Monday, September 16, 2013

Working With Whole Grains

We hear the importance of eating whole grains, and labels tell us how many different grains and enriched grains they have. Meanwhile, grains are being blamed as one of the causes of obesity and digestive issues. What does it all mean? Besides reading the ingredients on the label, how can we incorporate more healthy grains into our diet?

What Are Grains?

Grains are seeds. That means they are packed full of nutrition. Everything needed to create a new plant is packed into each individual seed. Nature also designed them to find their way into the ground whole so that they can grow more plants. This means that whole seeds will pass straight through your system and you won't get much benefit from them. Some common grains are corn kernels, wheat berries, oat groats,

Animals get by this problem by spending all day chewing. We process the food so we can spend our days writing blogs instead of chewing whole foods. Masticating juicers do this to fruit and veggies. They also leave behind pulp which may be harder to digest. (There are some interesting opinions on breaking down the whole food with something like a vitamix vs. juicing. We use a vitamix because that is what we have, not because I have an opinion on that debate)
There are many ways grains are processed in order to make them digestible and easier to work with. You can take off the outer husk or shell, grind them into flour, steam and roll them, or chemically treat them. It is easy to find grains that are already processed. Flour, bleached flour, steel cut oats, rolled oats, and white rice are all good examples. All of these serve a purpose, but often some nutrition is lost in the process (click on the white rice link to see why that isn't always a bad thing.)  That is why it is easy to find "enriched" flour. That means it was easier for them to add nutrients in at the end then to have them naturally occurring.  Personally, I grind my wheat the day I plan to use it and keep any excess in the freezer. White flour is easier to work with, but I would rather have a dense, healthier loaf than enriched air.

How To Prepare Whole Grains

The goal of preparing grains is to take it from the ready to germinate form and transform it into something that your body can use instead of the new plant. Depending on the grain, you can do this lots of ways.

Cook It

Remember when breakfast cereal came from the stove top instead of a box? Me neither, but my parents and grandparents do. While the times and amount may vary, this is pretty simple. Take your grain, put it in a pot with some water and cook it until it is done. We do this with rice all the time, but it can be done with any grain. If you are going to put some whole grains in your bread, this is a good option. Popcorn is a fun way to transform the grain through changing its form by adding heat. You can also cook and bake with grains you have ground (bread is an obvious example).

Grind It

Any type of flour or meal has gone through this process already. Grinding helps to break things down and makes it easier to work with and digest. This is one of the reasons we got a vitamix. I can grind my wheat and rye berries so I have fresh, nutritious flour ready to be used in my bread. I grind whole oat groats if I want oat flour or for a quick oat meal (ground oats + water + microwave = instant oatmeal without the additives). I don't often have a need for rice flour unless I'm making mochi, but it is an option as well. 

Soaking and Sprouting 

There is the idea that even if grains are ground or cooked, they don't digest well, so we need to find a way to have them pre-digested. Soaking, fermenting and sprouting are the most common ways I've seen. There is also the idea that commercial yeast is the culprit of poor digestion, and a natural starter will do a better job in lots of ways. (Find a great book about natural yeast here)

I haven't got into sprouting (yet), and soaking takes a lot of planning, but I have been using a starter for a while now and I love it. It is easy to take care of (just feed it a bit everyday) and useful to have around. It takes a lot longer to rise than commercial yeast, and the flavor is a bit different, but it is worth it. If you want to learn more about it, ask me or search online for things like "natural yeast", "yeast-free starter", "plant based starter", "homemade sourdough starter", or "bread ferment".

Determine Your Commitment Level

Making stuff from scratch can be a big commitment. So before you go out and buy a 50 lb bag of wheat, make sure you know what to do with it. Decide how much time, energy and money you are willing to commit to this adventure. There are lots of different ways to eat more whole grains.


You can always find fresh wholesome food that has already been made. I love Dave's Killer Bread, and it is a bit cheaper at CostCo, but still expensive. You can also find things made from sprouted grains and such. This is great if you want to eat healthy without expending too much time or energy, but it will cost a lot.


If you aren't ready to grind your own flour, get some that is already ground or find a friend with a grinder. Go ahead and buy the expensive bread and ditch the cold cereal (to save time, use your crockpot. You can plug it into an outlet timer if you don't want it on all night). Don't feel like you need to change everything right away, but it is probably in your best interests to do something. If you want to make your own bread, start with easy stuff. You can use white flour and commercial yeast and it will still taste better (and be cheaper) than what the store has to offer. It is a lot more predictable and easy to work with too. Then if you really want whole grains, switch out your flour gradually. Get a small amount of grains or flour and decide if you are really ready to commit to this change long term (Winco bulk bins make this easy).

Spend Time, Save Money

I love my job. Being a domestic engineer is very rewarding and totally worth it to me. But it doesn't make a lot of money. I have time to let bread rise for hours and to can quarts of peaches. In the long run, it is works well for our family to prepare things from scratch and to buy in bulk while it is on sale because we can eat healthy and still save money. This week we are having peach crisp for breakfast, but usually oatmeal or homemade granola do just fine as a way to start the day without a bowl of sugar, dyes and a little bit of refined grains.

Choose What Works For You

In the end, you need to decide what endeavors are worth your effort. This year we had a little bit of a garden, but not much. Peaches are cheap enough that it is worth for me to buy a bunch and can them. While I would love fresh salsa, it isn't actually cheaper to make it if you have to buy all the ingredients, so we will mix it up for our meals now and then, but we won't can it this year. However, I have a friend with a sizable garden, this year she froze and canned a ton of vegetables. She already shared a few recipes (including mock-pineapple made with zucchini) and I will certainly be calling on her next year for more (assuming we can get a house and a garden). I cook dried beans in the crock pot, but I put them on tortillas from Costco (the ones that are uncooked). It is all a matter of figuring out how to balance cooking from scratch, eating healthy, having tasty meals, meal time prepartion and maintaining sanity. I think the balance is a little different for everyone.

What things do you do you eat more whole grains and other healthy foods? I look forward to reading your comments below.

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