I remember the first time I cooked quinoa. It was back in the 90s when Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" first came out and I was intrigued by her quinoa with pine nuts and dried fruits recipe. It took some doing, but I finally tracked down a few handfuls of quinoa in the bulk foods section of my local health food store. Fast forward to today, and quinoa is far from obscure. I can choose from three kinds of quinoa at Trader Joe's — it is even on the menu of chain restaurants. I can't remember the last time someone asked me about quin-oh-ah, causing me to struggle with whether I should correct their pronunciation or not.
Quinoa may be ubiquitous, but it isn't the only gluten-free grain that deserves our attention. Let's take a look at 10 gluten-free grains (well, a few are technically seeds) — some that are already staples in our cupboards and some a little more obscure, but perhaps poised to become the next keen-wah!
A number of the gluten-free grains are technically seeds and are sometimes referred to as pseudocereals, but from a culinary perspective, we usually cook and consume these seeds as a grain, so it has become common practice to think of them and refer to them as grains.
With the exception of corn and rice, many of these seeds/grains were once hard to find in most conventional grocery stores and could only be found languishing in the far corners of the health food co-op. These days, in part because of companies like Bob's Red Mill, they can be purchased in most well-stocked grocery stores or online.
What is it? Amaranth is one of the seeds often included in gluten-free grain lists. It is from Mexico and was a staple of the Aztecs and Mayans. Amaranth is a complete protein and is high in iron, calcium, and fiber. It can be used whole or ground into a flour.
What does it taste like? Amaranth has a slightly sweet, nutty, malty flavor, but its texture varies considerably, depending on how you cook it.
What is it? Buckwheat is another seed that we treat like a grain; it's a relative of rhubarb and sorrel. It contains manganese, copper, magnesium, dietary fiber, and phosphorus. Buckwheat is available roasted or unroasted, in whole-grain form (also called groats), as well as in a flour.
What does it taste like? Toasted buckwheat (also known as kasha) has a nutty, earthy taste. Unroasted, the taste is more subtle.
What is it? We consume corn in so many ways, but one of the more popular ways is to use it as a grain. Corn kernels are dried and then ground into a meal, called either cornmeal, polenta, or grits, depending on the method used and how finely ground it is. There is a lot of controversy around the difference between what constitutes cornmeal, polenta, and grits, but all three are still gluten-free.
What does it taste like? Corn, even in it's dried form, is sweet and mild tasting. The texture varies widely, depending on if you are making grits or polenta and how firm or soupy you want your final dish to be.
What is it? Millet is another seed that we consume as a grain. It is high in fiber, iron, B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium. It is also highly alkaline, which makes it easy to digest.
What does it taste like? Millet's flavor is delicate and nutty, and it's texture can vary from crunchy to mushy, depending on how it is cooked.
What is it? Oats are a cereal grain. When they are harvested, the inedible outer hull is removed and then they are steamed and cooled in a kiln to bring out their flavor. Finally, oats are either rolled, cut, or ground to produce flakes, oatmeal, or oat flour. Not all oats are gluten-free since they are often milled in facilities that also mill wheat, so be sure to only buy oats that are labeled gluten-free if that is a concern.
What does it taste like? Nutty and chewy, oats have a slightly sweet taste.
What is it? Technically a seed, quinoa is an ancient food from the Andes; it has caught on around the world in recent years. Quinoa is a complete protein, so it provides all nine essential amino acids necessary for good health, which is why some people call it a superfood. It can be consumed as a grain or milled into flour to be used in baking or make gluten-free pasta.
What does it taste like? Quinoa has a mild flavor and a slightly crunchy texture.
What is it? Rice is a a cereal grain, cultivated the world over to feed billions of people. The nutrition value of rice can vary significantly depending on the type of rice, the soil conditions of where it is grown, and how it is processed and cooked. White and brown rice are familiar to us, but have you tried some of the more exotic varieties, such as black rice or the lovely green bamboo rice?
What does it taste like? In general, white rice is a fairly neutral flavor, with a light sweetness, and brown rice is nuttier and chewier. But there are so many varieties of rice, some of them with unique flavor profiles, that it is impossible to characterize them all.
What is it? Sorghum is a cereal grain that has been cultivated in Africa for over 4,000 years; it's rich in fiber, iron, and protein. It is often made into a sweetener, but currently is finding popularity as a gluten-free flour. It is can also be popped just like popcorn.
What does it taste like? Sorghum's flavor is described as hearty and nut-like. When cooked as a grain or pilaf, Sorghum's chewy texture is similar to that of wheat berries or farro.
What is it? Truly an ancient grain, teff has been cultivated in Abyssinia and then in Ethiopia and Eritrea for thousands of years. It's most well-known application is to be ground into a flour and then fermented into a batter for injera. Teff is the tiniest of grains — it would take about 100 grains to equal the size of a wheat kernel — and it's high in calcium, protein, and fiber.
What does it taste like? Teff has a nutty flavor, which can be enhanced by toasting it in a dry skillet before cooking. If made into a porridge, it can get stiff and gelatinous, but can be thinned into a more Cream of Wheat texture if desired.
10. Wild Rice
What is it? Wild rice is actually not a rice, but a water-grass seed. It is cultivated in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Wild rice is a labor-intensive food to grow; it's rich in fiber, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, Vitamin B6, and niacin.
What does it taste like? Wild rich has a nutty, woodsy flavor. When perfectly cooked, it has a crunchy exterior with a moist, fluffy interior.
(Image credits: Megan Gordon; Emily Han; Faith Durand; Emma Christensen; Kelli Foster; Dana Velden)