Grain 101

grain basics -

Grain 101


There are literally thousands of different grains and seed-grains in the world. It can get confusing.  Are you befuddled? Many would look at this collection of grains and wonder what the heck-fire they all are and what to do with them.  Well, never you worry! You are now connected to the premier website for all your grain knowledge. We will help you get a grasp of basic grain surgery! Because all we do is work with whole grain, we’re going to take you to the next level of understanding and usable applications. Grain should be easy to add to your diet.  Let’s start with showing what each grain looks like and giving a brief introduction on their origins, history, and nutrition. Then we'll cover how to cook with each grain in more detail in our upcoming blog posts. 

Not all Seeds Are Grain.  The first thing you should know is that not all seeds are technically considered grains. But, for all intents and purposes, we will have seeds, grains, and flours available on under the generic term “grain”.

Over the last few decades, there have been many articles written on the health benefits of seeds and grains. Traditional grains, though remarkable, have needed to be combined with beans, legumes or dairy to produce a complete protein. A complete protein is a protein that contains all 8 of the amino acids present in the animal protein. Vegans and vegetarians have had to rely on this combining of grains and legumes to make sure they are getting all the nutrition they need. Why? Because complete proteins are literally the building blocks your body uses to repair and construct muscle and carry out vital functions.  You cannot live for very long without these important complete proteins in your diet.  Several seeds contain a useable complete protein and contain all the amino acids (including lysine). These seed-grains are often called “Super-Grains”.  These seeds stand alone.

Once a grain is produced primarily for human consumption, it is usually labeled as a “Cereal Grain”. The chief cereal grains used throughout the world are wheat, oats, corn, rye, barley, rice, millet, sorghum, Indian rice and modern hybrid triticale. All cereal grains, when combined, comprise over half of the world’s diet and serve as our principal source of vegetable protein!

 Traditionally, botanists and especially agrostologists have used the term “grain” to describe the small dry, one-sided fruits of plants in this division that includes 4700 species. More commonly known as the grasses, this large family includes diverse members like corn, sugar cane and bamboo. Chronologically these grasses made their appearance on earth about three and a half million years ago, which roughly coincides with the appearance of our human ancestors first walking on the earth.



Not all seeds are grain, though. Only seeds who are considered members of the grass family can meet the grain criteria. It’s a technicality, but you should know that Quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat are non-grass species and more weed seeds (for a non-scientific explanation). No matter what family they come from, we call them grains on our website (along with most everyone else except the super-smart botanists who study this family in depth).

In this post, we are going to focus on a few grains and seeds that you may not immediately recognize. Let’s get started!


Seed Grains

Amaranth is gluten-free and a complete protein. It's one of the smallest grains. It was one of the staple grains of the ancient Incas and is known as "kiwicha" in the Andes today. It's a prolific growing plant and is heralded as a "super grain" meaning it has all the amino acids your body needs. That's good news for vegans! Amaranth contains about 30% more protein than most common cereal grains like wheat, oats, and rye. One of our favorite Amaranth recipes at Organic Grains is popping it on the stovetop (detailed video to follow).  Amaranth also makes an amazing addition to bread, cakes, and cookies when popped. Besides protein, amaranth grain provides a good source of dietary fiber, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and especially manganese. It has been claimed to be beneficial in the preventing of graying hair (we're not sure about that, but it sure takes a lot of worry out of nutrition).


Teff is gluten free and a complete protein. Teff is known as the tiny powerhouse. It is believed to have originated in Ethiopia around 4000 BC. In Africa, it’s been reported that there are over 2000 varieties. We only get two of those varieties here in America: red and white.  In terms of size, it takes 150 of these seeds to equal the size of one grain of wheat! In that small powerhouse, you get a nutritional punch! One ounce of Teff contains 2 grams of fiber (that’s about 10% of your daily needs) plus there’s a high amount of quality protein. Teff is reported to be higher in calcium, iron, copper and zinc than any other grain too. 


Buckwheat is gluten free and another complete protein. Name misleading, Buckwheat is not related to wheat in any way. It is not really clear how it got its name, though some believe it is because of the hearty flavor of the grain. Kasha, known as buckwheat groats, is a well-known use of buckwheat in a pilaf. With a strong flavor, Buckwheat is also rich in iron and has a high concentration of all the amino acids. It is amazing in pancakes and makes a very dense bread. The hulled variety is much milder and is preferred for bread and cereals. Hulled Buckwheat and Unhulled buckwheat (dark below) buckwheat is not related to wheat at all and is 100% gluten-free.

Quinoa is gluten free, a complete protein and comes in Black, Red and White varieties. Perhaps one of the most popular super-grains it has a very mild flavor when rinsed. Make sure you take the time to rinse the grain—as it has a bitter natural protective saponin that needs to be removed. Quinoa cooks the same way rice is cooked, making it a very useful and delicious addition to your diet. Many health-conscious consumers use quinoa as a rice alternative.

Flax Seed is gluten free is high in plant sourced omega-3 fatty acids and is an excellent source of fiber. It is a nutty flavored seed and is often used to add texture and flavor to bread, cookie, muffins and pastries.

Chia seed is gluten free and comes in Black and White.  Chia seeds are the highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, and they contain more fiber than flax seeds or nuts. Because of their natural ability to absorb immense amounts of liquid, they are an outstanding addition to your diet when coupled with water, to maintain hydration during physical exertion. They will have a texture like tapioca when combined with liquid.

Millet is gluten-free is yet another amazing grain that packs a nutritional punch of fiber and vitamins. It is not a complete protein but is a seed grain. It cannot cross-pollinate with wheat and will always be gluten-free.

Sorghum is gluten-free and a complete protein it is the best go-to in the production of a mild versatile flour for gluten-free baking.  Our chef is a super-duper big fan of it!

Kañiwa is gluten free and a complete protein. It is an ancient seed grain from Peru and a close cousin to the ever-popular quinoa. It is a little smaller than quinoa, but unlike quinoa, it does not need to be rinsed before cooking. It is red or brown in color and has a very nutty delicious flavor. Chef calls it "baby quinoa". It's smaller but cooks the same way as quinoa.

Traditional and Ancient Grains


Pearled Barley is the most common way to find barley. Barley was first domesticated (farmed) in the Near East and evidence of its use goes back as far as 8500 BC. It was a staple cereal of the ancient Egyptians. Barley is most often found in two forms, unhulled and pearled. Barley is relatively mild and nutty in flavor. We adore it here in the test kitchen most often in barley pilaf, but we’ve seen it in sweet and savory applications. If you ever ate Malto-meal as a kid, you've had barley! It is the major component in beer and certain distilled beverages. For centuries, it has been used as a mild replacement drink for coffee by parching the grains in a hot dry pan until dark and then steeping the grain in water. Barley contains trace amounts of gluten because it can cross-pollinate with wheat.  In 2007 barley ranked number four in the world for cereal grain production. It is an excellent addition to milled flours because of its low gluten content it will lend to light and fluffy cakes, cookies, and sweet-breads. When making a custom flour blend, use 1/3-part barley to 2/3 part high protein wheat for a versatile all-purpose flour blend. Eating whole cooked barley can help regulate blood sugar levels for up to ten hours.

Rye is a cereal grain that is commonly used in bread. By itself, it is low in gluten and very mild in flavor. The color of the grain when milled is a very distinct gray color and bakers will usually add molasses or cocoa to bread dough that contains rye to mask the color. In rye bread, it is coupled with high protein wheat flour to give the bread enough gluten content to rise correctly. Many people associate the flavor of rye with caraway seed. The caraway is a rather distinct spice, but the grain on its own is rather mild.

Triticale is a modern hybrid of wheat and rye. It is well known for it’s being ideal for rye bread production but is also high in vitamins and easy to digest.

Ancient Wheat Varieties



Modern wheat has its roots in three varieties of grain that have been harvested in Europe for over 9000 years. These three varieties are called Spelt, Einkorn, and Emmer. Einkorn is evidenced to have been farmed 11,000 years ago in the southeast of Turkey and around Jericho. Its use decreased in the bronze age, and it is rarely grown today. Emmer is the second form of ancient wheat and is related to the modern Durum wheat. Emmer was consumed by ancient Egyptians and is the grandfather grain of what is now heralded as the King Tut of wheat. Even though this grain contains gluten, it has been found in an independent study, to be easily digested by people with slight allergic tendencies to modern wheat.  Modern and ancient wheat contain gliadin, a glycoprotein. Several forms of modern wheat’s gliadin have up to 42 chromosomes, while ancient emmer wheat like Kamut® has only 28. This is part of what makes it such an easy to digest grain.  Despite this, ancient wheat is not as readily available as other grains and is produced in much smaller quantities.  Modern wheat, however, is readily available and therefore extremely cost effective for many people and still a very healthy choice.


Khorasan Wheat is 1/3 longer than regular wheat and much higher in protein. It is excellent for making pasta and bread because of that protein. Our Khorasan variety of wheat is grown organically, has a protein range of 12-18%,  and must be 99% free of contamination from any variety of modern wheat, and 98% free from all forms of disease in order for us to carry it here on 

Spelt (ancient wheat). References to the cultivation of spelt wheat in Biblical times (see matzo) in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and in ancient Greece are incorrect and result from confusion with emmer wheat. They are not the same thing. In the Middle Ages, spelt was cultivated in parts of Switzerland, Tyrol, and Germany. Spelt was introduced to the United States in the 1890s. In the 20th century, spelt was replaced by bread wheat in almost all areas where it was still grown... Spelt contains a moderate amount of gluten, and is, therefore, suitable for baking cakes, cookies, and some loaves of bread, if they are kneaded an extended amount of time without the addition of a lot of fat in the dough.

Emmer, called Faro in Italy, is a wheat that dates back in history to the ancient Egyptians.  It is excellent for pasta and loaves of bread and is considered the older cousin of Durham wheat.

Einkorn Evidence of domesticated Einkorn dates back almost ten thousand years and it is considered higher protein for bread and easier to digest than modern red wheat.

Turkey Red wheat is a heritage grain, meaning that it predates modern breeding.  Turkey Red arrived in the US in the early 1870's and was brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants from the Russian Ukraine. Significantly different from Hard Red wheat with smaller berries and a lighter color, it has an almost odorless scent during milling except for a distinct freshness like a garden tomato. Gluten development is quick in dough formation and loaves of bread are light and flavorful with velvety crumb and excellent moisture content.

Red Fife is a heritage wheat. It was the baking and milling industries standard of 'wheat' in Canada from 1860 to 1900. The origin is a mystery. Sent to Peterborough Ontario farmer Fife in 1840 from Poland, it took its name from the seed color and Fife's name. It is considered to have been first domesticated over ten thousand years ago and is known best as a wheat for bread.

Modern Wheat

Hard Red Wheat has a  stronger well-pronounced wheat flavor and a high protein (gluten) content. It is ideal for bread baking.

Hard White Wheat has a milder nutty flavor and a high protein (gluten) content. It is ideal for bread baking when you want the bread to have a less “wheaty” flavor.

Soft White Wheat has a mild nutty flavor like hard white wheat, but a much lower protein content. It is ideal for soft cakes, cookies, and pastries.

Cracked Wheat is a reference to the cracking of the grain that happens in the mill, though it is not typically any specific variety of wheat other than red.  It is used as a hot cooked breakfast cereal most often.  Sometimes Bakers have been known to soak cracked wheat in hot water to be added in small amounts to bread for a hearty texture. 

Sprouted Wheat is the maximum power-pellet of vitamins and nutrition. Sprouted wheat is easier to digest and makes excellent bread if done correctly.  We will have several posts on our blog highlighting Organic Grains' remarkable sprouted wheat.


Oats look a lot like wheat, but are long and thin, almost like a grain of rice.  Oat groats mentioned below, are unrolled. There are many people who have never seen a piece of oat that isn't a rolled oat. Oats come in many varieties. There are six basic forms found in our store.

Whole oat groats are the harvest “as is” product.  They can be cooked and steamed, but because they’re a bigger grain than rice or even whole wheat kernels, they take longer to cook. They have the highest nutritional value of all the forms of oats and are digested very slowly which reduces the glycemic load and makes them quite filling.

Steel Cut oatmeal/oats Steel cut oats are also called Irish Oatmeal. They're exactly what the name says, being whole oat groats that have been steel cut into smaller pieces. This shortens the cooking time but keeps all the nutritional value of the whole oat groats. Look for either steel cut oats or Irish oatmeal.

Scottish oats Scottish oats are not to be confused with Irish Oatmeal. They are steamed, steel cut oats that are then ground into a meal. This improves the grain’s ability to absorb water and allows a shorter cooking time. Some manufacturers toast the oats to create a richer-flavored oatmeal or combine it with some oat bran to make the oatmeal creamier.

Thick Rolled Oats These are made from the steamed whole oat groats rolled into thick flakes. Old fashioned oats are just another, slightly thinner rolled version of the thick-rolled variety.

Quick Oats Instead of using whole oat groats, these are made using steel cut oats so are made with smaller pieces of the original grain. They digest much quicker than thick rolled oats.

Instant Oats These are quick oats that have one more processing step. They are pre-cooked. Because of this, all you must do is add hot water and they are ready to eat.