How To: Master Grains

Without being melodramatic, the ingredient that puts the disaster in most of our kitchen disasters comes from the pantry. Grains, from rice to millet, are some of the most challenging items to cook and serve right. Not only are they prime for over- and under-cooking (or both!), but they can also be somewhat lackluster, wanting for flavor. Still, we like to make them part of our diet, not only because many of them are incredibly healthful, but also since they are truly delicious when we don’t mess them up.

Here are our tips & tricks for getting grains right, which, we’ll have it be known, we more often than not learned the hard way. Practice makes perfect! Tell us about your best tricks–and your worst calamities–in the comments.


2-to-1. When in doubt–and if you’re away from your recipes or have thrown away the packages–you’ll want to use 2 cups of liquid to every 1 cup of grain. This is not a steadfast rule, and it’s usually better to err on the side of more water than less. Whole grains, especially brown rice, are best made in a ratio of 2 1/4-to-1.

Get low, low, low, low, low, low. To make great grains on the stovetop, you’ll want to be sure you’re simmering at the absolutely lowest possible flame. Examine your burners carefully: some stoves have burners that vary in size. The littlest burner will provide you with the least heat–perfect for grain cooking. Cara’s Ikea stove even has an “extra low” setting on one burner which makes cooking grains practically foolproof.

Vary the liquid. Use homemade chicken or veggie stock in place of water in your couscous and rice. This Cinnamon-Scented Rice uses stock, not to mention cinnamon, for added flavor. Coconut milk is also a wonderful flavor-booster; we use it in this Coconut-Vegetable Rice Pilaf with Peppercorns.

Try new grains from the bulk bin. The bulk bins at your local store will often have the largest variety of different grains. Since you can buy in small amounts, it’s a good idea to scoop out only a cup of a new grain the first time. That way, if you detest it, you won’t clutter your pantry with half-used boxes of grains you’ve discovered you hate.

Mix ’em up. By itself, millet is dry, amaranth is gelatinous, and buckwheat can be strong. But substitute one of these for one-eighth or one-quarter of your favorite grain next time you prepare it, and you’ll enjoy the health benefits of these grains without having to force them down your throat.

Sauté. Sauteeing some onions, garlic, or other aromatics in the pot before adding rice or other grains is a lovely way to brighten a dish. Simply coat the pan with oil, cook your vegetables, herbs, or spices until just cooked, then add the rice and cook until it’s coated with oil and slightly opaque. Finally, add the water and proceed as usual. Risottos, by the way, do this step automatically. Check out our favorite risottos here, here, and here.

Bake. Because the oven can distribute heat far more evenly than your burner–extra low or not–baking grains is a brilliant way to streamline your cooking process. Alton Brown popularized this baked brown rice. We go further with flavor and heartiness in this Squash, Leek, & Quinoa Stuffing.

Don’t be afraid to check. For a while, we were convinced that lifting the lid on the rice pot in the middle of cooking would destroy our rice cooking efforts entirely. Sure, you’ll lose a little bit of steam when you do so. But how else will you know if the rice is short on water? It’s best to check your grains once or twice during the cooking process, correcting as necessary–adding more water if need be, or letting some extra water boil off by leaving the lid off for an extra moment.

Steam at the end. Once your grain is basically cooked, turn off the heat and leave the cover on for 5-10 minutes. This will allow the grains to absorb any last traces of liquid, and it’ll turn out the fluffiest grains around.

Love leftovers. Extra grains are great to have around for meals over the course of the week. For breakfast, we make Rice Pudding Cereal; for dinner, Zucchini & Rice Gratin.  Never underestimate the deliciousness of reheated grains mixed with olive oil, parm, salt, and pepper, or doused with a generous serving of BGSK Peanut Sauce and topped with fresh veggies.

Posted in: How To
  • Bittina (PoorGirl)

    My worst grain disaster: the first time I made quinoa I had no idea how much the dry expands when cooked. I used 1 1/2 cups of dry quinoa and ended up with 6 cups! Needless to say I had quinoa for every meal that week.

  • Sari

    I like following this recipe from Saveur for perfect rice.

    I’ll buy a big bag of rice, cook it all, then freeze it in individual portions. When I’m in the mood for rice, I just microwave for 3 minutes and it’s ready to go!

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