What is grain?

Grain is the dry fruit or berry - more commonly called the seed - of certain species of grass. Certain seedlike fruits are also considered grains - buckwheat, for example - though botanically speaking they aren't. Cereal, a synonym for grain, is derived from the name of the pre-Roman goddess Ceres, deity of agriculture, associated with the Greek - and maybe e2's very own - Demeter.

Domesticated since the Neolithic period, whole or ground grain is a staple for humans and domestic animals alike, prized for its high carbohydrate content and storability: grains, unlike starchy foods like potatoes, are low in water and so can be stockpiled for long periods. The domestication of grain was key to the Agricultural Revolution, which changed the course of humanity on earth by allowing sedentary lifeways and, eventually, civilization.

Grains consist of a central germ or seed which is high in protein and contains some oil, an endosperm layer which contains carbohydrates and protein, and the outer bran layer which is very high in fibre. Some grains, such as rice, barley, and oats, also have an indigestible outer husk. As food processing technology has progressed, it has become common to remove all the outside layers, leaving only the germ: white rice and the wheat that is ground into white flour are examples. However, grains which contain all three elements are much more complete food sources. 6 to 12 servings of whole grains a day (a serving is about 1/2 cup cooked brown rice or 1 slice of whole wheat bread) will provide as much protein as 2 or 3 small servings of meat with no saturated fats and lots of fibre; thus modern food guides are emphasizing whole grains, as well as fruits and vegetables, over meats and processed foods.

The downside to whole grains is that they are more perishable than processed grains, so buy them from somewhere that does a brisk business, and keep them in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer.

Types of grain

The first six are the world's most important food crops, listed here in order of total world output; together they account for almost half of all the land under cultivation in the world.

The world's largest grain crop in terms of total world output, and second only to rice in terms of its importance as a staple food crop. One reason why wheat is so popular is that it contains high amounts of gluten, a protein that provides elasticity and hence makes excellent bread. Over 30,000 varieties of wheat are cultivated which can be classified into three major types: hard, soft, and durum, largely based on different protein contents of the endosperm, the largest part of the berry. Hard wheat contains 10-14% protein; high in gluten, it is ground into flour which is most suitable for making yeast breads. Soft wheat contains 6-10% protein and so is better suited to biscuits and cakes. Durum wheat is high in gluten but is mostly used for making semolina, a coarse flour that is used to make pasta. In the process of milling, the bran and the germ are removed; the former is very high in fibre, the latter in vitamins, minerals, and vitamin E.Whole wheat fruits are called wheat berries; spelt and kamut are two types of wheat that have recently come back into vogue with the search for healthier high-fibre foods. Soak wheat, kamut, or spelt berries overnight and then boil for an hour or so to yield a tasty nutritious food that can be used in soup, salad, pilaf, or stuffing. Cracked wheat is the whole berry broken into coarse, medium and fine fragments; it tastes best if you toast it lightly first in butter, oil, or dry. Coarse cracked wheat can be cooked like rice; fine can be added to baked goods. Wheat berries which have been steamed, dried, and then ground are known as bulgur, convenient because it just needs to be softened in boiling water. Couscous is coarsely ground semolina which can be steamed or just reconstituted in boiling water.

This venerable grain has been cultivated for at least 7000 years and is a staple for almost half the world's population, particularly in Asia. The more than 7000 varieties of rice are grown in two ways: aquatically in flooded paddy fields, or on dry land in almost any tropical or even subtropical terrain. Rice is classified by size. Long grain rice is four or five times as long as wide, and comes in white and brown varities that include basmati and jasmine rice. Short grain rice grains are fat and almost round; it's sticky and is sometimes called pearl, glutinous (though it's gluten-free) or sticky rice; lovely Italian arborio rice used to make risotto is a short grain rice, as is Japanese mochi. Medium grain rice is mid-way between the two. Brown rice is distinguished from white rice in that it retains its nutritious high fibre bran coating; it has a shorter shelf life and longer cooking time than white rice, which has had the bran and germ removed, hence it's sometimes also called polished rice. Converted or parboiled rice has been pressure-steamed and dried in the hull before being milled, giving it a beige colour; it takes a little longer to cook than white rice. "Instant" rice has been cooked before being dehydrated and packaged and, though quick to prepare, is dull in flavour and texture. Much less common are various black and red rices; they come in various grain sizes, but usually have the bran left on. Wild rice isn't rice at all, though it does come from a grass.

Corn (maize or sweetcorn)
The only grain to be eaten fresh, corn was also the only important grain native to the Americas, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, corn eaten off the cob tends to be of sweet varieties, but less sugary, more starchy varieties are grown for drying and milling; once milled, it's sold as cornmeal, hominy, grits, and popcorn. Cornmeal can be coarse, medium, or fine ground; if it's stoneground, it still has the oily germ attached, and so is more nutritious and better tasting, though more perishable. Cornmeal is used to make cornbread and polenta. Dried corn that's been treated with an alkali (traditionally wood ash or lime in Latin America) to remove the hull is called hominy or slaked corn; cracked into a coarse meal, it's grits; finely ground, it's masa harina, used to make tortillas. Posole is whole dried hominy made from white corn.

The most nutritious of the cereal grasses, whole oats are generally used as animal fodder; humans don't usually consume them till they've been cleaned, toasted, hulled, and cleaned again, at which time they are pronounced to be oat groats. Oat groats can be cooked and used like rice. More common, though, are rolled oats or old fashioned oats; they've been steamed and flattened with huge rollers and cook in about 15 minutes; they make a much-hated breakfast cereal. Quick-cooking rolled oats are made from cut up groats that are then steamed and rolled into thinner flakes, while instant oats are made from cut groats that are cooked and dried before being rolled; these are the ones that come in those little packages filled with sugar and artificial "wildberry" flavours. (What the heck is a wildberry anyway?) Scotch oats or steel-cut oats or Irish oatmeal are groats that have been cut into pieces but not rolled; they take longer than rolled oats to cook and are quite chewy.

Another ancient and hardy grain with a lovely nutty taste. The small round berries can be found in breads and soups, particularly the famous scotch broth, though most of the barley grown in the west is fed to animals or malted to make beer and whiskey. Hulled barley has only had the husk removed; scotch barley is coarsely ground; and barley grits are medium ground. More common though may be pearl barley, which has had the bran removed and been steamed and polished, making it much faster cooking than the other types; pearl barley makes a nice risotto.

Think robust bread and whiskey: that's rye. The kernels are long and grayish; they need to be soaked overnight and cooked for about an hour, till they are soft. More commonly, though, rye is ground into flour; the dark heavy flour produces correspondingly dark heavy loaves. Pumpernickel is the coarsest grind.

Now the rest of the grain group, in alphabetical order.

A tiny grain native to the New World that is very nutritious and flavourful. Be aware that it tends to clump and stick to the pot when cooked; a double boiler or non-stick pan is helpful.

Actually the seed of an herb of the genus Fagopyrum, buckwheat is native to Russia. The small triangular seeds can be turned into groats after being hulled and crushed, and roasted buckwheat groats are known as kasha; it has a nice nutty flavour. Buckwheat flour is used to make blini pancakes and soba noodles. Yum.

A staple for almost a third of the world's population, especially the poor in disadvantaged regions of Asia and Africa, the many varieties of millet are rich in protein. When the hull is removed millet cooks quickly to give a couscous-like fluffy grain with a mild flavour. It benefits from being dry toasted or roasted in butter or oil before being cooked. It stores well.

Pronounced "keen-wah", this native of South America was cultivated by the Inca. It is the only grain that is a complete protein, containing all eight amino acids, and it's higher in unsaturated fats and lower in carbohydrates than other grains. The tiny grains cook quickly and expand to four times their original volume; the flavour is bland, but the grain is versatile and can be used in any way one might use rice.

Eaten in Asia and Africa and a powerhouse of nutrition. In the west, it's mostly used to make a type of syrup sometimes called sorghum molasses.

This north African native has miniscule seeds which clump when cooked; teff is what's used to make the flat spongey Ethiopian bread injera. Too small to process, which means it's high in protein and carbohydrates and a good source of calcium and iron.

A hybrid of wheat (Triticum in Latin) and rye (Secale) which was invented in Scotland fairly recently in comparison to the other grains we've been looking at; the berries can be eaten like wheat berries, or ground for flour. Triticale flakes are rolled like oatmeal.

See also Grain Recipes.

The Joy of Cooking