Before we get started I want to say a word about gluten. “Gluten” has become a bad word lately. We have gluten free this and that. It seems like everyone and his brother is on a gluten free diet. Unfortunately, most people don’t even know what gluten is! So, here goes… “Gluten (from Latin gluten, “glue”) is a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains, including barley, rye, oat (depending on cultivar and processing), and all their species and hybrids (such as spelt, kamut, and triticale). Gluten is appreciated for its viscoelastic properties. It gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture.
Gluten is a composite of storage proteins termed prolamins. It is conjoined with starch in the endosperm of various grass-related grains. Wheat prolamins are called gliadins and glutenins, barley prolamins are hordeins, rye prolamins are secalins and oats prolamins are avenins.” Simply put, that’s what makes the bread rise. The amount of these proteins depends on the type of grain.
Some grains such as rice have virtually no gluten at all and won’t produce a raised loaf by itself, while others like hard winter wheat have a great deal and make excellent raised bread. Generally, yeast breads need a fair amount of gluten while non-yeast breads need little or none. Whether gluten content is import to you depends on what you are going to use your grain for. Are you making bread or just using it as a hot cereal? Do you or one of your family members have a gluten intolerance problem? Keep these things in mind when choosing a new grain to try. Try some different kinds, but do it in small quantities.
Now on to the grains!
Amaranth is not a true cereal grain at all, but is a relative of “pigweed” and the ornamental flowers called “cockscomb”. You can use both the seed and the leaves, which can be cooked and eaten as greens. The seed is high in protein, particularly the amino acid lysine. It can be milled as-is, or toasted to provide more flavor. The flour lacks gluten, so it’s not good for making raised breads by itself, but it can be made into flat bread. Some varieties can be popped like popcorn, boiled and eaten as a cereal, or used in soups and granola. Toasted or un-toasted, it blends well with other grain flours.
NOTE: Like some other edible seeds, raw amaranth contains biological factors that can inhibit proper absorption of some nutrients. For this reason, amaranth seeds or flour should always be cooked before eating.
Barley is a grain most often found in soups and casseroles, as it doesn’t really lend itself to being eaten alone. When made into a tea it can be used for digestive complaints including diarrhea, stomach pain, and inflammatory bowel conditions. A barley poultice can be applied to the skin for treating boils. It is a source of vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins, and fatty oils. The fiber in barley has been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and may also reduce blood sugar and insulin levels. Barley seems to slow stomach emptying. This could help keep blood sugar stable and create a sensation of being full, which might help to control appetite.
Barley is thought by some to be the first grain intentionally cultivated by man. It has short, stubby kernels with a hull that is difficult to remove. This grain is generally available in two forms. Most common is the white, highly processed pearl barley. Like processed rice, much of its bran and germ have been milled off along with its hull. It’s the least nutritious form of barley.
The second type is called “pot” or “hulled” barley. While it has been through the same milling process as pearled, it’s been subjected to fewer trips through the polisher. Because of this, it retains more of the nutritious germ and bran, but doesn’t keep as well as the more refined product without special packaging.
Although it can be milled into flour, barley’s low gluten content won’t make a good loaf of raised bread. It can be combined with other flours that do have sufficient gluten to make leavened bread or used in flat breads. Barley flour and flakes have a light nutty flavor that is enhanced by toasting.
Buckwheat is another of those seeds commonly considered to be a grain, but which is not a true cereal. It is, in fact, a close relative to the docks and sorrels. The “grain” itself is a dark, three cornered seed resembling a tiny beechnut. It has a hard, fibrous hull requiring a special buckwheat huller to remove. Here in the U.S., buckwheat is most often used in pancakes, biscuits and muffins. In Eastern Europe and Russia, it’s known in its toasted form as kasha. In the Far East, it’s often made into soba or noodles. It’s also a good bee plant, producing a dark, strongly flavored honey. The flour is light or dark depending on how much of the hull has been removed before grinding. Dark flour is much more strongly flavored than lighter flour. Because of the high fiber and tannin content of its hull, which can interfere with nutrient absorption, the darker flour is not necessarily more nutritious than the light. Buckwheat is one of those foods with no middle ground in people’s opinions — they either love it or they hate it. My dad adored Buckwheat pancakes. Personally, I can’t stand it.
Like amaranth, it’s high in lysine, an amino acid commonly lacking in the true cereal grains.
Corn is the largest grain crop in the U.S., but is mostly consumed indirectly as animal feed or even industrial feed-stock rather than directly as food. As one of the Three Sisters (maize, squash and beans) corn was the staple grain of nearly all the indigenous peoples of the American continents before the advent of European colonization. This American grain has an amazing variety of forms. Major classes are the flint, dent, flour, and popcorns. To a certain extent, they’re all interchangeable for milling into meal (sometimes known as polenta meal) or flour (very finely ground corn, not cornstarch). The varieties intended to be eaten as sweet corn (fresh green corn) are high in sugar content so they don’t dry or store well relative to the other corns but instead are usually preserved as a vegetable.
Popcorn is for snacks or used as a cold cereal after popping. Popcorn is one form of a whole grain available to nearly everyone in the U.S. It’s most common a snack food, particularly at movie theaters, fairs, and ball games.
Here are a few corn products that are suited for use in home storage that you will want to be familiar with.
Corn meal: Healthy, tasty, and versatile. Corn meal can be used for fry batter, bread, pone, muffins, cornbread, and pancakes. It’s found in either course or fine ground.
Hominy: This is corn with the hull, and possibly the germ, removed. Hominy cooks faster than un-hulled whole corn, is easier to digest, and in some circumstances the alkali peeled varieties are more nutritious than whole corn. It’s an excellent ingredient in hearty soups and stews. I’m not sure why it’s not more popular. When served as a side dish with butter and salt and pepper it’s like eating soft popcorn.
Hominy Grits: Usually just called “grits” this coarsely ground meal can be either simple whole corn ground coarse or corn that has been hulled in a process using a form of lye to make hominy then dried and coarsely ground. Grits produced from lye peeled corn typically cook faster, have a longer shelf life, and presents a different, possibly superior, nutritional profile than the whole grain product. Very coarsely ground grits are also known as samp. Grits are a popular breakfast side dish in the south, usually served with butter or cheese.
Masa Harina: In Spanish “masa” means “dough” and “harina” means “flour” which is a straight forward description of what masa harina is: A lime peeled corn that has been dried and milled into meal to be made into tortilla dough. (by “lime” I mean calcium oxide, not the green citrus fruit.) Its flavor is distinctively different from either corn meal or hominy grits and is used in making tortillas, tamales, and many other Southwestern, Mexican, Central and South American dishes. Masa harina will store on the shelf for about a year and even longer if refrigerated or put up in good storage packaging. If you have a mind to try making your own tortillas, you will save yourself a lot of time and effort by using a tortilla press.
Corn Starch: A common starch used as a thickener. Made by a roller milling process that removes the hull and germ leaving behind a nearly pure starch. Storage life is indefinite if kept dry. In the United Kingdom and some other areas, it is known as “corn flour” which occasionally causes confusion with very finely milled corn also known as corn flour here in the States. The two products are not interchangeable.
Cornstarch can also be used in place of baby powder. It’s great for diaper rash and other rashes as it absorbs moisture.
Don’t forget to check out the recipes using the grains we’ve talked about here in the Recipe Section!