What in the world is the difference between quinoa, farro, and brown rice? Or what about couscous? Is one better for your cholesterol levels? It's okay if you're feeling stumped—it's hard to know which recipes are best, and what their nutritional advantages are. When it comes to quinoa vs. barley and more, different grains have varying health benefits.
In her book Grains, Seeds, & Legumes, author Molly Brown explores the nutrition behind different grains and offers pro cooking tips for each one. To get familiar with them, let's take a look at six of the most common grains to find out which are gluten-free, fiber-rich, low in cholesterol and glycemic index, and protein-packed.
Below, read on to learn how to cook with grains to make equally delicious and healthy meals.
Many grain recipes have interchangeable ingredients, so if there's one grain you love above all others, try swapping it for others in new recipes.
The Grain Spotlights
In her book, Brown explains that barley has the highest fiber content of all the grains in this roundup. In the same vein, whole grain rice contains vitamins B1, B3, and B6, and because of its fiber content, it's a more heart-healthy choice than white rice—which is essential to maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
When it comes to quinoa, Brown explains that this grain is "a gluten-free complete protein (rare in the plant world), which means it contains all the amino acids we need." Quinoa is packed with iron and calcium, and it's also a good source of manganese, magnesium, and fiber.
Couscous is probably the trickiest grain on our list. As Brown notes, "Couscous is not actually a grain, but a tiny grain-like pellet made from flour and water, traditionally rolled out by hand." Though it looks just like quinoa, it's nutritionally more comparable to pasta. However, the whole wheat version is a good source of fiber and iron.
"Millet is an ancient grain—probably one of the oldest staple foods," writes Brown. "Nutritionally, it is superior to whole grain rice and wheat, and it is gluten-free." Specifically, it offers a variety of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. Another great source of these minerals, along with protein, is Farro. It isn't gluten-free, but it has a low estimated glycemic load, which is an important nutritional element for diabetics to consider.
Superfood Bibimbap With Crispy Tofu
The Recipe: Superfood Bibimbap With Crispy Tofu
Why We Love It: When you feel like your diet is lacking fiber, get some barley pearls and try this superfood bowl from Tieghan Gerard of Half Baked Harvest. This Korean-inspired dish is a vegetarian version of classic Bibimbap, which uses thinly-sliced steak. Steak is swapped for crispy tofu, and a fried egg with picked veggies are mixed in over a bed of barley (Gerard uses farro here, but notes it can be swapped for barley, brown rice, quinoa, or white rice for a different base).
Pro Tip: "Press the tofu with paper towels to remove as much water as possible," Gerard says. You'll want to place it in a bag in slices to marinate before cooking.
Vegan Barley Scones With Roasted Plums
The Recipe: Vegan Barley Scones With Roasted Plums
Why We Love It: Store-bought barley "retains much of the distinctive earthy flavor of unprocessed barley," Brown says, making it an ideal grain to add to a variety of dishes. In this recipe, The First Mess lays out instructions for these easy, tasty scones. Barley flour, cinnamon, vanilla, and plums baked in maple syrup and coconut oil come together for a delicious—and healthy—dessert.
Pro Tip: Once you've made the batter, fold in the chopped plums gently and round the edges to keep the filling inside before baking.
30-Minute Portobello Mushroom Stir Fry
The Recipe: 30-Minute Portobello Mushroom Stir Fry
Why We Love It: For a quick, hearty, and easy lunch or dinner that features brown rice, try whipping up this stir fry from Minimalist Baker. It's also nutritional, vegetarian-friendly, and full of flavor. While this recipe uses red bell peppers and broccolini, you can add in any vegetables you like for even more flavor.
Pro Tip: If you're trying to up your veggie intake, brown rice can be swapped for cauliflower rice (but brown rice packs in that heart-healthy fiber).
Meal Prep Grain Bowls
The Recipe: Meal Prep Grain Bowls
Why We Love It: These grain bowls are perfect to prepare for busy weeks. Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park of Spoon Fork Bacon note that it's "a great way to use up those extra vegetables you have. The recipe is designed to be super flexible, so you can easily alter it to fit your taste." Sweet potato adds a hearty, rich taste complemented by brown rice and chickpeas.
Pro Tip: Be sure to bake your carrots and sweet potatoes for 20 minutes before adding in the cauliflower and broccolini, then roast for an additional 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender.
Sprouted Mung Bowl With Coconut Quinoa and Beet Tahini
Why We Love It: Quinoa is a superfood seed native to South America. Since quinoa is super moist, it can fluff up to a consistency similar to that of couscous. For a vivid bowl of nutrients that looks as pretty as it tastes, try this quinoa bowl from The First Mess. Coconut quinoa adds a tropical, bold flavor to this bowl with a rich beet tahini sauce.
Pro Tip: Vegan cookbook author Laura Wright notes that you can swap any sprouted beans or legumes you like, and if you aren't up for sprouting them yourself, store-bought is fine.
Six Ingredient Breakfast Quinoa
The Recipe: Six Ingredient Breakfast Quinoa
Why We Love It: Quinoa doesn't always have to be for lunch or dinner—and this recipe is a perfect example. Using cinnamon, vanilla, maple syrup, and your favorite additions of fruit, this breakfast quinoa is easy to make and a high-protein substitute for oatmeal. "It's also high in fiber, gluten-free, and easy to digest," say Holly Erickson and Natalie Mortimer of The Modern Proper. "Top it off with some berries and nuts, and you'll be riding a deliciously nutritious high all day."
Pro Tip: Pair this recipe with your favorite plant-based milk for a vegan diet.
Mediterranean Chicken and Farro Salad
The Recipe: Mediterranean Chicken and Farro Salad
Why We Love It: "Farro softens when cooked, but it remains a little firm," writes Brown, and it has some nutty undertones as well. Since farro is a base for both warm and cold salads, this Mediterranean chicken and farro salad from Half Baked Harvest is a delicious way to get your protein and fiber fix. The recipe adds a delicious serving of fresh mozzarella cheese, along with tomatoes, artichokes, olives, and pepperoncini. Combined with roasted red pepper sauce, the farro base for this salad is a nice switch-up for quinoa enthusiasts.
Pro Tip: Chill the chicken with its marinade ingredients—olive oil, minced garlic, smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, and lemon juice—for at least one hour. Refrigerate for up to 12 hours for maximum flavor.
Farro, Butternut Squash, Sausage, and Dried Cherry Stuffing
Why We Love It: Move over, Thanksgiving stuffing: This recipe uses farro's healthy whole grains for a nutty flavor boost. Dried cherries add a sweet element to this stuffing. "Go ahead and help yourself, and feel free to go back for seconds. You’re totally going to want to," says Heidi Larsen of Foodie Crush. Using Jones Dairy Farm's Sausage, Larsen says you can taste the quality of this six-ingredient sausage with each bite. "No filler. No byproducts. Just sausage. All-natural and gluten-free, you can tell the difference in their sausage the minute it hits the pan."
Pro Tip: While you can swap for fresh-cut bread chunks if you prefer, Larsen says old-fashioned dried bread cubes are a familiar favorite in this stuffing.
One Pot Moroccan Chicken and Chickpeas With Pistachio Couscous and Goat Cheese
Why We Love It: If you're in the mood for something comforting and full of complex spices, this Moroccan chicken bowl with chickpeas and pistachio couscous from Half Baked Harvest will hit the spot. Pistachio couscous is the star of this recipe: Fluffy and light, this mild-tasting carb soaks up the flavor of whatever you pair it with. Sprinkle your couscous with chopped pistachios for a flavor unlike any other grain bowl.
Pro Tip: While spice-lovers will welcome the cayenne pepper in this recipe, you can omit the spice or swap it with another of your favorites for a milder taste. Add more to kick up the heat!
Quick Chickpea Carrot Couscous Salad
The Recipe: Quick Chickpea Carrot Couscous Salad
Why We Love It: This recipe is fast, easy, and delicious. Perfect for summer or a lunchtime favorite, this cool grain salad from The Full Helping uses couscous in the best way. "Enhance the flavor by adding more spices, some lemon or orange zest, a pinch of crushed red pepper for heat, or you could mix up the herbs," says chef and Registered Dietician Gena Hamshaw. Mint and parsley are her favorite herbs to add for a bolder taste.
Pro Tip: Hamshaw uses whole grain couscous for this recipe, but notes that regular or pearl couscous will also work fine if you have it on hand.
Vegan BBQ Lentils With Millet Polenta
The Recipe: Vegan BBQ Lentils With Millet Polenta
Why We Love It: "Millet is an ancient grain—probably one of the oldest staple foods," writes Brown. This grain can be used as the base of many recipes, from muffins to salads and polenta. We're particularly excited to try this recipe from The First Mess, which yields BBQ lentils atop a millet polenta base. Millet is small in size and milder than other grains, so you can use it instead of couscous if you want something gluten-free and nutrient-heavy. Sprinkle in ground millet to a pot with vegetable stock and a pinch of salt until it becomes a thick, polenta-like mixture to complement the BBQ lentils.
Pro Tip: "I’ve made this sauce with less than half of the specified maple syrup amount, and loved it just the same," says Wright. "If you’re less excited about the play of sweet flavors in a sauce, you can certainly use less."
Millet and Hemp Seed Spread
The Recipe: Millet and Hemp Seed Spread
Why We Love It: Brown jokes that "despite its image as a bird food, millet is a good introduction to grains, especially if you are cautious of those fuller flavors." This spread from Green Evi is a great example, with the soft base of millet complemented by classic spices. It's the perfect snack when you're looking for whole-grain options that aren't mixed into a bowl. This easy, five-ingredient recipe uses hemp seeds and paprika that the chef says makes a great appetizer with toast (or even veggies like cucumber and celery stalk). It only takes three simple steps to prepare, and blended cashews create a delicious cream for the spread.
Pro Tip: Cashew cream can be substituted with yogurt or heavy cream, but Green Evi notes it's best with oat cream or soy yogurt.
American Heart Association. Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia). April 30, 2017
Harvard School of Public Health. Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar.