A guide to ancient grains…

A guide to ancient grains

With healthy living and food sensitivities top of mind, ancient grains are making a comeback

By Lisa Kopochinski


guide to ancient grainsIt is no surprise that the popularity of ancient grains has risen in recent years due to the increasing interest in living healthier lifestyles and a growing prevalence of food allergies.

Many mainstream establishments are now preparing dishes using quinoa, amaranth, kamut and spelt for a variety of reasons—flavour, health benefits, and a search for new adventures. Andrea Carlson has been using ancient grains for about seven years. As executive chef for Bishops, a fine-dining restaurant in Vancouver, she says, “I use the grains because I like the flavour, textures and diversity. We love having a wide variety of vegetarian protein options available for guests.”

A fan of red quinoa, lentils, wheat and rye berries, Carlson says a renewed interest in ancient or heritage grains has also generated interest in red fife wheat products, including berries.


“We do a lot of sautes with other vegetables,” she says. “We might use quinoa sauteed with shallots, diced roasted sunchokes and greens olives, which would act as a base for a protein along with an additional vegetable. And we recently featured wheatberry “risotto” using the wheatberries in substitute of rice to keep the dish locally food based.”

Across the country in Toronto, Donna Dooher, executive chef and proprietor at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, says her establishment has gone through several stages of grain use in the past 20 years. 

“In the early nineties, when access to the grains was becoming more prevalent, there was a curiosity about them, but that quickly died down,” she says. “Now with a renewed interest in the health benefits of these grains, we have a much easier time serving them to our guests.”

Ardent Mills Organic 2016

Costs can vary

The cost of ancient grains can largely depend on your market. Carlson says they are not overly expensive in relation to other organic and local products. Dooher agrees: “When you consider the cost of traditional proteins, such as beef and fish, these grains are very good on the overall food cost of dishes.”

Levon Campbell, a vegan for the past decade and a chef at the Heartwood Bakery and Café in Halifax, does find the grains expensive and says he has seen a 50-percent increase in price in the last five years. “But we are not willing to compromise our values for the sake of a buck. Our eye strays from the bottom line to provide affordable, quality food in a low-tomedium income part of the country.”

Superior health benefits

Research has shown that ancient grains often provide a richer source of nutrients such as protein, Vitamin B2,
iron, phosphorus, copper, selenium, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc and many others.

They also help the environment. “Modern day farming techniques are taking a toll on our earth and producing these grains will bring some balance back to managing the land,” offers Dooher.

In addition to the health benefits, many people like the taste, which is often distinctive.

“Flavour is paramount for us,” says Dooher. “Currently we have a curried cauliflower dish with quinoa and goat yoghurt, which is very popular. We also do crepes using spelt flour instead of wheat.” Campbell says the main reason Heartwood uses alternative grains is because they are more nutritious and less likely to have been modified.

“They are also less likely to be problematic for persons with food sensitivities,” he adds. “It’s gratifying to be able to make food and have people appreciate your ability to fuse flavour and texture.” For instance, Campbell will prepare chili with quinoa and millet, and add kamut, spelt and rye to soups. “But special attention should be paid to which grains contain gluten, as gluten allergies seem to be increasingly prevalent,” he explains.

Carlson adds, “A huge benefit of using the grains might be the nutritional value and you benefit from a good range of flavour and texture opportunities that you won’t find in other foods. But it also keeps the imaginations of cooks active!”

A guide to ancient grains

Navigating the sea of ancient grains can be confusing. If you are unsure which grains you might enjoy and their benefits, it’s best to do research on their history and uses. Here is an abbreviated guide to get you started.

  • Amaranth – A companion to quinoa, amaranth was once revered by the Aztec and has a history of use across many cultures. Recent research has indicated that this grain can lower blood pressure and high cholesterol.
  • Kamut – This ancient relative to wheat originated in Egypt. A great substitute for wheat, it has a sweet and buttery flavor and is often used in baked goods such as breads and cookies.
  • Millet – This small yellowish round grain, said to have originated in Ethiopia, looks like couscous and was widely consumed before rice and wheat became dominant grains. It is easy to cook and digest and can be used in a variety of recipes.
  • Rice – Thought to have originated in China at least 6,000 years ago, there are more than 1,000 different varieties of rice. Rice has been a staple for more than half the world’s population.
  • Barley – With its nutty flavour and chewy texture, barley is the oldest of grains and has been cultivated for approximately 10,000 years. It originated in the Middle East and North Africa and is often used in soups, stews, breads and cereals.
  • Buckwheat – Though not related to wheat, this fruit seed originated in Central Asia and is native to Northern Europe. An excellent alternative to rice or porridge, it is used in muffins, soups, stews and buckwheat pancakes.
  • Corn – A staple for more than 5,000 years, the different varieties are easily recognizable by their color. Corn is frequently used to make tortillas, cereal and polenta (a type of cornmeal).
  • Rye – Rye was first cultivated in Germany and is thought to have originated from a wild weed species that grew in wheat and barley fields. It can be a good choice for people with diabetes as it triggers a lesser insulin response compared to wheat bread.
  • Spelt – Spelt dates back to before even wheat. With its broader spectrum of nutrients, it can be a good alternative for some who cannot tolerate wheat. It has a pleasant, mild, nutty flavor and can be used like rolled oats in recipes.
  • Quinoa – This tiny grain, which can be red, orange, black, yellow or white is a complete source of protein. Pronounced keen-wa, it resembles couscous with its light and fluffy texture and is best as a side dish or in cold salads.

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