Cooking Whole Grains
If you are new to cooking whole grains, here is a primer with everything you need to know and some guides for each individual type.
You can cook them in any quantity but they come out the best when you cook them in larger batches. There are also a lot of really good pre-cooked options available. Most larger supermarkets have pre-cooked frozen brown rice. Many also have pre-cooked brown rice stored at room temperature in pouches. We always try to keep some of these on hand in case we throw together a last-minute meal and don’t have any already cooked.
Usually once or twice a week I’ll cook a pot of 3 cups of whole grains. Once it finishes cooking, I’ll place it in a large glass storage container and put it in the refrigerator for later use.
We have a rice cooker, which is really handy. Usually, you just add the grain + appropriate volume of liquid, turn it on and let it do its thing. Most have settings for brown rice which can work well for most whole grains. Once the grain is cooked, a rice cooker will also keep it warm. If it sits for more than a few hours, it will dry out a bit.
I’m not sure what the motivation is, but I’ve found myself cooking them on the stovetop more than in the rice cooker lately. This is an easy option as well. Use a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, add the grain and liquid, bring to a rolling boil, and then turn to a low simmer. If the simmer is gentle enough, the pot won’t boil over and the grains won’t burn even if you don’t turn off the heat at the exact right moment. It helps to let the grains stay in the pot for at least 15 minutes after the heat is off. This allows for any grains on the bottom to not get stuck and for the liquid to spread evenly throughout the pot.
Some stoves do not have a low enough setting to prevent the pot from boiling over. If this is the case, place your pot so that it is not centered over the burner. Make it offset by some amount so the entire flame or heating element is not contacting the bottom of the pan.
Pressure cookers are also an option. I’ve used them and really don’t love them for cooking grains. I follow the recipes but never seem to end up with the right amount of liquid. Once you factor in how long they take to heat up and cool off, they don’t really save much if any time over other methods.
Before cooking, most grains do well to have a few rinses in cold water. You’ll usually see some dust, hulls or imperfect grains that get washed away in the process. I just put the grains in the cooking pot, add cool water, swish around with my hands, and pour the water out without straining. Any bit of water that is left behind is negligible enough not to need to count toward the cooking water volume.
The following table is for the stovetop method. The time is how long to leave on a low simmer after reaching a rolling boil. Note that some grains can be cooked as a light and fluffy side dish (pilaf) or a creamy hot cereal (porridge). Pilafs can be cooked with water, or 1/2 water and 1/2 broth. They often pair well with savory ingredients like garlic or chives. Those that are not specified are in pilaf form.
Porridges can be cooked with water or 1/2 water and 1/2 non-dairy milk. They often work well with sweeter seasonings like cinnamon or cardamom. Porridges also work well in slow cookers. In these cases, use the same volume of liquid and grain, and cook on the lowest setting for 4-6 hours. My favorite hot cereal is whole oats made in the slow cooker.
If you make larger batches, just adjust quantities and keep the ratio of parts of liquid constant. The grains below are listed as 1 cup. I usually cook 2-3 cups at a time. For example with amaranth pilaf, you use 2 cups of water or broth to 1 cup of grains. For 3 cups of grains, use 6 cups of liquid.
Some of the denser grains like einkorn, Kamut, rye, triticale, or wheat berries can also be soaked overnight before cooking. If you plan to use it in a salad this is not necessary – it is nice to have them solid and chewy. If they are used as a side dish and you want them to not overpower other foods, you may prefer them pre-soaked. In either case, it is common if you have some extra liquid to pour off after cooking them.
Grain (1 cup) Cups of liquid Cooking time Final volume
Amaranth pilaf 2 20 min 2 1/2 cups
Amaranth porridge 3 35 min 3 1/2 cups
Barley, hulled 3 cups 60 min 3 1/2 cups
Barley, pearl 2.5 cups 20 min 3 cups
Buckwheat, pilaf 2 cups 20 min 4 cups
Buckwheat, porridge 3 cups 40 min 4 cups
Bulgur 2 cups 12 min 3 cups
Einkorn 2 cups 40 min 3 cups
Farro 2 1/2 cups 40 min 3 cups
Freekeh 2 1/2 20 min 3 cups
Kasha (toasted buckwheat) pilaf 2 cups 20 min 4 cups
Kamut 4 cups 60 min 3 cups
Millet 2 1/2 cups 30 min 4 cups
Oats, groats, pilaf 2 cups 45 min 3 cups
Oats, groats, porridge 4 cups 90 min 3 1/2 cups
Oats, steel-cut, porridge 4 cups 30 min 3 cups
Quinoa 2 cups 15 min 3 cups
Rice, brown – pilaf 2 1/2 cups 45 min 3 cups
Rice, brown – porridge 3 1/2 cups 90 min 3 1/2 cups
Rye 4 cups 60 min 3 cups
Sorghum 4 cups 40 min 4 cups
Spelt 4 cups 60 min 3 cups
Teff, pilaf 3 cups 20 min 2 1/2 cups
Triticale 3 cups 40 min 3 1/2 cups
Wheat berries 4 cups 60 min 2 1/2 cups
Wild rice 3 cups 50 min 3 1/2 cups
Canned vs Homemade
I like both. It is easy to find unsalted canned beans in BPA-free cans. The label of each can says that it has 3 – 1/2 cup servings. If you log and measure food, you’ll see that it is usually more like 2 to 2 1/2 servings per can.
Canned beans are often not as flavorful and lack the texture of well-cooked homemade beans but they are handy to have to throw together a quick meal. They are less cost-effective but are still low-cost food at around 30-40 cents per serving.
To soak or not to soak?
For homemade beans, you’ll find lots of conflicting wisdom about soaking. There is the overnight soak, the hot soak, the quick soak, and the no-soak methods.
The claims are that the right method will improve digestibility, taste, and cooking time.
The one claim that is objectively true is that soaked beans require less cooking time. How much less time? For an average-sized bean, like a pinto bean, you might save 5-15 minutes. To me, that does not justify the hassle of soaking.
The main issue is with gas and bloating. Beans are among the higher sources of raffinose in the diet, it is thought to be the main culprit. It is a trisaccharide that is digested by the bacteria in the colon rather than by the typical digestive processes of the small intestine. Soy and lima beans are on the higher side, red beans and chickpeas are among the lowest. The colon bacteria produce an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase that helps. The healthier your flora and the more of this enzyme they produce, the less gas you get from beans.
Raffinose is not just in beans. Jerusalem artichokes are the highest source but a fair amount is found in many vegetables and whole grains.
For those who have a tough time, alpha-galactosidase is also available as a supplement. The product is called Bean-O and double-blinded studies have shown that it can reduce gas, decrease hydrogen formation, and even may improve blood sugar. Ref It is safe for adults and children over 12 and is taken with each meal.
Soaking, cooking duration, rinsing, baking soda – none have been shown to consistently lower digestive symptoms. If you have found a method that seems to work for you, it may well be a real effect and there is no reason to change it.
For most people, digestive symptoms go down with a few months of regular bean consumption. Those whose diets are low in plant foods and carbohydrates often have the worst symptoms when they add in a wider variety of foods, but it rarely lasts. If they persist, red beans, lentils, chickpeas, and black-eyed peas are among the most digestible.
How about flavor? Some gourmets with Epicurious put this to the test and preferred the quick soaking method. With it, you add 1 pound of dry beans to a pot, cover with water about 2 inches over the top of the beans. Turn heat on high and bring to a boil. Once the beans reach a boil, remove from heat and let them sit for one hour. Stir in 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt and bring to a boil for a second time. Reduce heat and simmer until done – see cooking times chart below for typical duration.
For flavor differences, I’ve tested this also and did think I could taste a slight advantage. I’m not completely sold because the difference was not dramatic and the test was not blinded. I knew which were quick soaked and that it was expected that they would taste better.
If I’m planning to be in the kitchen for some time and cooking for guests, I may use the quick soak method. More often than not, I skip it and am happy with the results.
Salting at the earlier cooking stages does improve texture or flavor as does cooking uncovered.
When I make beans, I typically do not soak them, but I do thoroughly rinse and remove any that are broken or immature. From there I add them to a pot with the appropriate amount of water and 2 tsp of salt per pound, bring to a boil, and simmer.
Bean (1 cup) Cups of water Cooking time (approximate, may be lower) Final volume
Adzuki (Aduki) 4 55 min 3
Anasazi 3 55 min 3 1/2 cups
Black beans 4 90 min 2 1/4
Black-eyed peas 3 90 min 3
Cannellini 3 45 min 2 1/2
Chickpeas 4 2-3 hrs 2
Kidney beans 3 60 min 2 1/4
Lentils, brown or green 2 1/2 25 min 2 1/4
Lentils, red 3 20 min 2 1/2
Lima beans 4 60 min 2 1/2
Mung beans 2 1/2 60 min 2
Navy beans 3 60 min 2 2/3
Northern beans 3 1/2 90 min 2 1/2
Pink beans 3 60 min 3
Pinto beans 3 90 min 3
Split peas, green 4 45 min 2
Split peas, yellow 4 90 min 2
Soybeans 4 4 hrs 3
P.S. Whenever you are ready, here is how I can help you now:
1. Download and use my Favorite Recipes Cookbook Here
2. Check out my podcast Medical Myths, Legends, and Fairytales Here
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet and The Metabolism Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.