Grain Salads are a great meal for many reasons. They are filling and nutritious and a large batch will last you a whole week of lunches. But there are many pitfalls that grain salads can succumb to. First is lack of flavor. When seasoning a salad that will be served cold, it is important to season early and heavily or you end up with a salad without much flavor. Second is texture. Many a salad has sat sad and untouched at a potluck due to overcooked, mushy grains. Time to remedy these problems and make a salad you will be excited to pull out for lunch or show off at your next back yard BBQ.
5 Steps to a great grain salad:
1- Toast the grains. This can be done either on a baking sheet in the oven or in a little oil in a pan. Toast until just starting to brown and fragrant.
2- Add herbs and aromatics to the cooking liquid. Toss a few sprigs of herbs or a few crushed garlic cloves to the cooking liquid. You can also use dried herbs and spices, but these should be added while toasting the grains with oil. This will greatly increase the flavor of the spices, making them bright rather than powdery.
3- Salt the cooking water or cook the grains in stock. Grains cooked for salad, even rice, should be treated like pasta. Bring a large pot of water or stock to a boil and cook the grain until tender. Err on the side of slightly under done. The grain will continue to cook as they cool so perfectly cooked grains can end up being mushy. Save the cooking liquid to use in soup!
4- Season the grains while still warm. Drain and rinse the grains, dry as well as you can and toss with oil, salt and vinegar, or whatever dressing you are using. Remember that food tastes a bit duller when cold, so over season just a bit.
5- Cool the grains as quickly as possible. Once you have dressed the grains, spread them out on a baking sheet so that they cool quickly. This will help avoid sticky, gummy grains.
Grain Quantities and Cooking times (all of these measurements will yield 6 cups of cooked grain)
- Pearled Barley: 1 ¾ cups cooked for 30- 45 minutes
- Wheat Berries: 2 ¼ cups cooked for 1- 1 ½ hours
- Farro: 3 cups cooked for 30-35 minutes
- Spelt: 3 cups cooked for 45- 60 minutes
- White Rice: 2 ½ cups cooked 10-15 minutes
- Brown Rice: 2 ½ cups cooked 20- 25 minutes
- Quinoa: 2 cups cooked 15- 20 minutes
- Millet: 1 ¾ cups cooked 15- 20 minutes
- Bulgur: 2 ¼ cups soaked in 3 ½ cups boiling water for 20-25 minutes
Basic Master Recipe
Use this recipe as a jumping off point to create salads any time of year, using whatever you have on hand.
6 cups of cooked grains
½ - ¾ cup vinaigrette (recipe follows)
2-3 cups add ins (vegetables, fruit, meat)
½ - 1 cup dried fruit, nuts and cheese
¼ cup fresh herbs, finely chopped
As soon as you have drained the grains as well as possible, toss with ½ a cup of vinaigrette, spread on a tray and let cool to room temp.
Once cool, transfer the grains to a large bowl and add in all the rest of your ingredients. Taste and add more dressing if needed. Remember, the flavors will be duller once chilled so do be afraid to season generously.
If possible, make the salad up to a day in advance so that the flavors can meld. Remove it from the fridge 30- 40 minutes before serving for the best flavor.
½ cup oil
1/3 cup vinegar or citrus juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tsp citrus zest (optional)
1 Tbsp mustard (optional)
Whisk all the ingredients together (or shake in a mason jar to combine). Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. If desired, add other flavor boosters like soy sauce, olives, honey, ginger, nut butter or shallots.