Alternative Starches for Every Lifestyle

sorghum

Getty Images/Edwin Remsberg 

Move over, pasta, flour, and potatoes! Make things a little more interesting—and nutritionally dense—by stepping out of the (bread)box and adding a new starch to your line-up.

Traditionally, holiday or weeknight dinners make heavy use of flour products, including bread and pasta, and potatoes as accompaniments. But after having mastered sourdough, banana bread, cinnamon rolls, Dalgona coffee, and various other make-at-home techniques you may never have attempted before, why settle for the usual suspects of pasta, white bread, and potatoes as your starchy sides when you can continue the culinary adventure? Try these options to make things go well, both in flavor and in health.

Breads

Dinner rolls, biscuits, and their like have earned their place at the table. But why not go for something different than the white enriched flour standards this year? After all, they're typically low in fiber and high in carbs, which can create blood sugar spikes that lead to inevitable crashes and reawakened cravings that can leave you taking more out of that basket—or later, dessert tray—than is ideal.

Try sprouted grains, resistant starch pumpernickel, or whole-grain rolls, if you're looking to dip a toe in the pond—something hearty and rustic with a toothsome bite. Ancient grains are also getting easier to find, too, and gluten-free options made with rice, tapioca, coconut, oat, chestnut, and other flours can be made as well as purchased. Just be sure to read the label on anything that says "multigrain." Just because there's a variety of them doesn't mean they’re whole.

Alternatively, think beyond conventional shapes and techniques. Try your hand at naan; make your own pitas, lavash, or Turkish puff bread; make whole-wheat or cauliflower pizza crusts as a shared appetizer; or find cloud nine with gluten-free, low-carb, keto-approved cloud bread.

Rice

Looking for a side so flexible you can serve it plain or dressed up? Look to rice, then, as a pasta, potato, or stuffing alternative. Rice stuffing has been a popular option for many dinner tables for generations and is typically made with nutty wild, a gourmet variety best from the Great Lakes region of America.

But believe it or not, this isn't even the fanciest or most interesting rice available on the mainstream market nowadays. Your options go far beyond supermarket American white or generic brown. Try fragrant jasmine rice, now commonplace in the regular rice aisle in national grocery stores, even in unhulled brown; long-grained and also sweetly scented basmati; or the basmati and long-grain brown hybrid Wehani. All of these long-grain types will cook up light and fluffy, and break apart and mush easily if too much water is used.

You go dive into medium grains for a little more stickiness and toothsomeness. The brown medium grains stay drier if you want more of an al dente feel, but takes moisture well, too, if you put in the time. The hull that makes brown rice more fibrous can also block some flavor absorption, but that same quality helps to maintain the integrity of the grain's flavor, making it a good choice for purists who are happy with surface enhancement as opposed to permeating flavors.

Sushi rice is medium to short, and if you want to use it as a pure blank slate, you need not add the vinegar that makes it sumeshi. Calrose from California is a classic pick, but Koshihikari rice is particularly notable as a premium rice you'll want to experience on its own for its beautiful texture and flavor; it's authentic only when imported from Ibaraki, Japan. We recommend the Iris Foods brand, which packages them in portioned, airtight bags to maintain its integrity.

From the western world, there's the arborio that you know from risotto and also buttery bomba, which is the type of choice for paella. Look for airtight, vacuum-sealed packaging for the former, and for Valencia as an alternate name for the latter. Other Spanish rices to consider include Senia, Bahia, and Calasparra. 

Short grain breaks into several specialty divisions, and is often sweeter as well as cooks up wetter. In this category is sticky rice, which is naturally the sweetest of them all and has a lovely opalescence to it. It's used in dessert recipes in many Asian cuisines, but can also be enjoyed as a side dish. However, if you're feeling ambitious, use this glutinous rice to make dessert bars or fried sticky rice cakes. 

If you're looking for a "wow" presentation and something even more out of the ordinary, go for exotic hues like red—which tastes similar to but not the same as brown—and black/purple. The latter is also called "forbidden rice" and has a slightly more acidic taste to it than your other rices. It dyes anything it's cooked with, too, so you can mix beans with it, too, to add more interest and texture to add to its natural drama. Just remember that it cooks up softer, so water accordingly.

Ancient Grains

You may have heard this term quite a bit in recent years and wondered, "what exactly is ancient grains?'" The Spruce Eats answers that question well and in detail. However, for the simplicity of a quick refresher, this category includes millet, farro, barley, spelt, buckwheat, quinoa, teff, oats, sorghum, amaranth, chia, einkorn, kamut, emmer, freekeh, and kaniwa.

All of these ancient grains have a few things in common: their cultivation methods have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, they have not been selectively bred, and remained popular in older cultures around the world. They’re touted for health benefits such as improved digestion, better blood sugar control, and a higher concentration of nutrients. This is true for all of those categorized as true grains or pseudocereals, which are seeds consumed like grains.

Some—such as quinoa, teff, millet, amaranth, and buckwheat—are naturally gluten-free, making them great starchy side options for a mixed table. 

Other Grains

Don't worry—you needn't go on a wild goose chase through ancient civilizations in order to find alternate grains to serve at your table! In fact, you don't have to go too far to bring whole-grain goodness to it. This run-down of 11 Types of Whole Grains to try is wonderfully comprehensive. It touches upon some of the more accessible of the ancient grains but also guides you to bulgur wheat, which may inspire you to make tabbouleh or swap it in for rice in a nice pilaf, and wheatberries, which are the unadulterated kernels of the grain we all know and love. 

Then, of course, there's corn! Obviously, there are the classic whole-kernel ways to enjoy corn, maize, and hominy—all fantastic options for alternative starchy sides. But the way this vegetable is dried and broken down unleashes a world of possibilities. For example, naturally gluten-free masa harina makes tortillas, pupusas, or tamales, which can be stuffed with various fillings to make Mexican favorites of your own. You can get creative with cornflour—not to be confused with thickening agent, cornstarch which lends itself well to biscuits and cakes. 

Then there's cornmeal, with which you can make cornbread, griddle cakes, spoonbread, even cobblers and cookies. Its close relative, grits, which can be made of coarse dent yellow or white cornmeal, and made as a savory base—cheese grits, anyone?—and amazing side. Opt for the old-fashioned stone-ground; the instant versions don't have as much (ahem) grit as the more toothsome grind. And don't think its texture needs be porridge-y, either—you can cook it thicker or even make it into spoonbread. And, much like polenta, another corn-based side to consider, you can turn it into grilled or fried cakes, too. 

Root Vegetables

Firmly in the vegetable territory by way of ever-versatile corn, we can also find a wealth of alternative starch options underground. 

Think beyond the humble, versatile common spud (wonderful and varied as they may be) to introduce new tubers to your table. Sweet potatoes are a great start for their candied flavor, vibrant color, and lower-than-white glycemic index despite their sweetness, and so are yams. But orange isn't the only hue for you in this area! Have you yet discovered purple ones? You can find them in Asian and Latin markets, where they most commonly break off into Stokes Purple (light lavender flesh) and Okinawan (deep purple with white skin). And if you’re looking for a similarly dramatic hue, give taro a try … if you haven't already at dim sum or as a Hawaiian roll. It cooks to an intriguing blue and has a very starchy, slightly nutty vanilla taste to it and a mealier texture. Also grown from elephant ears are malangas and eddos, other interesting options for below the radar (and the ground!) carby sides. But while you're searching for a starch alternative at an Asian market, don't overlook lotus roots. They feel like potatoes and mellow out when cooked, as opposed to the crispness it exhibits raw.

But if you find a Latin or Caribbean market more accessible, look for cassava, also known as yuca, mamnioc, mandioca, casabe, and tapioca. Just be sure to cook it thoroughly, as it's toxic in its raw form. But the good news is that this isn’t as alarming as it sounds. In fact, it's so commonly safely consumed that for your extreme convenience, it can be found peeled, chopped, and otherwise prepped and ready to use in the freezer aisle! … Or, pre-fried into chips, as they've grown in popularity as a bagged snack with more protein than potato crisps. 

Carrots are another starchy-feeling side (although technically, they're not!), but have you tried the subtly sweet parsnip? They hold up just as well as their orange cousins—and potatoes—to preparations that run the gamut from boiled, roasted, fried, steamed, mashed, and pureed. You'll also commonly find parsnips accenting cauliflower, a low carb starch alternative that's been dominating the food world in the past few years. They also play well with other filling root veggies like celeriac, and rutabagas, and turnips; the difference between the two is explained here. All of these can stand alone just fine, though, as an alt-starch, as casseroles, sheet-pan roasts, soups, mashes, and more.

Then there are more water-based root vegetables to consider, such as daikon radishes and beetroots. Both can be eaten raw and/or pickled but can become a lovely side when cooked. This mellows out the root and makes it sweeter and more tender, as well as making it feel much more like a starchy dish despite the low-carb profile of daikons. The naturally occurring sugar in beets up the carbohydrate count in them, but the calorie count remains low despite that. 

If your caloric intake is a particular focus, consider shirataki, which is also root vegetable derived. These translucent "miracle noodles" come from the konjac "devil's tongue or elephant" yam plant, and although they may have no individual flavor, may be just the blank canvas you want if you're just looking for a vehicle for your other ingredients.

Squashes

Butternut squash came up hard against sweet potatoes in just the last decade as an alternative starch of choice and has become well established as a seasonal staple. Mashed, roasted, pureed, stuffed, or made into soup, a casserole, or pasta filling, it holds up well to various preparations without being overwhelming in its flavor identity, making it even more versatile than its other cold-weather companion, sweet pumpkins (not to be confused with the more savory, mild West Indian calabazas). Buttercup—sometimes called turban squash, yet different from the floury and mild commonly decorative French turban type—lends itself to similar preparations for its sweet, creamy profile.

However, these are not the only hard winter squashes that you should consider as switcheroo starch. Sweet dumpling squash with its smooth, starchy feel and corn-like flavor is adorable and makes a gorgeous presentation stuffed for individual portions. Mild acorn squash is mild popular for that same reason. With an edible skin, acorn squash can also be roasted or grilled to good results, as well as steamed, mashed, or sauteed—you can treat delicata squash the same way. Blue lumpy hubbard squash is another intriguing option for bakes for its drier texture and earthier flavor, as are its relatives the banana squash, candy roaster, Lakota, and Native American heirloom varieties Arikara and Nanticoke. Sweet Kabocha, recognizable as the sweet orange vegetable you may find on many tempura spread. Winter melon, which has both savory applications like sautées and soups, or sweet ones like mooncake filling and candy, are some Asian varieties that can lend novelty to dinnertime. 

Then there are the squashes that will do in a low-carb pinch for noodles. Spaghetti squash is an obvious swap, its firm texture giving way to golden vermicelli-like threads after cooking. It takes on the flavors of its sauce or toppings, making it a perfectly innocuous healthy starch alternative to pasta preparation. And of course, there are zoodles and courgetti made from spiralized zucchini, which can be eaten raw or gently cooked, which is as easy as pouring boiling water over it as it lies in a colander. Try yellow or the striped gray varieties for some visual fun, or chayote—also called mirliton—for a spin off a squash more typically stuffed or sauteed.

Fruit & Nuts

Don't think you're limited to roasting chestnuts "on an open fire" during the holiday season. Sure, they're popular during wintertime and easier to find fresh, but did you know you can also buy them canned or pureed for any holiday? Due to their high moisture and carb content, chestnuts are nutritionally closer to a grain and thus lend themselves well to stuffing, purees, casseroles, whole in stews, or ground into flour for sweet desserts minus the gluten. 

Speaking of desserts, we can't close out the year of the banana bread without mentioning its use as a starch, whether as this dessert loaf or as banana pancakes that fit keto, paleo, gluten-free, or otherwise flourless guidelines. But going back to starchy side dishes, don't ignore plantains as an option. They come in black, yellow, and green, the sweet former being ideal for frying, sauteeing, or baking in fat toothsome wedges. The unripened yellow and green ones are lower in sugar but higher in resistant starch for a lower glycemic index and greater satiety. Make a nice smashed mofongo with these, change out corn masa with plantain masa for the Puerto Rican interpretation of tamales called pasteles, turn them into chips as tostones, or fry them up in long, wide strips to take the place of bread as they do for jibaritos

Pulses

Filling, carb-heavy, yet packed full of nutrients, beans and legumes are powerhouses for starchy satiety—you won't miss your less nutritionally dense sides when you fill your table with these options. They’re incredibly healthy and mash and puree beautifully like potatoes in addition to cooking up individually like grains. Additionally, many food manufacturers have begun making entire lines of naturally high-protein, high-fiber dried pastas with them.

Supermarkets have a wide selection now of pasta made from black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans. They're worthwhile swaps to make if you're determined to keep ziti, penne, rotini, spaghetti, and more on your menu.

You can also go the traditional or international routes for execution with dishes like hopping john, succotash, sweet baked beans, moros, bean salads, hummus, falafel, curry, mushy peas, and more. The best part is that many pulses are interchangeable, which means you can use what's on hand for your own interpretation. Choose from black, kidney, navy, fava, white, soy, garbanzo, anasazi, pinto, and cannellini, for example, or sweet, split, or black-eyed peas. 

Other Vegetables

Finally, we have the entire rainbow of higher-starch vegetables to consider. Eggplant, cauliflower, mushrooms, tofu … all of these can serve double-duty as a starch as well as a veg, thanks to their expansive mouthfeel. 

We all know the many ways that cauliflower can be integrated into common carbs (e.g. mashes, rices, soups, pizza crusts, breads, latkes, gratinees, even tortillas, and hummus), and eggplant parmesan is a perfect example of dropping pasta without even noticing. Spongey, toothsome mushrooms can also appease your itchy teeth, and the give of tofu can emulate that same feeling. 

High Carb, But High Nutrient

All of these options may have one thing in common: a higher carb count. The satisfaction that they bring is akin to the traditional starches you might have chosen for your table, but the marked advantage to all of these is a better nutritional profile. So despite the caloric content, you're getting more benefit from every bite than the same-old standbys, and may subsequently eat less to feel full … unless you’re eating more because it just tastes and feels good.

Regardless, you'll get more bang for your nutritional buck with these alternative starches, which is a great way to kick off a new year of health and wellness.