For years, official dietary recommendations have encouraged us to “make half your grains whole,” with many health experts arguing that half is not enough. But what is a whole grain anyway? Nutritionist Carrie Dennett has the lowdown.

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On Nutrition

You can’t step into a grocery store, sit down at a farm-to-table restaurant or flip through a health magazine without seeing the words “whole grain.” For years, official dietary recommendations have encouraged us to “make half your grains whole,” with many health experts arguing that half is not enough. In spite of that, a question I hear often is: “What is a whole grain … exactly?”

In purely technical terms, a grain is the seed of any cereal or pseudocereal. Cereals are a type of grass, and pseudocereals are broad-leaf plants with seeds that resemble cereal grains. A whole grain has three parts:

The bran, which contains fiber, along with antioxidants and some B vitamins.

The germ, which contains most of the nutrients, including B vitamins, minerals, some protein and healthy fats.

The endosperm, which contains starchy carbohydrates, some protein, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

According to the Whole Grains Council, refined grains are missing at least one of these three key parts. For example, white flour and white rice are missing the bran and the germ. This removes about one-fourth of the protein and one-half to two-thirds — or more — of the nutrients.

So what does this mean in food terms? When many people think whole grain, they think whole wheat, but that’s just scratching the whole grain surface. Whole grains also include amaranth, barley, buckwheat, corn, kaniwah (a cousin of quinoa), millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, teff, triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) and wild rice.

Even whole wheat isn’t so simple to define. Are you talking about hard red spring wheat, hard red winter wheat or hard white wheat? (All are high in protein.) Or do you mean soft red winter wheat or soft white wheat? (Both are low in protein.) White wheat is milder in flavor. Freekeh is a hard wheat that’s harvested while it’s still young and green, then roasted to give it a smoky flavor. There’s also einkorn and emmer (farro), two of the “Neolithic founders crops,” eight plant species that were first domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago. Spelt and kamut are two other ancient forms of wheat that, like einkorn and emmer, have been largely unchanged over time.

And then there’s bulgur — whole wheat kernels that have been boiled, dried and cracked, making them super quick to cook. Oddly, many people think that bulgur isn’t a whole grain, but that couscous is. Couscous is a small grain-shaped pasta, which may or may not be made from whole wheat flour. Which raises another question — does whole grain flour “count” as a whole grain? Yes, with a caveat.

Whole grain flour, and foods made from it, technically contains the bran, germ and endosperm, so it is whole grain. But we tend to digest foods made from flour — even whole grain flour — faster than whole grains that are still intact (read: not ground up). Your digestive system has to do all the work, which can make intact grains a slower, steadier energy source.

So what do you do with intact whole grains? First, you cook them. You can find instructions on the Whole Grain Council website (, which are important to follow, since the grain-to-water ratio and cooking time vary widely from grain to grain. You can also use the “pasta method” —  simmering the grains in an ample amount of salted water, like you would when cooking pasta, until they are the preferred texture, and draining them. I like to let quinoa rest in the covered pot for 10 minutes or so after I drain it, but I rarely do this with other grains.

What about pre-soaking? It can speed up cooking time, but a bigger time-saver is to cook whole grains in big batches and keep the extras for 3-4 days in your fridge — or in the freezer for even longer (since you can buy pre-frozen, precooked grains now, why not save money and make your own?). Reheat with a bit of added water or broth.

Once your grains are cooked, the sky’s the limit. Any grain can be turned sweet (in porridges or puddings) or savory (in pilafs, grain bowls, soups or salads). This salad recipe using super-quick bulgur is summer in a bowl (hello, zucchini and cherry tomatoes). And don’t skimp on the fresh herbs — they really make the salad. It’s lovely with grilled chicken, fish or tofu.

Greek Bulgur Summer Salad
Makes about 8 cups

1 cup bulgur wheat
1 medium zucchini squash (about 12 ounces), cut into small-to-medium dice
6 scallions, white and light green parts sliced
1 15-ounce can white beans (cannellini or great northern), rinsed and drained
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
½ cup EACH fresh mint and flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh oregano, chopped
Zest of one small, or ½ large, lemon
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste

1. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the bulgur with 2 cups boiling water. Stir briefly, then cover (with a lid or a clean kitchen towel) and soak for about 25 minutes, until tender but still a bit chewy. Drain any excess water, and fluff with a fork. While bulgur is soaking, prep the rest of the ingredients.

2. Once bulgur has cooled slightly (to closer to room temperature), add next 5 ingredients (zucchini through feta) and gently toss to combine. Sprinkle the chopped herbs and the lemon zest over the salad, and gently toss again.

3. Whisk the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, and pour over the salad. Toss to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or lemon juice if desired.