What Is Teff?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

what is teff

Lindsay Kreighbaum / The Spruce Eats  

The tiny size of a teff seed belies its substantial nutritional weight. Many of Ethiopia's famed distance runners credit teff for their endurance, and it's long been an important element in the traditional diets on the Horn of Africa, where it's most commonly ground into flour and served as injera, the region's customary flatbread. With the widespread interest in the so-called "ancient grains," defined as unaltered through selective breeding or other genetic modifications, teff is gaining fans in the rest of the world too.

What Is Teff?

Although technically a seed from the Eragrostis tef plant, commonly called Williams' lovegrass or annual bunch grass, teff functions as a whole grain, similar to barley, ​wheatberries, and quinoa. Unlike wheat, teff, a type of millet, is a gluten-free grain choice suitable for most people with celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten. Though it's more expensive than other whole grains, due to the difficulty of harvesting the smallest grain in the world, proponents of teff cite its unbeatable nutritional value as worth the extra cost. Like many grains, you can also purchase it in flour form.

How to Cook Teff

You can simmer teff as you would any other whole grain, but vary the teff-to-liquid ratio depending on how you want to use it. A 1:1 ratio of teff to liquid keeps the seeds intact and al dente, perfect for use as a sprinkle on top of oatmeal, muffins, soup, steamed vegetables, or just about anywhere you want to add a healthy little crunch.

For a creamier dish, such as breakfast porridge, increase the amount of liquid to 1:4. To use teff as the base for a pilaf or a stuffing, or to incorporate it into a casserole or other dish that will continue cooking, use 1 3/4 to 2 cups of water or stock for each cup of dry teff.

Once you determine the amount of liquid, bring it to a boil, add the teff and cover the pot, turn down the heat, and let it simmer until the grains absorb all of the liquid; the time will vary from 8 minutes to 20 minutes depending on the volume of liquid. Let the pot stand off the heat but still covered for about 5 minutes, then fluff it with a fork, just like you would with quinoa or couscous. Some recipes recommend first toasting it in a dry skillet until it releases a pronounced aroma. A cup of dry whole grain teff yields about three cups cooked.

Bob's Red Mill recommends substituting its teff flour for about 25% of the white flour in a recipe when you bake to add nutrition and distinctive flavor. In gluten-free recipes, teff flour can act as a binder for other gluten-free flours, giving baked goods a soft, almost cake-like crumb.

Teff (used to make injera) at Bahir Dar market, Ethiopia
 Rhonda Gutenberg / Getty Images
Tray with injera, a national dish in Ethiopia
Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images
Injera traditional and national dish of Ethiopia
Artush / Getty Images
Sweet potato and peanut soup with teff
Dorling Kindersley: Charlotte Tolhurst / Getty Images
Morning Breakfast Teff Porridge Nuts and Berries on Top
Yuko Yamada / Getty Images

What Does It Taste Like?

Similar to most grains, teff is often described as nutty in flavor. The Teff Company, an Idaho grower, describes it more specifically as similar to hazlenuts, with a hint of chocolate in the darker variety.

Teff Recipes

To give teff a try in your kitchen, start by substituting teff for quinoa in a few recipes.

Where to Buy Teff

Teff looks a bit like tiny flax seeds or brown poppy seeds. Look for it alongside the other whole grains (sometimes in the baking aisle or with other breakfast grains such as oatmeal) in most natural foods stores and well-stocked grocery stores. Unlike other whole grains, you probably won't find teff in the bulk bins. You can also order it online direct from some producers or from grocery retailers.

Similarly, you can find teff flour at most natural foods stores and well-stocked grocery stores, or online.

Storage

Store dry teff in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location for up to a year. Teff flour does best in the freezer or refrigerator, where the cold air slows down oxidation of the naturally occurring oils from the seed's germ. Try to use it up within a few months; if it smells bad, assume it's gone rancid and dispose of it.

Cooked teff keeps in the refrigerator, tightly sealed, for up to five days. Cooked teff doesn't freeze particularly well as the softer texture tends to get mushy when it defrosts.

Nutrition and Benefits

A 1/4-cup serving of dry teff, when cooked in water, contains 180 calories, 7 grams of complete protein, and 4 grams of dietary fiber, much of it in the form of the resistant starch that feeds beneficial gut bacteria. Teff delivers 25 percent of the daily value for magnesium, 20 percent for iron, and 10 percent for calcium. It's also the only grain with vitamin C, providing 88 mg per serving, within the 65 to 90 milligrams per day recommended for most adults.

Varieties

Teff comes in several varieties generally identified by the color of the seed. White or ivory teff often gets milled into flour, although you can find whole seeds online, while brown and red teff seeds may be sold alone or mixed with or without white seeds as well. Generally, the varieties can be used interchangeably.