How to Cook Whole Grains

It can be easy to work more whole grains into your diet.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

You know you should be eating more whole grains instead of refined ones. Whole grains have more fiber, more health-promoting nutrients, and can even help control your weight (by keeping you feeling full longer). But making the switch isn't always easy. You have to get used to buying and eating new foods. And many people think they don't know how to cook whole grains.

The truth is that there are some simple ways to add whole grains to your diet, and that most whole grains are simple to cook -- you can even prepare them in a slow cooker. Here are tips for working more whole grains into your diet, and cooking them -- and some simple whole-grain recipes.

3 Simple Ways to Eat More Whole Grains

Here are three quick and easy ways to get more whole grains and give the fiber and nutrients in your daily diet a big boost:

1. Use whole-wheat flour in recipes that call for white flour. This is one of the easiest ways to boost your intake of whole grains. It usually works well to substitute whole-wheat flour for half the white flour your recipe calls for (In other words, if the recipe calls for 2 cups of white flour, you'd use 1 cup of whole-wheat flour and 1 cup of unbleached white flour.) Often, you can use 2/3 whole wheat flour and 1/3 unbleached white flour in the recipe and it will still turn out wonderfully.

2. Use brown rice in place of white rice. You can turn all your favorite rice dishes (from salads and stuffing to stews and casseroles) into servings of whole grains. Choose long-grain brown rice when you want light, dry grains that separate easily. Choose short-grain brown rice when you want starchier rice where the grains stick together when cooked. Quick-cooking brown rice (available in many supermarkets) makes this substitution a snap.

3. Add barley to your favorite dishes. Barley is a whole grain that contributes super-healthy soluble fiber. Cook barley and add to side dishes and salads, or stir uncooked barley into casseroles, soups, or stews while they're cooking (let simmer for 60-90 minutes). You can find it in most grocery stores as pearled barley, in which some of the hull, bran, and germ have been removed. In specialty markets, you can find other options, like barley grits (in which the barley kernels have been toasted, then cracked, to speed cooking), barley groats or whole hull-less barley (in which only the thick outer hull has been removed). There's little difference in the amount of fiber, soluble fiber, calcium, and protein between pearled barley and the hulled type. That's because pearled barley still has some of the bran and germ, says Cassidy Stockton, marketing project manager for Bob's Red Mill in Oregon.

How to Cook Whole Grains

Are you new to cooking whole grains? Here are some quick cooking tips you can follow.

Brown Rice. One cup of uncooked brown rice makes about 3 cups of cooked brown rice. Follow the directions below if you are using the stovetop, microwave, or rice cooker.
For the stove top: Combine 1 cup dry rice, 2-1/4 cups liquid, 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional), and 2 teaspoons canola or olive oil (optional) in 2- to 3-quart saucepan. Bring to boiling, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover the saucepan and cook for about 45 minutes (rice should be tender and water is absorbed).
For the oven: Using boiling liquid, place ingredients in shallow pan; stir. Cover well and bake at 350F for 50-60 minutes.
For the microwave: Combine 1 cup rice, 2 1/4 cups liquid, 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional), and 2 teaspoons canola or olive oil (optional) in a 2- to 3-quart microwave-safe dish. Cover dish and cook on HIGH for 5 minutes or until boiling. Reduce setting to MEDIUM (50% power) and cook 30 minutes more or until rice is tender and water is absorbed.
For the rice cooker: Most rice cooker manufacturers recommend specific amounts of rice and water. Generally, though, use about 2 cups of water for each cup of dry rice.

Barley. Use about 3 cups broth or water to 1 cup of dry barley (pearled or hull-less). Cooking times may be a little longer using the hull-less barley and a little shorter if using barley grits.
Stove top: Bring the barley-water mixture a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook until tender (about 60 minutes).
Oven: If you're baking your barley in a very liquid casserole mixture, it will take about 75 minutes to cook. (Because barley is best cooked slowly, it doesn't lend itself to cooking in the microwave.)

If barley and brown rice don't appeal to you, not to worry; there are plenty of whole grains to go around. Not all are suitable for microwave cooking; sometimes it's not that convenient because you have to be in the kitchen to change the power setting throughout the cooking process, and you also need to stir midway. That said, here's how to cook some other whole grains: