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A Guide To Grains: From Freekeh to Spelt

Find out about the 'big' ancient grains: Farro, Spelt, Amaranth, Quinoa and more!

A Guide To Ancient Grains

Slowly but surely, grains have moved from the culinary sidelines to their rightful place as 21st century food heroes.

No longer dismissed as mere health foods, they have become must-have ingredients for chefs, food bloggers and foodies and have received much more shelf space in supermarkets.

But, some of you may still be asking yourselves — what exactly are grains? And why all the hype?

Grains are the seeds of cultivated grasses such as wheat, rice and barley. They have come to be known as the ‘go-getters’ of the plant world because they’re not picky about where they grow and can thrive in the most harsh of climates, including the scorching sun and sub-zero temperatures. They can even do well in poor-quality soil.

In prehistoric times, grains were one of the first foods that could be stored and therefore were key to transforming a nomadic society to one that put down roots — which is why we are where we are today.

We have pulled together your go-to guide for finding the perfect grain for you by going over each one by taste/flavour, health benefit and recipe usage (with a bit of history thrown in, as well!).

So, sit back and let us take you on a culinary journey beginning in South America…






Quinoa is native to Peru and Bolivia where it was known as ‘the golden grain’ of the Incas. Botanically related to beetroot and spinach, it is gluten-free & the ultimate powerhouse of nutrient content compared to all other grains. 

Unique in that it contains all nine essential amino acids, you can therefore get the same nutrients from it as from animal meat.

Tastes like: Mild, slightly grassy flavour and a unique soft and light yet crunchy texture.

Can be used in: Salads, soups, stews, stuffings, egg dishes, bread, cakes and desserts.









Once the sacred food of the Aztecs, amaranth is a pseudo-grain that is botanically related to spinach and chard.

It’s a protein powerhouse, rich in calcium, and gluten-free.

Tastes like: Intense, earthy, almost corn-like flavour with a somewhat gritty texture but gets fairly gummy when left to rest.

Can be used in: Soups, stews, porridge, smoothies, desserts, bread and cakes.








Despite the name, buckwheat has no relation to wheat. It belongs to the same family as rhubarb, sorrel and dock.

It is also gluten-free. A great source of nutrients and minerals including magnesium, copper and B vitamins, it can aid digestion in addition to being another fantastic protein-rich meat alternative.

Tastes like: Mild to deep grassy/earthy flavour.

Can be used in: Salads, soups, stews and as a noodle alternative.








Dubbed as the ultimate superfood, chia seeds were an Aztec staple thousands of years ago.

The tiny seeds pack a nutritional punch and have the highest plant concentration of the omega-3 fatty acids and contain all the essential amino acids. Plus, a wealth of must-have vitamins and minerals whilst also being gluten-free!

Tastes like: when milled fairly flavourless.

Can be used: sprinkled over salads, soups, stir-fries and breakfast cereals. Can also be added to smoothies, bread and cakes.









Farro is an ancient Italian variety of wheat. Spearheaded by chefs and trendy restaurants, farro has enjoyed a well-deserved comeback in recent years.

It’s a high-fibre food that’s an excellent source of protein, magnesium and iron.

Tastes like: an intense nutty flavour. The grains are wonderfully plump with a satisfyingly chewy texture.

Can be used: as a side dish or in soups, salads, stews and risotto.









Highly esteemed in the Middle-East, freekeh has become more and more popular in the West over the past several years. Made by burning young green durum wheat in the fields, it has a unique smoky aroma and flavour.

It contains more protein, vitamins and minerals than rice or ordinary wheat. Although the gluten content of freekeh is lower than regular durum wheat, it’s still wheat and contains gluten.

Tastes like: Slightly crunchy with an enticing smoky flavour.

Can be used: as a side dish or in risotto-like dishes, soups, stuffings and tagines.








This ancient wheat variety is higher in protein and fibre than ordinary wheat, and it may be less likely to cause bloating in susceptible people.

What do we mean by ancient? It’s been cultivated since around 5000 BC! It’s high in protein and fibre like the other grains.

Tastes like: Rich, nutty and slightly sweet with a pleasantly creamy texture.

Can be used: as a side-dish, risotto-like dishes, soups, stews and salads.












A multi-tasker in the kitchen, barley is hugely under-rated. It’s one of the world’s oldest cultivated grains, having first been used in Eurasia around 13,000 years ago.

Barley is fibre and vitamin rich and contains the eight essential amino acids.

Tastes like: satisfyingly chewy with a rich, earthy flavour.

Can be used in: stylish salads, risotto, breads and desserts.









A long-term staple in western Africa and East Asia, millet is sadly under-appreciated in the West — no doubt because of its association with bird food.

It is actually one of the tastiest of grains and is light-textured, versatile and very easy to cook. Gluten-free, high in fibre and rich in vitamin B, you should give millet a go.

Tastes like: Mild flavour and light creamy texture but with an interesting crunch.

Can be used in: as a side dish, stuffing, salads, soups, stews and porridge.





Tip: Don’t have time to cook all of these wonderful ancient grains on the stove but still want their nutritional goodness? Most supermarkets now sell a range of microwaveable pre-made packs featuring most of these grains!

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