Photo: Jennifer Causey

Forget the ratios—treat them like pasta. 

Briana Riddock
February 16, 2018

Cooking grains should be easy, right? The concept is simple enough: simmer your grain of choice—rice, farro, whatever—in water until tender and ready to eat. But for some reason, getting this “easy” cooking task just right rarely feels easy. Best case scenario, you’re pot of brown rice is gummy or otherwise not texturally ideal; worst case, you end up with a burnt unsalvageable wreck in your pot. (Not to mention, the stench of scoured rice will remind you of your failure and leave your home smelling funky for the next 24 hours.) So why? Why is a cooking skill that’s so fundamentally basic so tough to master? 

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I think most folks will agree, typically, the trickiest part of cooking any type of grain, be it millet or your morning oatmeal, is achieving the right ratio of liquid to grain. And especially as you explore cooking with different types of grain, such as quinoa (which is technically not a cereal grain, but whatever, still relevant), farro, or barley, it’s hard to keep track of how much liquid each requires. Rather than trying to figure out the perfect ratios and commit them to memory—because look, the amounts listed on the back of the package are hardly ever right—try a different approach… treat your grains like pasta. Simply don’t worry about the ratio; heat a pot with a generous amount of water and a generous pinch of salt, add your grains, cook them until tender, and drain off the excess liquid. This is an approachable method that allows you put your valiant effort into your meal planning game, instead of your pot-scrubbing game. You can now turn your perfectly cooked grains into various salads, bowls, and sides to eat on throughout the week. It sounds like a viable plan, right? Now let’s get to it! 

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It’s important to note, there are a handful of grains that will do particularly well with this method, and a few that won’t. White rice is one that I would not apply the pasta technique to, because it can easily become blown-out and overcooked when there is too much water. However, if you want to try cooking wild rice or brown rice like pasta, go for it. Both of these less-processed forms of rice require a longer cooking time that typically takes over 30 minutes for about one cup of dry grains. Quinoa is another grain that will not benefit from cooking it like pasta. It can typically withstand a little extra water, but an excessive amount of water will yield a mushy mess.  

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In general, depending on the amount of grains you want to prepare, you can start with a 3- to 4-quart saucepan (which is typically considered a medium saucepan) or a 6-quart stockpot. You don’t need to go too crazy with the amount of water you put in the pot, you really just want enough to cover the grains by a couple inches. With farro, you’ll want to opt for semi-pearled (some bran removed) or pearled (all the bran removed), which takes far less time to cook than whole farro (which you need to soak overnight). Bring water to a boil in your saucepan or pot and sprinkle in your salt. Add your farro and and allow it to cook at a gentle boil until al dente. Your best bet is to start checking on the farro’s tenderness after about 15-20 minutes of simmering. When it’s cooked to your liking, drain off the excess water and build your grain bowl.

You can also apply this method to other grains such as wheat berries, freekah, bulgur, and couscous. Just remember to leave space for the grains to expand. For smaller grains, you may need to line a fine mesh sieve with a layer of cheesecloth in order to drain. You can also cook the grains in vegetable or chicken stock, rather than water, to easily add a layer of flavor. 

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