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Alternative Grains

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Alternative Grains

You've no doubt seen them cropping up on restaurant menus in recent years; a variety of strange sounding or exotic names intermixed with more recognizable terms - quinoa risotto, millet pilaf, kamut flatbreads. You've probably also found them at the grocery store, as cereal boxes boast "ancient grains" which seem to include a long list of difficult-to-pronounce names, and health food sections stock a growing number of strange-looking seeds.

But more than sounding exotic or fancy these grains may provide the much needed variety in our diets our digestive systems are all craving; whether we know it or not. While some of the names may sound intimidating, these grains are all delicious in their right applications and provide the much needed variety of nutrients our bodies crave including complex carbohydrates, fibre, B Vitamins, Vitamin E, polyunsaturated fats and minerals. Other good news about these alternative grains is that, since their recent popularity owes its success in large part to the health food movement, they are almost always whole grains; i.e. they still have the bran, with all its wonderful fibre and vital nutrients in tact. Let's take a closer look at some of these oft overlooked grains.


A close relative of wheat but containing a higher nutrient profile and 30% more in protein, Kamut has a rich, buttery flavour. Despite its similarity to wheat, Kamut is tolerated by many people with wheat intolerance or allergy. Kamut is considered an "ancient grain" since it has remained unaltered by modern plant breeders. As well as being able to purchase the whole flour for baking or the grain itself for porridges or side dishes, Kamut can be found in wheat free breads, pastas, cereals and crackers at most health food stores.


Another "ancient grain", spelt has been cultivated in Europe for the last 9,000 years. Like Kamut, spelt is similar to wheat, but is sweet and nutty in flavour. Although it does contain gluten, it is often tolerated better than wheat by gluten-sensitive individuals. Spelt is higher protein than wheat and contains more fibre and nutrients than both Kamut and wheat. When substituting spelt flour for wheat flour in a baking recipe, use only 3/4 of the required liquid since spelt is more water soluble.


Rye is most often used in breads, which have a distinctive, unmistakable flavour, but it can also be used as a side dish, a breakfast cereal or put into soups or stews. Most rye breads are actually a combination of rye flour and wheat flour, however, 100% rye bread can be found in some bakeries and health food stores. Rye has more fibre than wheat and also contains about double the amino acid lysine, which is helpful in protecting against viral infections. Because of its strong flavour, rye is usually mixed with other milder grains when cooking it as a side dish or porridge.


Known as the smallest grain in the world, teff has a mild flavour and pleasant sweetness. Teff is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine where it is used to make the delicious crepe-like bread called injera. Teff is gluten free and can be used in non-rising breads, pancakes or waffles, or in stews, soups or for thickening sauces.


Buckwheat is actually not related to wheat at all and is technically not a grain, but a fruit. It is most often found in the form of kasha, which are buckwheat groats that have been hulled and roasted to give them a distinctive smoky, nutty flavour. Buckwheat is gluten free but buckwheat flour can be added to glutinous flours in yeast breads to change up their flavour without affecting their ability to rise. Buckwheat is also popular as a side dish or in soups and stews.


Touted by the vegetarians as a super-grain due to its very high nutrient value, like buckwheat, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is actually not a grain but a fruit. High in protein and iron, two nutrients of particular concern to the vegetarian, quinoa has risen dramatically in popularity in the west over the last decade. Quinoa has a delicate but distinctive flavour and can be substituted for most other grains and cooks very similarly to rice.


Although most often used as birdseed in North America, millet is actually a very mild tasting cereal grain. In cooking applications, millet has a tendency to take on the flavour of whatever else it is being cooked with, making it very versatile. Its texture is similar to that of rice and therefore can often be substituted.


High in protein and fibre, this Central American "grain" is actually considered a vegetable. Amaranth has a very distinctive flavour and may not be enjoyed by everyone. It can be used in soups, stews, breads, or as a breakfast cereal.

It is a little known fact that grains can go rancid in relatively short periods of time. Storing in air tight, opaque containers and keeping grains in a cool place is the best way to prolong their shelf life. Bulk food stores that don't have a high turnover and are not in the practice of cleaning out the bin before adding new product should be avoided. Also, rather than buying large quantities of grains, buy smaller quantities more often and try to shop from places that keep their grains in the fridge. Also, whole grain flours, which are more exposed to air and may go rancid even faster, should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer once they have been opened to prevent them from going rancid.

Doug DiPasquale is a trained Chef and Holistic Nutritionist practising in Toronto.

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