Tips & Techniques

Why You Should Be Toasting Your Grains

July  8, 2014

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The quick, easy move that will add flavor to your grain salads, pilafs, and porridges.

Quinoa and Farro Salad on Food52

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It's likely that you’re going to a party this weekend. Or a potluck. Or a picnic. Something that starts with the letter “p” and requires you to feed a number of people with something portable. Odds are good that you’re thinking about a grain salad.

Before you get to boiling your quinoa, though, remember the key step that will make that salad more interesting, more inherently flavorful, more likely to have strangers asking for a recipe or, maybe, your phone number: toasting.

If you've made risotto, you're already familiar with this technique; it's what adds flavor to each grain of rice, with a little help from alliums and fat, before the first ladleful of stock enters the equation.

More: Learn how to make any risotto, no recipe needed.

Toasting grains imparts flavor thanks to the Maillard reaction, which happens when sugars and amino acids react at high temperatures -- it's what gives a caramelized flavor to everything from seared steaks to brioche to dulce de leche. And it is a friend to your grains.

Farro Risotto on Food52

To toast your grains, simply cook them over medium heat in a dry skillet for 3 to 5 minutes, shaking and stirring regularly, until they smell nutty. Don’t let them get too brown, though -- you’ll risk a bitter flavor for the sake of a good tan. Then boil them as you normally would. 

The good people over at Franny's toast their grains in the oven, which takes more time but carries less risk of burning: Simply spread your grains onto a clean, rimmed baking sheet, and toast them at 350° F for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

If you're going stovetop, you can also add some fat or seasonings into the mix, à la risotto -- simply heat oil or butter in your pan first, then add your grains and make sure to coat them well. Add any seasonings your heart desires, like alliums (cook them down before you add your grains) or spices

Toasting Grains on Food52  Toasting Grains on Food52

The difference in color is slight, but the grains on the right have been toasted for five minutes over medium heat.

Once you've tossed your toasted grains into every salad under the sun, use this technique for other grain dishes: pilafs, tabouli, and porridge.

Now all you need to do before the party is come up with a few new freekeh puns. 

More: Throw together a light Freekeh Salad with Fennel and Mint.

Risotto photo by James Ransom. All other photos by Mark Weinberg.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Matt Libling
    Matt Libling
  • AntoniaJames
  • Marian Bull
    Marian Bull
  • Simon Y.
    Simon Y.
  • emcsull
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



Matt L. July 14, 2014
I always toast farro especially - the nutty flavour really works. For me the toasting is actually two stage - I roast in the oven and then lightly fry along with the vegetables. If you want the recipe it's here
AntoniaJames July 10, 2014
Why wait for a party, potluck or picnic? Toast your grains for breakfast tomorrow:
I appreciate the advice about toasting the quinoa; look forward to trying it. I usually toast rolled oats and barley flakes in the oven before blending with other ingredients for fruit crisp toppings -- so easy to do while the oven is heating. ;o)
Marian B. July 9, 2014
Grain-rinsing friends: I think that if you rinse (or soak) your grains, you can simply dry them thoroughly in a strainer, then toast them in the oven -- I'd assume that the water evaporates better this way than it would in a pan!
Simon Y. July 8, 2014
Rinsing and then toasting works plenty fine, you just need to put the lid on top of the pot really quickly to prevent quinoa popping out. The temperatures involved are above the boiling point of water so things will dry off quickly.
Since you often toast in oil for flavor, rinsing afterwards would get counterproductive and messy.
emcsull July 8, 2014
I was told this did something to nutritional value, is this then not true ?
Panfusine July 8, 2014
Toasting works great for Pasta as well, especially the tiny soup varieties that are flat in shape.
ChefJune July 8, 2014
I learned about toasting millet years ago from Bert Greene in his "The Grains Cookbook." I toast it in a dry pan until the little grains start popping like popcorn. I've never rinsed millet. Not sure one needs to rinse grains that have been toasted. And you couldn't possibly toast wet grains. Wonder whether Marian means we should rinse them, let them dry and then toast them? But that might take all day!
Horto July 8, 2014
toasting wet grains? I really rinse all grains, toast then rinse? if you toast in oil, rinse??
NatWhit July 8, 2014
I second the question on rinsing! I've always read that quinoa should be rinsed before cooking, but I'd love to add the toasting step.
Allyn July 8, 2014
I love toasting israeli couscous in butter before cooking it in broth. gives it the best flavor!
Horto July 8, 2014
when do you rinse them, before or after?