Posted by: A Part of the Solution | October 27, 2010

Vegan Pantry, Part 2: Flours and Grains

Flours and grains is a misnomer. Some of the popular ‘starches’ of recent years are actually seeds–and related to grass more than they are anything else. Some of those ‘seed’ grains are fairly recent to the world of Western (Eurocentric, fully Industrialized) consciousness. Teff, quinoa and amaranth are included in that class of not-really-a-grain foods.

Why vary consumption of grains, seeds and flours? To get the broadest array of nutrients possible coursing through one’s body, naturally. Variety isn’t just the spice of life, it’s the foundation of sound nutrition. There’s hardly any argument in favor of whole foods, animal-free eating more compelling than good health.

Flours and Grains (and ‘Grass’ Seeds)

Wheat: This is the elephant in the room of good nutrition. It’s hyper-hybridized, often over-processed, and way too frequent a component in our diets. Go for organic, ‘whole’ wheat or wheat-berry choices. Wheat berries sprout nicely, and then they’re weirdly super-nutritious.  And whether you consume them as a whole grain or eat wheat in flour format, it’s just full of gluten–which may, or may not be difficult for you to digest. Try to cut back on wheat–aim for once a day, most days of the week.

Corn: Yup, not a grain but a giant grass seed. This seemingly wholesome North American native has crept into every crevice of the American diet–and it’s making inroads throughout the rest of the Western eating paradigm. Organic, or you’re eating Monsanto’s patented spawn, yellow contains a trace more flavor but it’s nutritional profiles are about equivalent to white cornmeal. Try to keep your consumption of corn-qua-corn to once a day.

Oats: This grain has great PR. It also contains trace gluten content, so it’s not appropriate for every diet. Yes, oats have enough fiber in every bowl to build an Ikea entertainment center. Yes, not everyone loves their texture. And yes, their nutritional value is compromised when their primary form of consumption is bowls of sugary instant from envelopes.

Rice: Here’s the jewel in the crown of the Big Four Starches. Not only is rice gluten-free, but when used in a brown rice format, it contains loads of fiber and nutrition. Indulge in exotics (Forbidden, Nepalese red, Golden Rose &tc), just make sure they’re listing as ‘whole’ grains for optimal ingestion.

Rye: Nowadays, rye is mostly an additive grain to give additional flavor and texture boosts to wheat and corn. Rye has less gluten than it’s cousin wheat–and more fiber. Use it when baking as 1/8th the total grain for a subtle flavor enhancer.

Spelt and Triticale: Ancient wheat variants, still containing gluten, but enough different from wheat that persons allergic to wheat can use these as a substitute. With less gluten than wheat,  give them extra-long fermenting time to more fully develop their ability to rise.

Barley: Here’s a great distant cousin from the wheat family. Use ‘hulled’ barley to get whole grain nutrition from it, as ‘polished’ barley is the equivalent of white rice. This one retains some real chewy texture even after cooking. It’s great in casseroles, pilafs, soups and stews. Throw it into regular rotation, you won’t regret it.

Buckwheat: Here’s one of those seeds-passing-as-grains from the Eurasian continent. It’s high in protein, and very flavorful. Whole it makes porridge or kasha varnishkas. Ground it becomes the crepes of Brittany or that Yankee classic ‘buckwheat cakes’. In Asia, it’s a traditional noodle component in Korea and Japan alike. Buckwheat has no gluten–being completely unrelated to wheat and the other ‘true grains’.

Millet: This one’s a staple in western Africa, and a common grain in Asian cultures. It’s wholly gluten free and moderate in protein content. It makes great flat breads, stews and serves as a great foundational component for burgers and loaves. Its naturally mild flavor makes it a wonderful canvas for any flavor set you might wish to apply.

Quinoa and Amaranth: Straight out of the mountains of the New World comes this happy duo. They’re sky-high in protein and fiber, and they don’t take more than 20 minutes to cook. Their strong flavors can be controlled by vigorous washing before cooking to remove bitter saponins from their surface. And they taste great with other strongly flavored foods.

Wild Rice: Another New World beauty, and no ‘rice’ at all–but a grass seed from the northern bogs of the plains states. Smooth nutty flavor, great fiber and a heaping helping of lysine make this one a tempting addition to one’s regular diet. It’s hand-harvested to this day, which explains the prohibitive price of this delicacy.

Teff: High in fiber and protein, this tiny grass-seed-grain (it takes 56 to equal the weight of one grain of rice) is a staple in east African cultures. Typically, it’s ground to a flour and made into large, supple flat breads (Injera from Ethiopia being the most familiar). It has a strong, sour flavor and is completely gluten-free.

Chick pea flour (Besan): No, it’s not a grain or even a grass seed, but lots of eating traditions around the world cheerfully make crepes and polentas using this ground bean flour–or others like it. Buy a bag of besan, look up some recipes on the internet, and get down to experimentation. It’s delicious and nutritious alike.



  1. Interesting post, but Triticale is not an ‘ancient’ cereal at all. It’s a cross between rye and pasta wheat made in the 1930s.

    Spelt is also no longer an ‘ancient’ grain, as it’s been intensively hybridized with modern bread wheat to increase its yield and baking qualities. So it’s now full of modern gluten.

    • Good points both.

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