Cooking grains is also difficult because the type of grind (coarse, medium or fine) can dramatically affect the outcome -- coarse-grain bulghur is cooked very differently than the finer grinds.
I set out to find a preparation method that was both universal and which turned out distinct, flavorful grains every time.
I started off cooking grains like rice. One cup of grain was placed in a pot with 2 cups of boiling water and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, reduced to a low simmer, covered and cooked for 10 to 20 minutes.
I found that the grains did not cook up light and separate; I often ended up with a sticky mass. I tried an old Chinese method of cooking rice, which is to boil it. I used 1 cup of grain in 6 cups of boiling water, reduced the water to a steady simmer, and cooked uncovered for 10 to 12 minutes. I poured the grain and water into a fine colander and let it sit for 10 minutes, finishing by fluffing with a fork.
The results were excellent; light, distinct grains with no starchy exterior. (Never stir grains while they are cooking. This will rupture the cells and create a starchy, sticky dish.)
My guess is that the extra water helps to dilute the starch that is leeched out of the grains while cooking, yielding a less sticky end product. This method does not work for kasha nor medium and fine bulghur, which are both prepared by different methods.
I also found that if the grains were dry roasted or sauted prior to cooking, the flavor was enhanced considerably. To dry roast, simply add the grain to an ungreased pan and place over medium heat. Shake or stir the pan continuously for 3 to 6 minutes. Remove the pan from heat before the grains turn too dark and start to burn.
When cooking grains, you may substitute chicken, beef or vegetable stock for half or all of the water called for in the recipe. As a rule, I suggest replacing no more than half of the water with stock so that the delicate flavor of the grains is allowed to shine through. I also suggest that you use a low-sodium stock if you buy it canned -- the full-strength commercial stocks are extremely salty.
For those of you not familiar with the basic grains, here is a quick primer:
Barley: The most common form of barley is pearl barley and it cooks in about 30 minutes. Pearl barley is relatively large and has a split-grain which is long, tear-shaped and light brown. When cooked, it has a crunchy texture which is distinctive but not unpleasant. Whole hulled barley, available only in some health food stores, must be soaked overnight and then cooked for about an hour. Usually sold pearled or whole, hulled.
Bulghur: This is a derivative of wheat berries which is made from either red wheat or white wheat, the former producing a darker bulghur than the latter. The berries are parboiled or steamed, dried (some of the bran may be removed) and then crushed into various grinds. Bulghur is available in three different textures: fine and medium can be prepared by soaking in boiling water; the coarse texture has to be simmered in water. Usually sold in a medium grind.
Millet: Millet is not strong-flavored and is a small, yellow grain which often retains some crunch even after cooking. It cooks up into very small but separate kernels which maintain their texture after cooking. Usually sold whole.
Quinoa (pronounced "keen wha"): The grains are relatively small and look like tiny, light-colored pearls and are crunchy when cooked. Be sure to rinse quinoa before cooking as the kernels contain an outer coating of saponin, a natural insect repellent, which leaves a bitter aftertaste. Usually sold whole.
Cooking time for dry-roasting grains
Grains were dry roasted in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.
Quinoa: 4 minutes
Barley: 5 minutes
Bulgur: 4 minutes
Millet: 3 minutes
Makes 3 cups
This recipe works fine for quinoa, millet, barley and coarse-grain bulghur. You may substitute up to half of the water with chicken or vegetable stock. See chart below for cooking times.
1 cup quinoa, millet, barley or coarse-grain bulghur
6 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Rinse grain in a colander. Bring the water and salt to a simmer. Add grain and reduce heat to a steady simmer. Cook for the times shown in the chart below. Pour into a sieve or fine colander and let drain for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.
Cooking times for basic grains
The cooking times below are to be used with the Master Recipe for Grains above.
Quinoa: 10 minutes
Millet: 12 minutes
Pearl barley: 45 minutes
Coarse bulghur: 12 minutes, remove from heat, let sit for 5 minutes, then drain.
Christopher Kimball is the founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, based in Brookline. He is the author of "The Cook's Bible," (Little Brown; New York, NY; 1996).