Ancient grain minestrone
Blount Organic Ancient Grain Minestrone Soup features a hearty medley of farro, quinoa and barley.

CHICAGO — After quinoa’s popularity went mainstream in 2013 when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared it to be the International Year of Quinoa, the concept of ancient grains started to resonate with consumers. For chefs and product developers, quinoa’s rise marked the start of a culinary journey into a diverse world of ingredients with superstar potential.

Most ancient grains — and seed-like, pseudo-cereals like quinoa — have largely been ignored until recently by Western palates. This is changing, and certain grains, like millet, farro, amaranth and teff, are inching closer to mainstream menus and retail shelves now that chefs have discovered how to leverage each grain’s unique nutritional and culinary properties.

“As the culinary scene continues to evolve, we see ancient grains as a trending ingredient,” said Chef Bruce Bromberg of Blue Ribbon Restaurants, New York. “They are so versatile and can be used in a variety of preparations — savory, sweet, sour, bitter, you name it.”

Flavor first

When it comes to cooking with ancient grains, nothing beats their flavor, according to Chef Michael Fiorelli of Love & Salt, an Italian-inspired restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “It is the first thing that comes into play when making a decision on what to use in any dish and whole grains deliver that deep, soul-satisfying touch,” he said.

“Since every ancient grain offers a unique taste and texture, they all have a place in a variety of applications,” said Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing, Bunge, St. Louis. “Some have an earthy or nutty flavor and some contribute an enjoyable crunch. They can also be a great way to incorporate natural colors into applications. Additionally, ancient grains can be blended together or with other grains to increase color and texture in the finished application.”

With the wide spectrum of grain ingredients, product developers may also tap ancient grains for their unique nutritional content.

“Ancient grains have remained unchanged by modern science and breeding technologies,” said Tara Froemming, marketing coordinator, Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, N.D. “This often makes them a richer source of nutrients than modern grains and a healthy alternative to other whole grain counterparts.”