Beyond Rice: A Guide to Other Grains

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2013

These days, supermarkets offer an entire universe of grains—and with the right method they’re as easy to cook, and as versatile, as rice.

Learn about six of our favorite grains.


Best known in this country as a staple used in soups, this high-fiber grain’s nutty, subtly sweet flavor makes it an ideal accompaniment to meat, chicken, and fish. Both hulled and pearl barley (the most widely available varieties) are stripped of their tough outer covering, but we prefer quicker-cooking pearl barley, which has been polished to remove the bran layer as well.

KNOWING WHEN IT'S DONE: The grains will be softened and plump but still somewhat firm in the center.

TIP: For a hearty alternative to risotto, substitute pearl barley for the Arborio rice typically used. Like rice, the barley will release starches when stirred, creating a creamy consistency. Be sure to add extra liquid since barley takes a bit longer to cook.

TRY IT IN: Barley Risotto with Roasted Butternut Squash


The mellow corn flavor and fine texture of these tiny seeds make them extremely versatile in both savory and sweet applications, including flatbreads, polenta-like puddings, and pan-fried cakes. We particularly like them in pilafs or even just mixed with a pat of butter.

KNOWING WHEN IT'S DONE: All of the cooking liquid will be absorbed and the grains will be fully tender.

TIP: Slightly overcooking millet causes the seeds to burst and release starch, creating a creamy consistency that makes this grain ideal for breakfast porridge.

TRY IT IN: Millet Porridge with Maple Syrup


Bulgur is made from wheat berries that have been steamed or boiled and ground into fine, medium, coarse, or very coarse grain. Don’t confuse it with cracked wheat, which is not parcooked.

KNOWING WHEN IT'S DONE: The grains will be somewhat tender but still firm.

TIP: Instead of simmering it in water, we often reconstitute fine- or medium-grain bulgur by soaking it in water flavored with lemon, lime, or tomato juice (use 2/3 cup of liquid for 1 cup of bulgur and soak for 60 to 90 minutes).

TRY IT IN: Bulgur with Red Grapes and Feta


Though actually a seed, quinoa is often referred to as a “supergrain” because it’s a nutritionally complete protein. We love the pinhead-size seeds (which can be white, red, black, or purple) for their faint crunch and mineral taste.

KNOWING WHEN IT'S DONE: The grains will unfurl and expand to about three times their size.

TIP: Toast quinoa in a dry (no oil or butter) pot before adding water; we’ve found that toasting it in fat gives the grain a slightly bitter flavor.

TRY IT IN: Quinoa Salad with Red Bell Pepper and Cilantro


A favorite ingredient in Tuscan cuisine, these hulled whole-wheat kernels boast a sweet, nutty flavor and a chewy bite. In Italy, the grain is available in three sizes—farro piccolo, farro medio, and farro grande—but the midsize type is most common in the United States.

KNOWING WHEN IT'S DONE: The grains will be tender but have a slight chew, similar to al dente pasta.

TIP: Although we usually turn to the absorption method for quicker-cooking grains, farro takes better to the pasta method because the abundance of water cooks the grains more evenly.

TRY IT IN: Farro with Mushrooms and Thyme


These are not berries at all but whole, husked wheat kernels with a rich, earthy flavor and firm chew. Because they’re unprocessed, they remain firm, smooth, and distinct when cooked, which makes them great for salads.

KNOWING WHEN IT'S DONE: The grains will be softened but still quite chewy, smooth, and separate.

TIP: Though not typically done when boiling grains, we toast wheat berries in oil before adding them to the water, which brings out their nutty flavor.

TRY IT IN: Wheat Berry Salad with Orange and Scallions