which grain is best to use?

Does the type of grain make a difference for your body?

With cooler weather approaching, what do you usually serve with saucy slow cooked meals, stews, casseroles and curries? Noodles, pasta, traditional mash potatoes, rice, or another grain? 

Which is grain is better for your body?

I have done the nitty gritty comparisons and worked out how these shape up for your body and health.

To keep the comparisons fair and easy, I set the serve size at ½ cup cooked measure.

Which grains and grain products top my list?

Of the grains, pearl barley is my top pick for a healthy body.

Pearl barley is the best source of thiamine (vitamin B1), fibre and protein out of all the grains I explored. Pearl barley takes about 35 to 40 minutes to cook but you don’t have to stand around stirring it. Just put it on before you start preparing the rest of the meal. Bring the barley and water to the boil, turn down the heat to a simmer and cover. Drain away excess water when cooked. The cooked grain is swollen, tender and chewy but no longer crunchy. Cooked barley freezes okay; just be sure to drain it well and cool throughly before freezing to avoid ice crystals forming in and around the grains. Break away from ordinary rice and serve barley as a base for curries and Asian meals. Cook up a risotto with barley instead of arborio rice.

Quinoa comes a close second; first if you have gluten intolerance, coeliac disease, or follow a low FODMAP diet. Quinoa is a delicate gluten-free whole grain. Simmer it covered on the stove for about 15 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let it sit undisturbed for another 10 minutes to absorb any remaining water in the pan. Quinoa freezes but it is quick and easy to cook just enough each time. Use quinoa in place of cous cous and rice as a base for stews and saucy dishes. Quinoa also works well in salads.

Third pick is brown rice. Brown rice delivers you much more fibre, vitamin B1, folate and vitamin E than white rice. Swap to brown rice from white rice for superior nutrition. Brown rice is a chewy dense grain when cooked. It takes close to 30 minutes to cook by absorption method, covered and simmering. Pre-prepared tubs and sachets of cooked brown rice save time and take the effort out of cooking. Next time you buy take-aways that come with white rice (e.g. Asian and Indian), ditch the rice and zap a tub of brown rice in the microwave to serve up a nutrition boost. Brown rice is a gluten-free wholegrain but not all pre-prepared commercial packs are gluten free.

Wild rice is not quite as nutritious as brown rice but it beats white rice hands down. Wild rice is not rice as we traditionally know rice. Wild rice takes around 40 to 45 minutes to cook. Once simmering and covered tightly, leave it alone until the sides of some grains start to curl. This is a sign it is cooked. Wild rice is gluten free.

Buckwheat noodles are my pick from the noodle range. Buckwheat noodles are richer in thiamine, protein, fibre and iron than traditional wheat pastas and noodle. Buckwheat noodles are also gluten free.

Which grains and grain products are lower on my list?

Polenta is ground maize (corn). Polenta sits low on my list but not quite as low as white rice and white flour pastas because it delivers you more thiamine than the white refined grains. Polenta cooking demands undivided attention for 15 to 20 minutes of constant stirring. This doesn’t allow you to prepare or cook any ingredients. A neglected pot splatters everywhere and results in a sticky, burnt, unevenly cooked mess. Stand for another 5 minutes before serving. Polenta is gluten free and freezes. Commercially pre-prepared vacuum packs of polenta just need reheating.

Semolina is refined from durum wheat. Known more commonly as a breakfast item or baby food, semolina is also suitable as a base for savoury meals when you cook it in stock and seasonings. Semolina cooks quickly in 3 to 5 minutes. It dishes up like mash but, nutrition-wise, you’d be better off with mashed potatoes.

Cous cous is a tiny pasta shape from refined wheat grain. Easy to prepare in less than 5 minutes but cous cous along with semolina, white rice, any white pasta shape and asian noodles lack nutritional value and fall to the bottom of my list. Some meals and recipes call for these highly refined ingredients but plan to experiment with grains from the top of my list or at least meet half-way by adding more vegetable or salad to the plate.

Vegetables as look-alike noodles and rice
Creative home cooks make rice and noodle substitutes from vegetables. Zoodles (strip or spiral raw zucchini into long noodles), carroodles (strip or spiral carrot into long noodles), cauliflower rice (grate or process raw cauliflower into rice-sized pieces) and broccoli rice (grated green rice-sized pieces), cooked until tender, replace all grains for a low carbohydrate meal base. Just ½ cup of cooked cauliflower or broccoli delivers 100% of your daily vitamin C.
Push further to add even more vegetables as the base for stews, curries and other saucy dishes. To keep the kilojoules and carbohydrate down, add swedes, turnips and mixed light vegetables. Add potato for a more substantial filling meal.
Potato mashed with milk is a wise replacement for white rice, noodles and pasta. Whether you match the serve size cup for cup or based on energy, potatoes shine with more vitamin C, folate and vitamin A than white rice and pasta. You can not beat a base of mixed light vegetables but they don’t sound anywhere near as sexy or exciting as zoodles and carroodles.
Not keen on potatoes or want to boost the protein and flavour in the meal? Mash pre-cooked legumes or lentils. You will also get a fibre, folate and iron boost. Brown lentils and dark beans (e.g. black-eye, red kidney and bean mixes) bring their own strong flavour to the meal, unlike bland pasta and white rice. To keep a meal quick, drain and rinse canned legumes and lentils before reheating. Not ready for a full base of beans? Mix deep coloured legumes and lentils with rice to get a speckled affair. Mash white haricot and cannellini beans with potatoes for a creamy base.

How much grain to cook? What makes up a single serve of grains?

Measure: Roughly 2 flat metric tablespoons of dry grain yields about ½ cup cooked product; a single serve for women and folk aged 70 plus.

Double up the measure for men and active teenagers.

This amount might seem skimpy and miserly but weight-wise, when you cook more, you eat more.

Or weigh: If you prefer to weigh or use packet weights as a guide, start with 25-30 grams of dry grain or pasta to make a ½ cup serve.

Check your usual serve. Next time you go to cook grains or pasta, pour out your usual dry amount and measure how many serves are present.

You will discover whether you need to adjust the raw measure and decide to serve more vegetables and salad with the meal.

If you are a solo cook or small household, cooking just 2 tbs of grain needs a tiny saucepan and is hardly worth the effort. Either buy pre-packed brown rice tubs or deliberately cook more of the others grains than needed and freeze into single ½ cup serves for another meal.

Freezing tip: Squish individual drained serves into a large ‘6-hole’ muffin pan (each ‘hole’ holds roughly ½ cup) each 'hole' lined with a small freezer bag. Once cooled and compacted turn out piles onto a freezer tray and freeze.

Which noodle and rice can you have when you’re on a low carb ketogenic diet?

Konjac (glucomannan) noodles and rice.

These are pre-cooked and take just one minute to reheat. They have a neutral flavour but a distinct aroma (which I find unpleasant). They are gluten free with four times the fibre content of white pasta, noodles and rice. With less than a single gram of carbohydrate in every 100 g, you can call these carb-free.

Konjac noodles and konjac rice suit low carbohydrate (low carb), keto diets and Very Low Energy Diet (VLED or VLCD) meal replacement diets but, nutrition-wise, you are much better to forgo the fake noodles and eat a bigger serve of light vegetables. 

If your favourite grain or noodle is not included, email foodtalk to have it reviewed and listed.