A whole-grain glossary

Twenty whole grains to cook and eat

June 19, 2008

Most people know brown rice when they see it, but what about all the other grains? It’s one thing to rattle them off, but it’s an entirely different matter to know their various nutritional profiles and how to cook them. Then there’s the confusion of defining or classifying grains, as some grains that we call grains are not. True grains belong to the cereal grass family; for this glossary, however, I include edible seeds that share the nutritional properties of whole grains (quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice).

Glossary of Grains, whole grains
Which grain is which?

The bulk bins can be bewildering; even when you’re familiar with a particular grain, it’s mind-boggling to make sense of all the names it may go by. Groats, grits, steel-cut, rolled, puffed, pearled, cracked, flakes, and flour are the most common references, and all describe how the grain has been processed.

For example, groats are grains that have had their hard, inedible hulls removed but still retain their nutritious parts (germ, bran, endosperm).

How the grain has been cut or milled affects both texture (hence taste) and cooking time. Parboiled and cracked wheat, for example, is bulgur, which takes only a few minutes to prepare; on the other hand, wheat berries (the grain in its least-processed form) may take up to an hour to cook.

When shopping for grains, you won’t be able to tell by sight whether or not the grains are de-germinated or pearled, so be sure to read the labels. (“De-germinated” means the germ has been removed, and “pearled” refers to a polishing process that removes either part or all of the bran and germ.)

By no means is this glossary comprehensive — I barely scratch the surface of rice, and I know of at least a couple of omissions (Job’s Tears, rye berries). Because any grain can be milled into flour, and most flours look similar, flours are not included here.

For more information on grains — nutrition profiles, cooking tips, recipes — check out Lorna Sass’s book Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way, the Whole Grains Council, and Bob's Red Mill. In the meantime, dive into the grain glossary and let us know if there’s a grain you think should be included; this glossary — like the pursuit of eating more whole grains — is a work in progress.


Like quinoa, amaranth is considered a pseudocereal (technically not a grain). Amaranth is gluten-free, high in protein, and contains lysine (making it a complete protein). Amaranth grains can be cooked whole in a pot, rice cooker, or pressure cooker for a breakfast porridge or savory “polenta.” Bake cookies or breads with amaranth flour (purchased in bulk or made by grinding the seeds in a spice grinder) combined with a gluten flour.


Barley has an especially tough hull, which when stripped removes some of the bran. There are hull-less varieties, most commonly found in natural-food stores and by mail order. Scotch barley and barley groats retain more of their bran than pearled barley. Barley contains beta-glucan, a soluble fiber attributed to lowering cholesterol, and protein comparable to wheat; it is not gluten-free. Barley is a versatile grain, good in soups, risotto, and grain salads.

buckwheat berries
Buckwheat berries

Buckwheat berries
The name buckwheat is a misnomer, as this grain is neither a wheat nor a buck; buckwheat seeds (or berries) come from a flowering plant in the rhubarb family. Kasha (or kashi) are toasted buckwheat groats (grain kernels that have their tough outer hull removed), most commonly cooked into hot cereal. Buckwheat flour makes tasty pancakes, blinis, and bread; it is the primary ingredient in soba noodles. Gluten-free.

cracked wheat
Cracked wheat

Cracked wheat (Bulgur)
Cracked wheat and bulgur are one and the same: wheat kernels that have been precooked, dried, and cut (“cracked”). This processing is what makes bulgur such a convenience food when it comes to preparing whole grains; it takes minimal time (boiling or soaking) to make it tender. High in fiber, bulgur is not gluten-free. It makes great salads, pilafs, and side dishes; substitute bulgur for rice if you’re short on time, as an accompaniment to stir-fries, curries, or stews.


Farro by another name would be wheat; it’s an ancient Italian strain called emmer. Choose semi-perlato (semi-pearled) over perlato (pearled), as it has more bran intact. Farro is easily confused with spelt berries; some cooks use them interchangeably. Farro is easy to cook: add it to a pot of boiling water, cook until tender (20 to 30 minutes), then drain. Add cooked farro to sautéed leeks for a simple side dish, or turn it into a salad.


Kamut is the only grain I know of with a trademark, and because of the trademark it’s always organic. It’s an ancient, or heirloom, wheat grown in Montana, high in protein and vitamin E. Some describe it as buttery; I think it’s rather sweet. As grits, it makes a tasty hot cereal. You’ll find it in every form you find wheat: berries, cracked, rolled, flakes, puffed, and ground into flour.

long grain brown rice
Long-grain brown rice

Long-grain brown rice
Brown rice is rice with the germ and bran intact, making it rich in fiber, minerals, and vitamins. (White rice is brown rice that has been polished, which strips the germ, bran, and most of the nutrients.) Long-grain rices are high in amylose, a starch that makes the rice firmer and more absorbent; long-grain rices are therefore fluffier when cooked than short-grain rices. To shave off cooking time, presoak brown rice for 30 minutes.

millet pilaf

Millet, gluten-free and comparable to wheat in protein, is a popular grain throughout the world, except in the United States, where it is mostly sold to stock bird feeders and throw at newly- weds. In the pot, however, millet is a mild-tasting, versatile grain, one that benefits from a bit of toasting beforehand. Cook millet into breakfast porridge or grits, savory side dishes, croquettes, and meat-free terrines.

oat groats
Oat groats

Oat groats
Oat groats are hulled oat kernels, in their purest form before rolled, steel-cut, or milled into flour. Unlike many grains, oats are rarely processed to remove their germ and bran, making them a whole grain in most permutations. Higher in protein than most types of wheat, oats contain B vitamins and beta-glucan, a soluble fiber attributed with cholesterol-lowering properties. Sweet and nutty, oat groats make a delicious breakfast: boil one part oats to two parts water for about 40 minutes.


Polenta and grits may sound as disparate as Italy and the South, but they’re both ground corn, as is cornmeal. They differ in how they’re ground (both the method and the fineness of the grind). Avoid de-germinated cornmeal (the germ has been removed to increase its shelf life), as it’s not a whole grain. Polenta makes a delicious base for sauces (ragu, mushroom, gorgonzola) and sausages; it’s also good grilled or layered into lasagne-like dishes.


Corn stands alone as a grain because it’s eaten both fresh and dried. Though corn in America is treated like a vegetable, we recognize it as a grain by its derivatives: cornbread, tortillas, hominy, polenta, and grits. Popcorn kernels are the grain in its entirety — truly a whole grain — offering a good fix of protein and fiber. Two cups of popped corn yield a serving of a grains — and a tasty snack.


Quinoa (say KEEN-wah) is the wonder grain: high in protein, gluten-free, easy to digest, and quick to cook. Be sure to rinse it before cooking; quinoa is coated in saponin, a natural bitter-tasting insect repellent. Rinse and drain it, then cook it like pasta (in a large pot of boiling water) or rice (two parts water to one part grain). It makes a delicious breakfast (with sweet or savory additions), pilaf, and salad; it can also be added to baked goods.

red quinoa
Red quinoa

Red quinoa
Red quinoa is similar to the other quinoa varieties: high in protein, gluten-free, easy to digest and quick to cook. Red quinoa is predominately grown in Bolivia; other quinoas come mostly from Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador (and more recently, the United States). Rinse and cook red quinoa as you would other varieties: for breakfast, in salads, and mixed in with other grains for polenta and pilaf-like side dishes.

short brown rice
Short-grain brown rice

Short-grain brown rice
Short-grain brown rice gets a bad rap for being too earthy and chewy, but I like it for precisely those reasons. Short-grain rice possesses more amylopectin than long-grain varieties, a starch that makes for a stickier rice. This stickiness makes short-grain brown rice a good candidate for stir-fries, rice salads, and sushi. For 3 cups of cooked rice, add 1 cup rice to 2 cups boiling water; lower heat to a simmer and cook until tender, about 35 to 40 minutes.


You may be familiar with sorghum molasses, which, as it turns out, is made from the non-grain variety of sorghum. The grain variety of sorghum is a good source of protein and is gluten-free. Similar to millet in texture, sorghum benefits from being toasted first before cooking. Sorghum can be cooked into porridge, ground into flour for baking, or popped like popcorn: heat a small amount of oil in a pot, add sorghum, cover, and cook until all the grains are popped.

spelt berries
Spelt berries

Spelt berries
Spelt, a variety of hard wheat, is higher in protein than more common varieties of wheat. It can be interchanged with most wheat recipes, as berries (think grain salad) or flour (try pancakes). To cook spelt berries, soak them overnight first, or do a quick soak by pouring boiling water over the berries and allowing them to sit for an hour. Simmer the soaked berries in a covered pot (1 cup berries to 2 1/2 cups water) until tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Frika or gruenkern is a green (as in unripe) spelt with a smoky flavor.

sweet brown rice
Sweet brown rice

Sweet brown rice
Sweet brown rice is a sticky, glutinous rice with a slightly nutty taste and pleasant texture. Its stickiness lends to shaping it into rice balls or sushi, and it’s also good cooked in desserts. A basic way to cook it: Toast one cup dry rice in a heavy pot or saucepan over medium heat, stirring often, for a couple of minutes. Carefully add two cups of boiling water to the pot with a pinch of salt. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until the rice is tender; drain any excess water and serve.


The name “teff” refers to the grain’s miniscule size; teff comes from the word “teffa” or “lost” — as in “where’d it go?” — in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. Teff is a kind of millet that possesses more iron and calcium than other whole grains, as well as all eight essential amino acids. Whole teff can be cooked into porridge or polenta-like dishes, as well as added to baked goods; teff flour is the primary ingredient of injera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread.

rolled triticale
Rolled triticale

Rolled triticale
Triticale (say trit-i-KA-lee) is a hybrid of rye and durum wheat and possesses more protein and amino acids than either individual grain. Because it’s easily grown without pesticides and commercial fertilizers, it’s a poster child for sustainable and organic farming. The question remains, though: what the heck do you do with it? Substitute triticale berries for other wheat and rye berries in salads, soups, and stews. Rolled triticale can be cooked like oatmeal or folded into a batch of granola.

hard wheat berries
Wheat berries

Wheat berries
The terms “hard” and “soft” refer to the protein and gluten content of wheat. Hard wheat is made into pasta and bread flour, while soft wheat (lower in protein and gluten) is milled into pastry flour. All wheat berries — hard, soft, spelt, and kamut — can be cooked whole (see the Kamut and Spelt glossary entries for instructions) for a variety of sweet and savory dishes: breakfast and side dishes, stews, and salads.

wild rice
Wild rice

Wild rice
Wild rice has a similar nutritional profile as grains — with twice the fiber and protein of brown rice — but is not a true grain (it’s the seed of an aquatic grass). It’s grown mostly in Great Lakes region, as well as California and Oregon. Some find the taste of wild rice too strong on its own and prefer to blend it with brown rice. Try it in salads, stuffings, pilafs, and side dishes — or even for breakfast.

See also Rice types for a rice glossary.

There are 43 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Fasenfest on Jun 20, 2008 at 10:26 AM PDT

Thanks so much. This is very helpful and informative. Good work compiling it and great pictures.

2. by Zoe Francois on Jun 21, 2008 at 7:57 AM PDT

I just got Robin Asbel’s new book on whole grain cooking. It is so encouraging that people are willing to broaden their diets to include these grains. They are so tasty and good for you. Thanks for the wonderful post!

3. by Leisureguy on Jun 25, 2008 at 4:28 PM PDT

Very useful and interesting. You do need to check your terminology, though: buckwheat berries are NOT a grain. Nor is amaranth. Nor quinoa. I do like the column, but would like it even more without the errors.

4. by sbrodbeck on Jun 25, 2008 at 6:01 PM PDT

LIke leisureguy I’d say mostly the column is good, but I’d also adda change for red quinoa. Isn’t Bolivia in South America. The current phrasing makes it sound like Bolivia is somewhere else.

5. by Leisureguy on Jun 26, 2008 at 8:36 AM PDT

I would suggest that chia seed be added: the other of the “Big Three” of pre-Columbian seed foods: chia, amaranth, and quinoa. Chia is another complete protein, very high in omega-3, and does not require cooking. Wonderful stuff.

6. by Kim on Jun 27, 2008 at 4:10 PM PDT

Thanks for the comments, all. Leisureguy, we stand corrected; we’ve made changes in the intro of this story to reflect Carrie’s clarification of her definition of grains (which also she made in an earlier post on the Whole Grain Challenge blog, another good resource for those wanting to learn a little more about eating grains).

7. by maria mendoza on Jul 18, 2008 at 12:55 PM PDT

Have you checked out kiwicha? Is a grain that grows in the very high mountains of Peru, has more nutritional value than quinoa, but is not so well known internationally yet. I have used it, is easy to cook, just have to pop it like pop corn and use it as a sprinkle on food. I am Peruvian, so it is easier for me to get it. I also use it like you would sesame seeds to decorate bread or as an ingredient of refrigerator cookies. It has a mild taste, so you can add your own, sweet or salty

8. by OpusOne on Jul 18, 2008 at 1:38 PM PDT

Hi Maria,

You say it is easy for you to get, any suggestions on where we might get some to try out? Is there a supplier in the US, or someone online?

Always interesting to try new things... well known or not.

9. by maria farquharson on Jul 19, 2008 at 9:58 AM PDT

this is Maria, I am glad you are interested. There is a web site called LaTienda.com and they advertise shipping overseas. There are other places also. Just enter kiwicha on a web search and you will find also nutrutional information about it.

10. by Ina on Jul 21, 2008 at 1:00 AM PDT

I’ve read in another article that whole grains are groats. Then, what are berries (wheat berries, etc)?

11. by Robert on Aug 22, 2008 at 1:10 PM PDT

In my experience, quinoa works great in salads with lemon juice but it does poorly in vinagraittes, (due to bitter residual saponins?).
There’s something in amaranth that is apparently a bit alien for my American digestive system - I found this out every time I ate the store-bought graham crackers with amaranth or fruit & nut bars with amaranth.

12. by Howard on Oct 18, 2008 at 2:32 PM PDT

Having worked in the high altitudes of Cajamarca in Perú, I agree with Maria, Kiwicha and Quinoa are sold in all the markets, excellent taste and both red and white Quinoa can be found in Perú. I tried many other grains in Perú, ALL just great.

13. by anonymous on Feb 25, 2009 at 7:09 PM PST

I loooove this article. Is so well organized and informative. Can you please do the same for beans... I have yet to find something truly informative on line . please help. ;-)

14. by anonymous on Mar 18, 2009 at 2:12 PM PDT

This information was so helpful. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!

15. by zegg on Jan 26, 2010 at 8:40 AM PST

According to wikipedia, kiwicha and amaranth are one and the same.....

16. by Deborah Madison on Jan 26, 2010 at 9:35 AM PST

I just want to mention wild-harvested native wild rice, as distinct from the shiny black cultivated rice that’s more typical. The grains are long, grey-green, and cook more quickly than the paddy rice. It’s also more delicate and very delicious - quite different in fact. you can find it on line through Native Harvest.com. It’s a treat, and wonderful in a soup or chowder!

17. by OpusOne on Jan 26, 2010 at 10:00 AM PST

Not that I take Wikipedia as the last and most accurate source, they are mostly right, Kiwicha is a type of amaranth grain — of which there are multiple varieties. There names roots are often used interchangeably based on what linguistic translations are followed. Always nice to know more though... thanks

18. by anonymous on Feb 24, 2010 at 9:04 AM PST

Thank you for sharing your knowledge! I have bookmarked this page for easy reference!

19. by Sarah Melamed on Apr 9, 2010 at 10:59 PM PDT

What is the difference in flavor between Middle Eastern Green wheat (frika/farik) and the German roasted type (gruenkern). I have tasted farik and it is very smoky, is this similar to gruenkern?

20. by Deborah Madison on Apr 13, 2010 at 12:43 PM PDT

I wondered about Sarah’s question as well, so I asked Anthony Boutard, who produces both, about the differences. Here’s what he has to say:

“Frikeh is made from unripe durum wheat, Triticum durum, the hard amber wheat species used to make macaroni and bulgar. The ears of durum are parched with an open flame before threshing, giving the grain a distinct smoky quality. Ideally, the grain is dark green and slightly charred at the tip. Parching is done in open field. Frikeh is prepared throughout the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Egypt, and all the way to Gaston, Oregon. Freekeh, frikeh and frik are some of the other names given to parched green durum wheat.

Grünkern, which means “green grain” in German, is specialty of southern Germany, and also enjoyed in adjacent areas of Austria and Switzerland. It is made from spelt, Triticum spelta, or dinkel. In contrast to frikeh, grünkern is roasted in a special community building called a darre. Because the roasting is done on steel pans, doerren, and the flame does not come in contact with the grain and it does not have the level of smokiness as frikeh. It is also a more difficult grain to prepare because spelt has a tight hull around the grain.

The two grains are very different in texture and flavor. Frikeh is chewy and has a grassy, smoky quality. It is very good in grain salads, as well as soups and stews. Some of the imported frikeh has cottonseed oil added, which I find unappetizing. Grünkern has a sweet, almost caramel quality to the grain. The two grains are not interchangeable in terms of flavor and texture.

I met someone from the Ukraine who told me they also roast green wheat as a seasonal delicacy, though I have no been able to track down any information on that tradition.”

And there you are! I do know that when I’ve bought frikeh from Morocco, it has a lot of stones in it and you have to be very careful sorting through it. This isn’t true with the Boutard’s product.

21. by Debbie on Aug 28, 2010 at 6:19 PM PDT

08/28/2010 Just new to this site and wonder if you can help with a use for “Middling Rice”. It is found in Middle Eastern stores,but I cannot find any references

22. by Kathleen on Oct 14, 2010 at 4:49 PM PDT

I read somewhere that Buckwheat is from the Dutch Bookweit, meaning from the book or the Scriptures.

Thanks for the informative site.

23. by Nina on Nov 18, 2010 at 5:15 PM PST

Any ideas on how to combine these or other grains/berries/seeds/rice to make a multi-grain “rice” to be cooked and eaten in place of rice? How do you mix and match so that combined they are all cooked to the right consistency? I did google search and didn’t find much.

24. by Kathleen on Nov 18, 2010 at 6:53 PM PST

Grains/pseudo-grains that are cooked for similiar times are easily prepared together, for instance, millet and buckwheat or brown rice and wild rice. And seeds such as sunflower and sesame are usually mixed into a dish at the end unless they are used as part of a crust. I’m not in favor off combining too many grains in one meal as I think it makes the meal harder to digest.

25. by anonymous on Dec 5, 2010 at 2:49 PM PST

I have found that soaking the grains overnight and then cooking in the morning makes a great nutritional breakfast. I have combined steel cuts oats, cornmeal, Quinoa, millet, amaranth, rice, raisins, dates dried apricot, almonds; whatever I have on have on hand in any combination. Add some spices - cinnamon, nutmeg and pinch of cayenne pepper and once cooked you can flavor with honey or maple syrup. The combination are endless, just remember to add sufficient water to soak; cook on low temperature to prevent burning and add more water as necessary

26. by Grant on Jul 26, 2011 at 3:38 AM PDT

Hi there, thanks for the incentive to try some different grains. Your link to Bob’s Red Mill is incomplete.

27. by Kim on Jul 26, 2011 at 8:42 AM PDT

Thanks for pointing out the broken link, Grant. It’s good to go now. Enjoy your grains!

28. by Rusty Wright on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:23 PM PDT

For the ones with long cooking times I like to soak them overnight. My morning wheat bran mush is cooked with the bain marie method in a pressure cooker for at most 5 minutes at pressure and I’ve been adding about 2 tablespoons of oat groats to it which have been soaked overnight in the fridge in a wee bit more water. I’m weighing it; 40 grams whole oats, 50 grams of water or milk, in a plastic bowl with a snap on lid.

29. by Rusty Wright on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:26 PM PDT

Correction to my oat soaking; they soak for 24 hours. I start the next day’s batch soaking as soon as I use the current day’s batch. No need to remember to start them soaking in the evening. And they don’t sour or ferment (or sprout, but that could be a good thing) when in the fridge.

30. by mangotoucu on Sep 24, 2011 at 10:01 AM PDT

I didn’t know that you could “pop” sorghum! I’m excited to try it.

31. by Heidi Totten on Mar 13, 2012 at 7:03 AM PDT

I love this! Thank you!

32. by john radford on Mar 28, 2012 at 2:30 PM PDT

one chef cooked grains in a pressure cooker then showed you the ground flour

i thought grains had to be dry for milling

33. by anonymous on Apr 6, 2012 at 10:23 AM PDT

where can i order or purchase freshly quality sorghum grain? most sorghum sold is poor quality.

34. by anonymous on Apr 6, 2012 at 10:24 AM PDT

why some grains are considered true grains and some aren’t. i thought all grains are seeds.

35. by Deborah Madison on Apr 6, 2012 at 12:47 PM PDT

True grains are grasses and they reside in the botanical family Poaceae. Quinoa and amaranth are Chenopods and Amaranths, and buckwheat is in the Knotweed family, or Polygonacae, along with rhubarb and sorrel. They are all seeds, but from different families of plants. Also grasses are monocots- they send up one shoot; the rest are dicots, sending up two leaves. Probably more than you wanted to know!

36. by anonymous on Apr 6, 2012 at 3:17 PM PDT

what is a chenopod? how is it amaranth belongs to both chenopod and knotweed? why they say wild rice is not a real rice or grain but a seed isn’t that a grass too?

37. by anonymous on Apr 6, 2012 at 3:20 PM PDT

see some people will say oh that is not a real grain that is a seed. why they say that then? so they all are seeds then.

38. by Deborah Madison on Apr 6, 2012 at 4:34 PM PDT

A chenopod is a goosefoot - the group that incudes spinach, chard, quinoa, epazote. Amaranth is not a buckwheat - I must not have been clear - but an amaranth. The goosefoots and amaranths are closely related; the leaves of these plants looks and taste similar.
Wild rice is not rice, but it is a grass and thus a grain. And so is rice a grass.
But in the kitchen, all these seeds behave quite similarly, and they are all seeds. Plant them and they’ll grow whether they’re called quinoa, buckwheat, or wheat.

39. by lekha on Jan 7, 2013 at 1:33 AM PST

Great coming accross this website. Varried cultures and languages make it difficult to identify a product.Giving pictures makes it so easy. Whilst going through the list it appears that pearl millet (Bajra) is missing. Indians use it to make Roti as well as poridge. Teff appears to be same as Ragi / finger millet.

40. by anonymous on Jan 8, 2013 at 4:46 PM PST

Don’t forget hominy! I imagine it is basically in the ‘popcorn’ category I suppose, as it is corn! ^_^

41. by anonymous on Jan 8, 2013 at 4:48 PM PST

Oops!...found it. >.<

42. by Pat Parker on Aug 15, 2013 at 6:03 AM PDT

Wow, everything you wanted to know about seeds. Fantastic. Do you mind if I use as a hand-out for a class I am teaching?

43. by Judy on Nov 6, 2013 at 10:03 PM PST

There is an African grain called fonio that I once read about in a newspaper. Have you ever heard of it?

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