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How to use and appreciate barley, farro, wheat berries and more grains

Flour is the most common way we cook with grains. But there are so many grains and cooking techniques to explore, especially in savory dishes that bring fiber, protein and whole grains to the table.

Grains are naturally at home in grain bowls, salads and soups. Once you start playing around with it, you’ll realize how delicious and easy it is to enjoy wheatberries, farro, barley, sorghum, and more.

Here’s an introduction to what you need to know.

Purchase. If you want to experiment with different types, visit a store that sells grains in bulk so you can only buy as much as you need.

If you’re particularly interested in whole grains—mainly what I’m going to talk about—read the labels. Some grains are processed in such a way that they are not considered whole grains. An example is barley. Like other cereal grains, barley has an inedible husk. If you want whole barley, be sure to buy hullless (the husk falls off by itself) or hulled (the husk is removed but the bran remains intact). Pearl barley, which will look smoother, has the husk removed so that some of the bran can be removed so it’s no longer whole. Likewise, you can buy farro pearled (no bran), semi-pearled (some bran), and whole.

Two wheat products are additionally processed, but remain whole. Freekeh is made from green wheat berries that are roasted or smoked and then sometimes cracked. For bulgur, the wheat berries are pre-cooked, dried, and then sometimes cracked.

Storage. For longer storage, it’s best to refrigerate or freeze grain grains for 3 to 12 months, says Roxana Jullapat in Mother Grains. This keeps them from going rancid and safe from pantry pests. If you decide to store them in the pantry, use sealed, airtight containers.

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Plain, cooked grains can be refrigerated in their cooking liquid for up to a week, writes Emma Zimmerman in The Miller’s Daughter.

Prepare. “Like any agricultural product, grain needs cleaning,” says Robin Asbell in The New Whole Grains Cookbook. Place in a bowl, cover with 3 inches of water, then massage to allow the chaff and broken kernels to float to the top. Drain them with the water and let the grains drain in a fine-mesh sieve.

Like beans, grains can benefit from soaking overnight, although it’s not mandatory, says Abra Berens in Grist. Soaking larger, tougher grains can cut cooking time in half and ensure even cooking. There’s no need to soak faster-cooking or cracked options like freekeh and pearl barley. (Bulgur is often prepared by soaking it in boiling water.)

Cook. If you’re buying packaged cereal, the label should include cooking instructions (follow this if you’re repackaging). One method is absorption, where you add a certain ratio of water to grains and cook in a saucepan until the water has been completely absorbed and the grains are tender. Adding grains to cold liquid before cooking produces a softer result, while adding them to boiling liquid makes them firmer, says Asbell. You can also put the grains and liquid in a casserole dish and pop it in the oven. You can cook pasta-style grains in larger amounts of water, although some nutrients will be poured out. Quick cooking, like in an Instant Pot, makes for easy cooking. Use a natural release to let the kernels finish steaming when the pot depressurizes, Asbell says.

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To cool and dry the grains before storing, roasting, or using in a cold salad, spread them out on a clean dishtowel. This is an important step before freezing, Berens says, because keeping warm grains in a container in the freezer can allow for bacterial growth.

Use. Cooked grains are natural in hot or cold salads, as in Wheatberry and lentil salad with carrots, parsley and harissa, pictured above. “My foolproof combination for grain salads is this: a cooked whole grain, pickled vegetables or fruit, cheese, nuts, something green, and a bit of salt and pepper,” Zimmerman says. Berens’ rough formula for farro salads starts with 2 cups of cooked grains, 1/2 cup of dressing, and as many raw and cooked veggies as you like. Chill warm grains in the dressing for added flavor.

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Berens encourages home cooks to use wheatberries and other grains as you might use other starches. Try barley in a fried rice-style dish. Berens likes “risotto-ed” grains, which are cooked like rice, gradually adding liquid while stirring to release the starch. See Barley risotto with asparagus, cider and goat cheeseunder.

For a fun garnish, Berens recommends pan-frying cooked grains in a “healthy amount” of neutral oil until golden and crispy.

Of course, grains can be cooked in stews and soups, including Farro, Kale and Peanut Butter Soup.

The options. This list is not exhaustive, but here are descriptions of common grains with estimated cooking times on the Berens stove. Often they are interchangeable in recipes as long as they are cooked for the right amount of time.

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  • barley: “Barley has a rich flavor with a mild sweetness and pairs well with mushrooms, root vegetables, warm spices and fall flavors like apples,” says the Whole Grains Council. 35 minutes for pearl, 45 minutes for shelled.
  • bulgur: Unlike the others listed here, bulgur is pre-cooked and you just rehydrate it. It has the same nutty, earthy flavors as other wheat products. Soak in boiling water for 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Faro: “Farro resembles a plumper brown wild rice and tastes like toasted walnuts with hints of caramel,” says Zimmerman. 15 minutes for pearl, 25 minutes for half pearl, 50 minutes for whole.
  • free room: “Like bulgur, freekeh is not a grain, but a coarse flour made from broken wheat,” says Jullapat. Berens notes that it has a more vegetal flavor than other wheat products due to the green berries. 20 minutes cracked, 40 minutes whole.
  • sorghum: Jullapat says it has “a heartiness similar to oatmeal and a nutty, slightly sweet flavor,” adding that soaking is highly recommended. 40 minutes.
  • wheat berries: This is a fairly broad category, as you’ll find that species and cultivars vary in shape, size, and flavor, although they all “fall somewhere on the ubiquitous ‘nutty’ spectrum,” says Berens. 45 to 60 minutes.

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