grind, and the experience of the baker. Some ancient grain-based breads can require increased vital wheat gluten, changing their gluten-free status.

While ancient grains are usually higher priced than more mainstream offerings, that added cost can recouped in two ways. The grains, which are whole and higher in fiber, will absorb more water and by adding more water to the formulas, it will increase the yield, reducing the overall cost. Also, as noted previously, consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay more for foods with a strong and verifiable health halo.

A great way to start is by replacing amaranth for corn meal in grits or polenta; use barley for orzo in a risotto or in tabbouleh; or white quinoa in grain bowls or hearty salads (such as with kale or watercress). Suas’ “trial and error” recommendation also holds true for baking to determine ingredient ratios and hydration to obtain the best volume, texture, and flavor. Also, he notes, a more coarsely milled product might help prevent gumminess in the dough.

Small grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, and teff can be tossed with citrus vinaigrettes and fruits and vegetables. The larger grains, such as barley, wheat, rye and sorghum are suited to bold, meaty flavors. Soaking ancient grains can dramatically reduce the cooking time. After soaking, the cooking time will vary by grain. Quinoa works best if the water is just brought to boiling and then removed from the heat, covered and set aside for 15 minutes. Others, such as amaranth, teff, barley, wheat, and rye need to be simmered to al dente. Millet doesn’t do well if boiled, but sprouting it and then boiling works well.

Sprouted Grains

According to Carson, sprouted grains are the hottest trend in baking. They might need additional vital wheat gluten, but they will be sweeter, with a better aroma than conventional breads. Sprouting grains is labor intensive and entails food safety issues, so she recommends buying sprouted flour from manufacturers who have perfected the procedure.

Nicholas Ahrens is an avid promoter of sprouted grains which results in structural changes making them more “fracturable” so they can be used directly as a coating to meat without having to be pre-cooked. They add a distinctive crunch that will stay crisper longer than standard breading. An advantage of sprouted grain flour in breads is they require shorter proof times and are sweeter than many whole grains.

When making a starter from sprouted grains, it is essential to monitor it carefully, as sprouted grains ferment faster and baking or flour preparations made from them impart different flavors than do refined flours. Teff, for example, results in notes of chocolate and aged meat, while quinoa can add a complex lactic acid tangy note.

Sprouted grains have taken on a “healthy halo” as providers of enhanced nutritional benefit. Although animal studies have failed to support any superior nutritional quality from sprouted grains, numerous in vitro studies have demonstrated that sprouted grains have increased levels of vitamins, minerals, and protein. They also are believed to have easier digestibility, increased enzyme activity ,and reduced amounts of anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and tannin. Germinated/sprouted rice, now making its way into a number of products, is higher in many nutritional components than either brown or white rice.

So far only few (and small) human research studies have been conducted in an effort to support increased healthfulness of sprouted grains as a general notion. Results of two small human studies have indicated that sprouted brown rice could be beneficial to human health.

The human studies, ranging in size from 11 to 41 subjects, showed improved blood sugar control for pre-diabetic and diabetic men and women in one study, with another resulting in improved scores for depression, anger/hostility, and fatigue in nursing mothers. These mothers also showed a significant improvement in their immune system function. More and larger human studies are necessary to prove increased nutritional benefits from sprouted grains.

Sprouted rice has a longer shelf life and shorter cooking times than its unsprouted counterparts. Valley Select LLC, the only commercial world-class sprouting facility for rice and grain in North America, uses a unique, Japanese-developed procedure for sprouting its rice. Rather than soak it in water, which can result in bacterial growth, the company instead uses a high-humidity + high temperature system. The latter acts as a kill-step for any bacteria. In addition, the method results in a higher kernel integrity and increased shelf stability.

Rice is Nice

Multiple varieties and colors of rice provide food manufacturers and foodservice operators with endless opportunities. In addition to white rice and brown rice, common members of this cadre include black Japonica rice, purple rice, red rice, basmati, Thai hom mali rice (commonly referred to as jasmine rice or fragrant rice), Arborio, Texmati, and wild rice—which isn’t rice but a semi-aquatic grass species.

Rice provides many advantages to formulators. It stores well in a dry, cool place. 

Refrigeration or freezing will extend shelf life. It holds up well once cooked, and even the more exotic types have a comparatively low cost. Rice also is nutritious (it is estimated that about 70% of the rice in the US is enriched); applicable to numerous cuisines; and easy to combine with proteins and vegetables. Moreover, it lends itself well to sweet formulations.

Even heritage rices are easy to source. Domestically, 85% of the rice eaten in the US is grown in one of six states. Rice has capitalized on its gluten-free, non GMO attributes. And if sustainability is important to the marketing of a product, rice fields typically pull double duty as habitats for wintering ducks, geese, mammals, and reptiles. In Louisiana, crayfish are commonly grown in certain rice fields.

CSSI Culinary, a marketing and support institute for the culinary world, tasked Andrea Todd, R&D manager, and Thomas Talbert, RD and vice president of Culinary R&D, to work with USA Rice to develop unique and healthful recipes as well as provide formulation tips for foodservice operators. For example, preparers should not wash or rinse rice before cooking; rice can be soaked before cooking, but it should then be cooked in the same water so the vitamins are absorbed. It takes up to twice as long to cook some of the exotic rice types as it does white rice, but the added flavor and nutrients make it worthwhile. Of course, par-boiled or sprouted rice will take a lot less time to cook.

Using mixes of different kinds of rice is not recommended, as various rice types require different lengths of time for proper cooking. However, some mixes have been designed with such considerations in mind. Sautéing rice in oil or butter before adding it to soup and pilafs can increase the flavor and keep the grains separated. Todd and Talbert note that brown, black, or red rice make particularly attractive additions to salads.

Chef and cookbook author Honga Im-Hopgood uses a variety of ancient grains, including quinoa, buckwheat and rice. While working in Bhutan, she developed variations of a traditional purple/red rice porridge made with coconut milk, sugar, and lime juice Adding mangos can turn it into a comfort-cuisine dessert. Sometimes, Im-Hopgood adds eggs and cooks it as a custard, which is then used as a platform for a savory dish with spices instead of sugar or other sweeteners.

Im-Hopgood grows quinoa and uses it in numerous ways, employing it often as a side dish with fish, meat, or tofu. Or, she prepares quinoa in salads with just olive oil, garlic, and any or all nuts, cucumbers and avocado. When she has left-over plain quinoa, she will often add it to the breakfast menu as a specialty item adding shredded apple, almond or coconut milk and tahini sauce. Honga currently owns and operates the upscale Lotus Root restaurant in Ridgway, Colo. The variety and use of ancient grains and unusual rices is limited only by a chef or baker’s imagination.  

Originally appeared in the February, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Going With the Grain.