In a new series, chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them
Cereal grains, the seeds of the grass family, are the most widely cultivated plants on earth. Today, more than half of the world’s daily calorific intake comes directly from cereal grains, and then of course there’s the vast amount of feed for our livestock too. Corn, wheat and rice are without a doubt the three biggest players, but there are so many others—such as barley, millet and sorghum—that are vital staples in parts of the developing world.
Grains and pulses were the very first plants that our nomadic, hunter-gatherer ancestors domesticated and so you could say that these miraculous little seeds are at the very core of human civilisation. We had to settle in order to tend, guard and harvest our precious crops and up sprang the first villages, then towns and, once we had become more efficient farmers, our cities.
But what made cereal grains the crop of choice and why do we continue to grow and consume them in such vast quantities?
The global diet
Cereal grains are seeds and, as such, are quite naturally designed for storage, with their protective coats regulating the amount of soil moisture absorbed so that they can lie dormant until they’re ready to germinate and spring into life. This characteristic means that, unlike more perishable fruit and vegetables, we can stockpile grains to keep us going through leaner times. These long-life qualities are the key to their continuing role as staples in the global diet and, from a domestic cook’s perspective, also make them extremely convenient store cupboard ingredients.
Cereal grains can be highly nutritious, depending on the variety—and, most importantly, which parts of the seed are eaten. So, before we set off on a worldwide journey looking at all the fabulous grains on the market, it’s important to think about their make-up.
Some cereal grains have an extra tough, inedible husk surrounding each kernel, while others grow ‘naked’, with just a thin coat (known in culinary terms as the ‘bran’) protecting the seed within. Whichever the case, that edible bran coat is a valuable source of dietary fibre.
Enzymes, oil and flavour
The seed itself is made up of the embryo (or germ) that sits at its base, packed with enzymes, oil and also (often forgotten) flavour. Then, making up the vast proportion of the kernel, comes the endosperm—basically a larder made up mostly of carbohydrates and protein to feed the embryo once it begins to germinate.
Unfortunately, the very richest part of the endosperm, containing a concentrated layer of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, protein and oils, sits right below the protective seed coat—and yes, you guessed it, this is usually removed along with bran and the germ when we mill and refine grains for white flour, white rice and even ‘pearled’ or polished grains.
So why do we eat predominantly refined, rather than whole, grains? The fact is that all those delicious and nutritious oils in the germ and outer layer of the endosperm can go rancid if the grain is stored for too long. Once the bran is removed we also get softer, lighter, whiter, quicker cooking grains and flours.
There’s very definitely a place for both refined and whole grains in our diet. A baguette, or a plate of durum wheat pasta, is something that just can’t be bettered, so I’m not about to recommend whole grains all round. I’m equally excited by food with a bit more wholesome chew: a bowl of smoky freekeh, a loaf of seeded rye or a corn tortilla. There’s a whole world of grains to be explored in both their refined and whole grain forms—so many less-familiar varieties are available now, it’s all about deciding when and how to use them.