What are ancient grains?

Want to eat like an ancient Egyptian? Try ancient grains!

Whole grains
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What are ancient grains?

Looking for a definition of ancient grains? Theoretically, ancient grains are plants (not necessarily grains - quinoa, for example, is actually a seed) which have been cultivated for centuries, even millennia, in the same way. Most plants and grain, like domesticated animals and animals used for food have been selectively bred in recent centuries for a variety of reasons. Animals are selectively bred to be larger and more economical, for instance, and plants may be selectively bred to be heartier and more able to withstand varying climates.

However, if you read closely, you'll find that most ancient grains claim to be "virtually" unchanged over the centuries, or "practically" unchanged.

In other words, ancient grains are simply plants which have long been popular many places on earth (and among "ancient" populations), thought they may be new or new-ish as a food import in the United States.

Ancient grains have gained in popularity recently, as more and more food importers scour the globe for new foods to feed our ever-changing western palettes. Quinoa was the first ancient grain to explore in popularity, while others, like barley, have always been around but has never been particularly trendy. Keep reading or scroll down for a complete list of grains and plants which are generally considered to be ancient grains.

Ancient or not, so-called ancient grains are all whole grains, and for that reason alone they deserve consideration as a part of your healthy diet.

What do ancient grains taste like?

Never tried ancient grains before and worried you won't like them? I have two recommendations for you. First off, shop for whole ancient grains in the bulk food section of your local natural grocer and buy only enough for a small portion. You'll spend only a dollar or two, so if you don't like them, there's little loss (though I always recommend trying a new food twice, prepared two different ways in order to give it a fair trial).

And secondly, prepare your grains in a way you know you'll like. For example, if you like fried rice, try quinoa "fried rice". Like sweet breakfast cereals? Try a quinoa breakfast bowl. 

Another safe bet is to try ancient grains in processed foods, such as store-bought breads baked with ancient grains and pastas. Note that some breads which claim to be made from ancient grains are made from the whole grains themselves, while others are made from refined flour made from the grains. Refining and processing ancient grains may seem a bit counterproductive, but breads and pasta made with ancient grains offer some nutritional benefit over those made with regular or refined white wheat flour. Read the labels of your purchases carefully, if this is important to you. 

Do you have a list of ancient grains?

While there's not necessarily a fixed and firm list of what qualifies as an ancient grain and what is just a plain whole grain, the list below is a good place to get you started exploring ancient grains. Here's a list of a few healthy ancient grains to try:

  • Amaranth - This gluten-free ancient grain is actually a grass, and not a grain at all!
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat - Gluten-free and popular amongst raw foodists, since little processing is needed.
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Kamut
  • Kaniwa (sometimes called "baby quinoa")
  • Millet - Another gluten-free ancient grain which is actually a seed and not a grain.
  • Quinoa - Gluten-free seed
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Teff - Gluten-free

Cooking with ancient grains 

Like other whole grains, ancient grains can be used whole in pilafs, soups and salads, or, paired with a chili or stir-fry, like rice, or they can be ground into flours and used for baking breads, making pancakes or just about anything you would use flour for. Here's a few recipes using some popular ancient grains: