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 350ºF 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:

Wild rice: Wild rice adds a nutty flavor and chewy texture to any dish. To make it, use 4 cups of water for every 1 cup of wild rice. Use a saucepan with a tight-fitting cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring at least once. Cover the saucepan; turn down the heat to a simmer. Cook about 50 minutes or until the rice kernels puff open.
For the oven: Combine 1 cup of well-rinsed wild rice with 2 cups water or broth in a covered 2-quart baking dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Add more water, if necessary, and fluff with a fork. Bake 30 minutes more.
For the microwave: Combine 1 cup of well-rinsed wild rice with 3 cups of water or broth in a covered 2-quart glass casserole. Cover dish and microwave on HIGH for 5 minutes. Microwave on MEDIUM (50% power) for 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes; drain any excess water before using.

Bulgur (from hard red wheat): Use 2 cups of water or broth for every 1 cup of dry bulgur. Bring to boil in a medium saucepan, then lower heat to simmer. Cover saucepan; cook about 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
For the microwave: Combine 1 cup bulgur with 1 3/4 cups hot water in a microwave-safe dish. Stir and cover; cook on HIGH for 2 minutes, 15 seconds. Stir again, cover the dish and let stand for 7 minutes.

Buckwheat groats: Roasted buckwheat groats (also called kasha) are used to make pilaf and hot cereal. According to Bobs Red Mill, you cook it by combining 1 cup groats with 2 cups of water in a large saucepan. Cook 10-12 minutes over medium heat, then let stand for 5 minutes. (To help keep the cooked groats from clumping together, you can toast the dry groats in a nonstick pan for a couple of minutes before cooking.)
For the oven: The cooking directions for brown rice work with groats as well: Using boiling liquid, place ingredients in shallow pan or dish; stir. Cover well and bake at 350ºF for 50 to 60 minutes.

Quinoa: It's important to rinse quinoa well before cooking to remove a bitter-tasting resin on the outer hull. To cook, combine 1 cup of well-rinsed quinoa with 2 cups water in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer about 15 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.

Amaranth grain: Combine amaranth grain and water in a nonstick saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring mixture to a boil; cover pan and lower heat to a simmer. Cook until grains absorb the water and bind together (about 25 minutes).

Whole Grains in a Crockpot

Most of these whole grains will cook in liquids added to a slow cooker if it's on for about 8 hours. Just add half a cup or more to your slow-cooker stews and soups. If you're making a casserole-type dish in the slow cooker, make sure there's enough liquid for the grain to absorb.

You can also cook just the grains in the slow cooker overnight or throughout the day on the LOW setting, says Stockton, who suggests using 4 cups water per cup of whole kernel grains.

Whole Grain Recipes

Here are some recipes -- for hamburger buns, a barley salad, and -- that will help you work more whole grains into your diet.

Honey Wheat Hamburger Buns

1 cup water (hot from the faucet)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon molasses
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 cups unbleached white flour
1/4 cup ground flaxseed (also called flaxseed meal)
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons yeast (you can use rapid rise, active dry, or bread machine yeast)


  1. Set bread machine to the "dough" cycle. Add all the ingredients in the order listed here (or according to the manufacturer's directions) -- but add the salt to one of the corners of the bread machine pan, and make a well in the center of the flour and add the yeast there.
  2. Press "start"; a nice dough should form in a few minutes. After the dough cycle (usually 1 hour and 40 minutes) place dough onto a floured work surface and cut in half. Cut each half into 4 equal portions (to make 8 total).
  3. Shape each of the portions of dough into round disks about 3 inches wide. Place on a nonstick jellyroll pan or cookie sheet; cover with a kitchen towel. Start preheating the oven to 350 degrees. Place the pan near the oven or in another warm spot in your kitchen. Let dough rise about 30 minutes (or until double in size).
  4. Bake for 20 minutes or until cooked throughout and lightly brown on top.

Yield: Makes 8 hamburger buns

Nutrition Information per serving: 245 calories, 7 g protein, 44 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat, .5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 296 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 22%.

Barley & Bean Salad with Lemon Pepper Vinaigrette

1 cup pearled barley (barley groats can also be used, just increase the cooking time to 60-70 minutes)
4 cups water or vegetable broth
1 can (15.5 oz) garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup cashew pieces (or other roasted nuts)
1 cup shredded carrot
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil or canola oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper


  1. Cook barley in gently boiling water or broth in covered medium saucepan until tender and water is absorbed (about 45 minutes). Let cool, or rinse with cold water and drain well.
  2. In large serving bowl, combine cooked barley, garbanzo beans, nuts, carrots, and parsley.
  3. In small bowl, combine oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper with whisk. Drizzle over barley mixture and toss to coat well. Cover and chill in refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving if time allows.

Yield: Makes 8 servings

Nutrition Information per serving: 230 calories, 7 g protein, 33 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 90 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 31%.

Cream of Chicken & Mushroom Casserole

2/3 cup pearled barley, dry (or use barley groats, increasing the cooking time to about 90 minutes total)
1/2 cup basmati white rice (or long grain rice)
1 package dry onion soup mix (like Lipton's)
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless (about 1.6 pounds), each cut into 2 strips
1 can cream of mushroom soup, condensed (Healthy Request)
3/4 cup fat-free sour cream (or light sour cream)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups mushroom slices, raw
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted in nonstick pan until golden brown
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley (or 1 teaspoon parsley flakes)


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine barley, rice, and onion soup mix in the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Place chicken breast strips evenly on top of the mixture.
  2. In medium bowl, combine condensed cream of mushroom soup, fat-free sour cream, chicken broth, and sliced mushrooms. Spread on top of the chicken and barley mixture. Cover pan with foil and bake for 1 hour.
  3. Remove foil, sprinkle almonds and parsley over the top and bake 15 minutes more. Serve hot.

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Nutrition Information per serving: 343 calories, 26 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 7.8 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 52 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 358 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 21%.


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Multi-Grain Buttermilk Pancakes

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed, quick-cooking rolled oats, or wheat germ
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lite pancake syrup
1 1/2 tablespoons less-fat margarine (with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon)
1 1/4 cups low fat buttermilk
1 large egg, beaten


  1. In large mixing bowl, combine whole-wheat flour, white flour, flaxseed or oats, baking powder, baking soda, brown sugar, and salt, by beating on low speed.
  2. Drizzle pancake syrup into the bowl, and drop pieces of margarine into it, and beat on medium-low speed until mixture has a sand-like consistency.
  3. Make a well in the center of the mixture; pour in buttermilk and beaten egg. Beat on low speed just until well blended. If batter seems thin, stir in a tablespoon more of oats or whole-wheat flour.
  4. Start heating a nonstick skillet, griddle, or frying pan over medium heat. Coat the surface lightly with canola cooking spray and ladle about 1/4 cup batter per pancake onto the pan. Once bubbles form on surface of pancakes, flip over to lightly brown other side. Remove cooked pancakes to serving platter, coat skillet lightly with canola cooking spray and continue making more until batter is gone.

Yield: Makes 12-14 pancakes (about 4 servings)

Nutrition Information Per serving: 242 calories, 9 g protein, 35 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 616 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 32%.

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; ©2008 Elaine Magee

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Published April 10, 2008.

SOURCES: Cassidy Stockton, marketing project manager, Bob's Red Mill, Milwaukie, Oregon. WebMD Medical News article, Whole-Grain Cereal Saves Lives, published Feb. 26, 2003. Smith, Edge, M. et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, December 2005; 105:12, pp 1856-1860. ESHA Research Food Processor software. Bob's Red Mill website.

©2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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