Today there are a lot of varieties of gluten-free grains available. We recently spotlighted several gluten-free flours, but what exactly are the grains these flours are made from, where do they come from, and why do cooks and companies rely on them to create gluten-free foods? Below are a few of the gluten-free grains you may know, and some grains having a moment that you should know. Plus, we’ll share a gluten-free amaranth recipe you’re sure to love!
Millet comes in many varieties, with the pearl millet being the most popular. It is a hearty grain that can flourish in near-drought conditions as well as with plentiful rainfall, and is produced around the world. While some of the most successful farmers of millet are in France, it is a traditional grain in Saharan Africa and is most widely produced in India. Millet is often used in the making of bajra rotis, traditional flatbreads made in India, which are said to have an earthy flavor. In Germany, a sweet millet porridge made with apples and honey is popular, and the Russian dish kasha is a millet porridge with butternut squash and golden raisins.
Millet flour is a common substitute for wheat flour in baking, and bread baked with millet flour is often light and white in color but with the consistency of wheat bread. It is also commonly combined with other types of flours in recipes like cake mixes and is seen in most seed breads (though these are typically not gluten-free breads.) It is also common in bird and animal feeds.
Millet as a whole grain cannot be stored for long periods of time and has been said to take on a bitter taste after a time – a helpful hint if you plan to buy it in bulk. It’s available in many grocery stores this way.
It’s important to note that some studies have shown pearl millet to have goitrogens, substances that may cause thyroid difficulties, so moderation in millet consumption should be considered.
Fonio is actually a type of millet, but it is poised to have a big impact in the United States. This West African grain is popular in Senegalese cooking and comes in a white and black variety. Many are predicting that fonio, which is naturally gluten-free and has a nutty flavor, will replace quinoa in foodie circles. Cooking with fonio was recently a featured at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn. Keep an eye out for it in stores soon!
Teff is another African grain that is closer to a grass. It grows widely in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is one of the oldest cultivated plants for food use in the world, with some records indicating it may have been grown for food as early as 4,000 B.C.E. In addition to being gluten-free, teff is high in fiber, calcium, iron and protein.
Teff is the main ingredient in Ethiopian injera, the spongy sourdough flatbread often used as the primary eating utensil in Ethiopian restaurants. However, many injera bakeries and restaurants use wheat and other less expensive grains when making injera commercially, so we always recommend testing with your Nima before eating!
Teff flour is becoming more readily available in the U.S., and the grain itself can be eaten as hot cereal. In fact, some runners and endurance athletes swear by teff as a super energy food due to its high mineral content.
Many in the American South will immediately think of sorghum as a sweetener much like molasses or honey. But sorghum is actually an ancient whole grain with its beginnings in Africa that is now prevalent all over the world. (In fact, one variety of the grain is the hated Johnson grass that grows as a weed!) It grows tall like corn and has many varieties. It is so widely cultivated that it has been listed as one of the crops required for the survival of mankind!
Like a lot of the other grains we’ve looked at, sorghum is an extremely easy grain to grow due to its natural efficiency in converting solar energy during photosynthesis. This makes sorghum extremely inexpensive to produce, and is part of the reason it has been used as animal fodder and feed for many years.
But naturally gluten-free sorghum has many uses as a grain for people, from popping it like popcorn as a snack, to hot cereals and even cooking sorghum risottos.
Once widely grown in Central and South America, amaranth was a staple of the Aztec diet. Known as huauhtli, amaranth was so entwined in Aztec life and culture it had it’s own month-long cultural celebration. Amaranth was actually banned by the Spanish conquerors and became much less widespread. However, it is still cultivated in Peru, and has been grown in the U.S. since the ‘70s. It makes a fine-grained but dense flour, and when it comes to gluten-free cooking, it has a nutty flavor and is extremely dense. But amaranth has great gluten-free uses beyond flour. The grain can be cooked like couscous or pasta and should be boiled with a good deal of water. It can also be used as a great substitute for bulgar wheat in tabbouleh! In fact, here’s my tabbouleh recipe, adapted to use with amaranth:
Gluten-free Amaranth Tabbouleh
- 3 cups cold water
- 1 cup whole grain amaranth
- ¼ cup good olive oil
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 bunch scallions
- 1 cup chopped mint leaves
- 1 cup chopped parsley
- ½ fresh cucumber, peeled and sliced
- 1 ½ cups cherry tomatoes, halved
- Bring 3 cups cold water and amaranth to a boil in a medium saucepan; reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes or until water is almost absorbed (it will have the appearance of mush).
- Use a fine- grain strainer to remove the excess water, the mix in olive oil and lemon juice, and set aside to cool.
- Once cooled, mix in finely chopped scallions (I use about ¾ of the green stalk along with the white parts), mint, parsley, and salt and mix thoroughly.
- Then add in the tomatoes and cucumber and stir again (this keep the vegetables from getting too crushed.)
- Set the entire mixture in the refrigerator to cool at least 4 hrs, or as long as overnight for the best flavor.