Four cheap and healthy grains

We all know that cooking meals at home can save money. For some (like me), it's a lot of fun, too, but it's easy to get in a rut — which is where I found myself last year.

Brown rice was my go-to side dish, but there are only so many ways to cook the stuff before your taste buds get bored. That's when I discovered a whole new world of grains that got me excited to cook again, many of which are now kitchen staples. If you're ready for something new, try out these under-appreciated grains, each with a distinct texture and flavor.

Barley

Before combat, Roman gladiators ate barley, which was believed to give great strength and stamina. Non-gladiators can just enjoy it for its rich, nut-like flavor and health benefits. Barley is a good source of fiber, selenium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese.

Barley is often thrown into a beef stew, but it is certainly worthy to be a dish all on its own. Try Barley Stew with Leeks, Mushrooms, and Greens or Barley Salad.

Kasha

Kasha is roasted whole-grain buckwheat or buckwheat oats and is commonly eaten in Eastern Europe (though in Slavic countries, the word kasha refers to porridge in general). Kasha is close to wheat in its nutrition content, though it's gluten-free, and is high in protein, B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, iron, and calcium.

Kasha is cooked the same way as rice, and it's just as versatile. For a couple of ideas, try Wild Mushroom and Onion Kasha or Kasha with Browned Onions and Walnuts.

Millet

In the US, millet is most often recognized as the main ingredient in bird seed. But millet isn't just for the birds; it's a staple grain in Africa, India, and Asia.

Millet is high in protein—1/2 cup of cooked millet provides 4.2 grams. It is also rich in niacin, B6, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Like kasha, millet is a good option for those with gluten allergies.

To start cooking with millet, try out Curried Millet, Shiitake, and Corn Salad Restey or keep it simple with Hot Millet Cereal.

Quinoa

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) isn't actually a grain, but I had to include it anyway, and I've saved my favorite for last. While it is commonly thought of as a grain, it's more closely related to leafy greens, such as spinach and chard. Quinoa, however, is grown for its seeds, not its greens. Quinoa is a 5,000-year-old crop that was a diet staple for the Andean Incas, who referred to it as “chisaya mama,” or “mother of all grains.” It has a light, soft texture and a delicately nutty flavor when cooked.

Quinoa is full of nutitional value, containing all of the essential amino acids and more protein than grains. It is a good source of dietary fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, vitamin E and several B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Quinoa also is another gluten-free option.

One of my favorite recipes for quinoa comes from La Tartine Gourmande, a gorgeous food blog by Béatrice Peltre. (And by gorgeous, I mean that if it was possible to live inside a blog, I'd live in hers.) Béatrice was kind enough to provide the beautiful photos in this article and to let me share her black quinoa salad recipe on GRS. So, to get you started on some culinary experimentation, here is Béatrice's quinoa recipe. Feel free to experiment and make it your own!

Black quinoa salad with ricotta salata and green zebra tomatoes

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup black quinoa
  • 2 oz ricotta salata, diced
  • 1 oz finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 2 green zebra tomatoes
  • 3.5 oz French green beans
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped coriander
  • 10 cherry tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup red grapes

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1 garlic clove, minced finely
  • 1 teaspoon honey Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil

Steps:

  1. Rinse the quinoa under cold water and drain. Add to a pot with twice the same amount of water (2 x 2/3 cup water). Add salt and bring to a boil. Simmer and cover.
  2. Cook for 15 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. Stop the heat and let rest for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let cool. Transfer to a large bowl; set aside.
  3. To prepare the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, combine the garlic and honey mustard with the balsamic vinegar. Add the oil and emulsify with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Prepare the other ingredients: Cook the French beans for 5 minutes in salted boiling water. Rinse them under cold water; cut them in 2.5 inch-sticks and set aside.
  5. Slice the cherry tomatoes and red grapes in halves and the zebra tomatoes in quarters.
  6. Combine all ingredients (quinoa, tomatoes, beans, avocado, ricotta, grapes, parmesan, and herbs) in the bowl and dress with the vinaigrette. Serve at room temperature or fresh.

Serves two.

Note: Most quinoa comes pre-rinsed to remove the saponin, which is a natural, but bitter, resin-like coating. It's a good idea to give it an extra rinse in cold water before cooking it, as recommended in this recipe.

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Kalinda @ Wheat Free Meat Free
Kalinda @ Wheat Free Meat Free
10 years ago

Millet is one of my favorites–millet bread is great for toast in the morning. 🙂

Buckwheat is great for gluten-free pancakes or waffles.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

Oh, yummy! 🙂 Thanks for a great post!

I love millet and quinoa, but they aren’t cheap grains around here (around $4.50 a pound where I am in Canada). I find buying them at the bulk food store is a lot cheaper than the grocery store, and definitely cheaper than buying them in packages! (I wait for coupons and sales, and stock up!)

I didn’t know kasha was gluten-free. Yay! Will have to give that a try. Barley is a staple item in my chicken soup because it doesn’t go to mush like pasta or rice.

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
10 years ago

I agree with the above comment. Some grains are very inexpensive–barley, e.g. Quinoa is quite expensive now. Frugalistas would do well to learn to cook with the cheaper ones, which have sustained people for years. The above recipe is also pretty expensive–not to mention fussy, calling for small bits of lots of different ingredients. Check out Deborah Madison’s cookbooks for wonderful ways to use grains–both the cheap ones and the more expensive ones.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

Thanks for the reminder to go back to experimenting with grains. I’ll need to check out the cooking blogs, too!

I’ve not had good results with Kasha, yet, but I’ll give it another go.

Susan in CO
Susan in CO
10 years ago

Oooh, I love barley and millet! I always throw some millet or some amaranth into my baking … it’s small enough that my husband doesn’t complain about “sticks and twigs” in his sandwich bread, but it adds a nice crunch to things.

My mom used to put some millet into her buttermilk biscuits – sounds weird, I know, but nowadays millet-less biscuits still seem a little odd to me. 🙂

John
John
10 years ago

Had to throw in a local (Portland) plug for Bob’s Red Mill… their Quinoa is top notch and the Mill Store is a great place to visit. JD – have you been there?

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

@John ESI Money (#6)
You bet, I’ve been to Bob’s Red Mill! In fact, I’m eating one of their hot cereals at their very moment, and I need to go get more soon. 🙂

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

I love this post! My husband, the only cook in the house, started cooking different grains rather than rice a few years ago. My favorite is a mix of ameranther, quinoa, kamut, and oat groats. They are high in protein and filling so we have cut down on the serving size of meat on the plate which saves money and is a healthy cheap alternative! Great as a breakfast cereal too!

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

I love buckwheat for its sweetness.

And we cook barley like rice, in a rice cooker, as a base for a lot of meals – it’s a little nuttier tasting than brown rice, but otherwise very similar.

The Skeptical Housewife
The Skeptical Housewife
10 years ago

Mmmm, you’ve inspired me to try some new grains next time I run out! I like them as hot breakfast cereals mostly. I’d like to try millet. I’ve tried quinoa, but when I made it, it was horrible. But I’ve tried it when other people made it and it was good. I had flakes, though, from a box.

mare
mare
10 years ago

@ Beth if you are seeking gluten-free grains barley isn’t one of them. A good substitute for barley is short-grain brown rice.

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

Thanks for sharing this! When I was diagnosed with Celiac disease last year, I had to read up and learn about other grains quickly! It surprises me how much of America won’t stray outside of wheat.

Just a note: Barley is NOT gluten-free, and in fact will make you quite sick if you have Celiac or gluten intolerance, even though it is wheat free.

The other three mentioned are gluten free (thanks for pointing that out!)

-Erica

Heather
Heather
10 years ago

The “Omnivorous Child” blog which I linked to above has suggestions for using Farro (which is a lot like wheatberry.) It is lovely and nutty. She uses it plain with salt and butter (esp. good for children), or in an omelet or quesadilla filling, or in a salad much like the recipe you show.

MJ
MJ
10 years ago

Quinoa is great and nutritious, but it certainly isn’t cheap. It’s usually around $4.50 a pound if you buy it in bulk here in Southern California.

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

Grains actually aren’t healthy and most people would be far healthier if they eliminated grains from their daily diet.

This is why it’s unwise to accept health and fitness information from blogs about money.

Pick up Gary Taubes “Good Calories, Bad Calories” to read about how the “healthy grain” fallacy got started.

Emmy
Emmy
10 years ago

mmm, I love grains (or, when I’m pretending to be a field zombie, graaaaaaiiiiiins!), especially quinoa because it cooks so fast. I will agree that it is not as cheap, though, and often you have to go to pricey stores(like Whole Paycheck) to find it. If you have a store with a good bulk section, though, it’s a great alternative to rice or something starchier. I also love bulgur/cracked wheat, which is not technically a whole grain and has slightly less nutrients but is cheap, super easy to cook and has a great texture.

Kris at GRS
Kris at GRS
10 years ago

Thanks for the kick-start, April. I cooked up some barley in chicken-broth this morning to serve later with turkey kielbasa and asparagus– yum!

One of my favorite food blogs, Orangette, currently has a front-page recipe for oatmeal pancakes made with rolled oats. I need to get some buttermilk so I can give them a try! http://orangette.blogspot.com/

And I just saw quinoa at our Costco, but I didn’t check out the price.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

“Grains actually aren’t healthy and most people would be far healthier if they eliminated grains from their daily diet.” Really? I would like to propose an experiment: We will measure my health, then I will eliminate grains from my diet for some experimental time period. At the end of that time, we will measure my health again. What’s a good amount to quantify “far healthier”, 20%? If I’m “20% healthier” at the end of the experiment, I’ll have to conclude that your hypothesis about grains was correct. I’ll let you propose the experimental timeframe and the method for quantifying “healthiness”.… Read more »

deb
deb
10 years ago

I’m addicted to farro. It’s delicious warm, cold, savory, sweet or even plain.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

@ mare — yes, I did know 🙂 But my comment could have been misleading so I’m glad you clarified. I do love short grain brown rice, and I mix it with more expensive rice blends to bring the costs down. @ Matt — I’ve heard the same thing said about meat, dairy, sugar, soy, peanuts, etc. Oh, and all the substitutes for meat, dairy and sugar as well. Every week it seems like there’s some new study telling us to eat more of this or less of that. The only thing I consistently read is “eat more vegetables” and… Read more »

David/yourfinances101
David/yourfinances101
10 years ago

Hot Kasha with raisins is the bomb!

DeeBee
DeeBee
10 years ago

I have recently been enjoying cooked bulghur wheat very much. I like it as a hot cereal with raisins in the morning, or a side dish with just a little bit of butter or butter spread. I buy Bob’s Red Mill brand and the cost seems reasonable to me.

It’s also great for making tabouleh salad.

DeeBee

liveyourdreams
liveyourdreams
10 years ago

We LOVE quinoa…we got a great recipe out of one of the Eat Clean books. It has sun dried tomatoes in it, and is awesome.

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

April, wonderful post! JD, thanks for including this topic in your blog! My DH is Japanese and white rice is the basic staple in our family’s diet. We eat healthily enough, but I’d love to get the rest of the family to try something else besides rice – at least once a week. I’ll have to order the grains via the internet as they are not available in Mongolia. (No, I don’t have to pay international postage for shipping as we have a DPO address!) I discovered quinoa two years ago and like it very much. April’s recipe looks like… Read more »

June
June
10 years ago

We’re gluten free in our house and we love quinoa. We grind our own flours so I use quinoa flour in my bread every week. Costco’s price is the cheapest around my area (interior B.C.). We use millet flour a lot as well and it give the bread a crunchy crust.

This year we are experimenting with growing our own quinoa. I’m not sure how it will work out but it is such a forgiving plant. It will be fun to see how much you can get off a single plant. Plus, apparently they have lovely flowers.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

I haven’t really thought about whether quinoa is more expensive than other food items, since it’s something we use sometimes, not all the time, and to me it’s like buying anything organic or whole rather than processed – worth the money because I’m going to eat it, and eating is an area where quality is the most important criteria. And there are a lot of servings per pound — I googled and the answer came back 10-12, so that would be about 45 cents/serving… I only buy the pre-rinsed quinoa now because when I found it really hard to rinse… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I’ve gone 48 years without ever hearing of quinoa. Now everywhere I turn I run into Quinoa. Well, I’ll take the bait and will give it a try.

Leanne
Leanne
10 years ago

Quinoa is a little expensive compared to other grains. But we should also note that quinoa is a complete protein–so rather than thinking of it as an alternative to, say, rice, which costs much less than quinoa, it makes more sense to think of it as an alternative to your main protein.

In that sense, it is *very* affordable.

Remember that a pound of dry quinoa equals a lot more servings than a pound of beef or chicken.

Robin L.
Robin L.
10 years ago

Go for the veggies, not the grain. I picked up a good vegetarian cookbook a long time ago, Laurel’s Kitchen, and there are lots of yummy things to eat you can make from it. Try Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks which have great and not boring recipes. Both cookbooks are usually found at libraries.

Sean
Sean
10 years ago

That salad looks pretty good. I love ricatta.

Doctor Stock
Doctor Stock
10 years ago

What would flax seed be considered?

Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com
Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com
10 years ago

I love Barley and Quinoa, both are fantastic! Cheers for this.

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

Leanne, that is a really good point! I don’t find quinoa to be expensive for what you get either. Especially for vegetarians like my husband and I looking to add more protein to our diet, quinoa is great. Tyler, I don’t think your health related comments are accurate statements regarding nutrition and health. The point is that when you eat a grain like quinoa instead of eating something like white rice, you are getting a lot more value nutritionwise. Vitamins are not irrelevant. I’m a doctor and I see people who have varying degrees of malnutrition or vitamin/mineral deficiency all… Read more »

Becky
Becky
10 years ago

I didn’t read all the comments, but I live in Poland and wanted to comment. Most people here don’t like “kasha” (at least not my friends). It gives our dogs diarrhea so I can’t even make dog food out of it.

Honey
Honey
10 years ago

I loooooove quinoa. It’s fantastic! I switch it out for brown rice sometimes because my boyfriend likes that better, but I could eat quinoa every day. My favorite recipe is to cook it, and then mix it with sauteed onions and leeks, dried cranberries, and vegan sausage (the Field Roast chipotle sausage). Amazing!

beforewisdom
beforewisdom
10 years ago

Just about every library I’ve ever seen has many, many recipe books focusing on grains and legumes. The healthiest and cheapest foods on the planet.

Terry
Terry
10 years ago

Barley is cheap and has been a favorite of mine for many years. Quinoa is out of my “cheap” range, but I have extreme standards for cheapness.

Bucksome
Bucksome
10 years ago

My family started eating brown rice and barley instead of potatoes or white rice a couple of years ago.

I tried quinoa once and it tasted so bad. I learned afterward that it needed to be rinsed.

After reading all the great coments I’ll give it another shot and try millet as well.

April
April
10 years ago

@Kate–I know the feeling! I had never heard of quinoa until last year, and now I cook it at least a few times a month.

fairydust
fairydust
10 years ago

Same here – never heard of Quinoa before, but recently it kept popping up in various articles about the superfoods to include in one’s diet (like blueberries and leafy green things), so I figured we’d try some. LOVE it – it’s a little like couscous but crunchier and nuttier. Even our very picky son liked it when he came over for dinner last night. I still have trouble with the pronunciation, though. I see Quinoa and I’m thinking kwin-Oh-Ah, LOL! I have to stop and remind myself, no it’s KeenWah. Okay, I’m sure the more we eat it, the more… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

Thanks for these great recipes, I read how grains are suppose to be great for a healthy diet and to promote weight loss, but I never knew what to look for – now I have somewhere to start!

BravoBilly
BravoBilly
10 years ago

Hey, y’all forget grits? Hominy or Corn? What’s Up? I googled Grits and Amazon sells them by the carloads. I guess ’cause I went to high school in New Orleans (You know, Saints town) I ate grits. Or was it because I lived in Georgia or was brought up in a Southern Family. Nothing better than biscuits, grits and eggs. I remember when I traveled from Illinois to New Orleans, there was a point where all of sudden grits were being offered in the restaurants. I guess the same is headed west also? Try some. You will like them… I… Read more »

Eric
Eric
10 years ago

Asian rice mmmh 🙂

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