Good Grains: What Is Millet?

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Millet – isn't that a type of birdseed? Well, yes, but it's not just for parakeets! Millet is a woefully overlooked grain, mildly sweet and nutty and so versatile it can be used in everything from pilafs to cookies. It has a soothing, comforting quality that makes it ideal for fall and winter meals.

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All about millet
Millet is an ancient seed, originally cultivated in the dry climates of Africa and northern China since the Neolithic Era. (A few years ago, archaeologists discovered a 4000-year old bowl of millet noodles in northwestern China!) In time, millet spread throughout the world; the Romans and Gauls made porridge from it, and in the Middle Ages millet was more widely eaten than wheat. It is mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient for bread.

Today, millet continues to be a staple for a third of the world's population. Ground millet is used in flatbreads, such as Indian roti and Ethiopian and Eritrean injera (made from teff, a variety of millet). In Eastern Africa, millet is used to make beer. It is also an ingredient in Eastern European fermented drinks and porridges.

In America and Western Europe, millet has mostly been relegated to bird and livestock feed. However, interest in the grain has been growing, especially in gluten-free diets. It's nutritious – providing fiber, iron, B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium – and highly alkaline, making it easily digestible and soothing to the stomach.

There are many varieties of millet; the primary types are called pearl, foxtail, proso, and finger. Yellow proso is the kind most often found pre-packaged or in bulk bins at health food stores. (Do buy millet intended for human consumption, as the millet sold for pet food still has the undigestible outer hull.)

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How to cook millet
Millet is so versatile, it can be used in main dishes and desserts. It has a delicate nutty flavor and, depending on how it is cooked, a texture that can be crunchy or soft. We think the flavor complements winter squashes particularly well, making it a perfect grain for this time of year.

• To cook basic millet: Rinse and drain millet. In a medium saucepan, bring 2 1/2 cups water and 1 cup millet to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit uncovered for 20 minutes. Toss with butter or olive oil and season to taste with salt, pepper, or herbs. Makes about 3 cups.

• For a softer texture similar to mashed potatoes, increase water to 3 1/2 cups and simmer, covered, until water is absorbed, about 45 minutes to an hour.

• For a nuttier flavor, toast the millet before cooking. Toast it in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

• Leftover millet can be tossed into salads, stir-fried with tofu and vegetables, shaped into croquettes, or simmered with milk, honey, and cinnamon for breakfast.

Recipes
Mark Bittman's Autumn Millet Bake (pictured above)
Lemon-Saffron Millet Pilaf
Grilled Millet and Butternut Squash Cakes
Millet Pie with Spinach and Feta
Creamy Millet Porridge (using leftovers!)
Metropolitan Bakery Millet Muffins
Not-for-the-Birds Millet Cookies

More Good Grains
What is Buckwheat?
What Is Spelt?
What To Do With Amaranth
How To Cook Quinoa
What's the Deal With Farro?

(Images: Emily Ho; Flickr member Zunami licensed under Creative Commons; Heidi Swanson/101 Cookbooks)