Grains

How to Cook Millet, the Ancient Grain You Might Have Overlooked

Plus, how to turn it into savory and sweet treats that everyone will sit up and notice.

September 28, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

In the new millenium, grain trends move about as fast as fashion. From 2006 to 2013, as we were shimmying out of our skinny jean fetish and into our bland beige normcore phase, we were consuming quinoa at such an outrageous rate that crop prices tripled, making the Andean staple almost unaffordable in its native region.

Maturing into dadcore in 2017, we got obsessed with what we call "ancient grains," and added amaranth and Kamut to the list of old-timers that were suddenly hot. 2019 was undeniably the year of the jumpsuit, and also the year of the farro bowl. Now here we are in 2020, buffeted by an unending string of catastrophes, looking for something starchy to hold on to. This, friends, is where millet comes in.

Millet, like many recently trendy grains, has history—it’s been consumed for around 7,000 years. But like quinoa or buckwheat, it’s not technically a grain at all, but rather the seeds of a family of hearty grasses. It’s an important staple in cultures throughout Afro-Eurasia, with a place in cuisines ranging from Namibia to Germany to North Korea.

And for those trend-chasers among us currently whiplashed by the competing fads of gluten-free dieting and sourdough bread baking, take comfort in the knowledge that millet has a place in both camps. The seeds are gluten-free, but they can add some satisfying crunch as mix-ins for your crusty loaves.


Which Millet?

There are several kinds of millet in cultivation around the world, each with its own characteristics. There’s deep red finger millet, popcorn yellow foxtail millet, pale barnyard millet, to name a few. In the US, if you see a package simply labeled millet, it’s probably proso millet, a medium sized variety with a mild taste. In most of the recipes below, feel free to use whatever millet you have on hand.


How to cook with millet

One of the shortfalls of the fast fashioning of heritage grains is the paradoxical attitude that everything that’s old enough is cool, and everything that’s cool enough is new. Teff? That’s old. Must be cool. The reality is that most of these old grains have time-honored places in highly developed cuisines, and that those of us who are just now learning about them had best take note.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“But there is a small come back for millet, often found as an add-in to rice to add other grains to the rice for better nutrition. I, for one, would like to try more millet!”
— Pamela_in_Tokyo
Comment

Teff, for example, is the basis of Ethiopian/Eritrean injera, a spongy, fermented bread that really is the best way I can imagine to use teff. Now I’m not an extremist here. I’d never argue with Alice Medrich, who whips up all sorts of delicious baked goods with teff, corn, sorghum, and other heritage grains. But when approaching millet, we’re going to look at it in context––in traditional dishes from the cuisines that know it best.

Millet Porridges

Porridge is a major plank in my crisis management platform, and millet porridge is particularly soothing and satisfying. It also has representation across the globe, with notable examples in Chinese, West African, and Austrian cuisines.

Xiao Mi Zhou (Chinese Millet Sweet Potato Porridge)

This ambidextrous dish can swing sweet or savory depending on the toppings. Add soy, pickled vegetables, and smoked tofu for a satisfying breakfast or part of a composed dinner, or sprinkle some sugar in at the last minute to bring out the sweetness of the potatoes. You can even cut out the sweet potatoes entirely, if you prefer.

Fura da Nono (Fulani Millet Porridge with Chiles & Ginger)

Popular as a street snack through much of West Africa, fura is traditionally prepared by the Fulani people of Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger. First, millet is ground into a flour and seasoned with ginger, cloves, chilies, and other spices before being formed into balls and cooked. These balls are then mixed with sugar and fermented milk to form a hearty, soul-warming porridge.

Bajra Raabdi (Rajasthani Millet Porridge)

In Rajasthan, a thin porridge (or a thick beverage, depending on your perspective) is made from fermented millet flour and yogurt. Sprinkle it with cumin or black pepper and serve it by the cupful.

Austrian Millet Porridge

Finally, here’s a simple breakfast porridge that pairs millet with milk, apples, and honey. Oatmeal, step aside.

Savory Millet Dishes

Tartine Millet Porridge Sourdough

The recipe from legendary San Francisco bakery Tartine, as presented by Food52’s resident bread baker, Maurizio Leo.

Arikalu Idli (South Indian Kodo Millet Idli)

Idli are steamed dumplings, commonly made of fermented rice and urad dal (black gram). But made with kodo millet, these pillowy snacks take on a deeper color and a satisfying nutty character. They can be made with ragi (finger millet) as well.

Ragi Mudde (Karnataka Finger Millet Balls)

Serve these balls of boiled millet meal with a rich curry or sambar.

Massa (Hausa rice/millet crepes)

These crepes, made with either rice or millet, are a popular street snack in Benin. Serve them with hot sauce or sweet syrup.

Millet Sweets

Kalkandu Sadham (Tamil Millet & Palm Sugar Dessert)

This thick pudding is rich with ghee and fragrant with cardamom. It’s typically made with little millet, though there are other versions made with foxtail millet.

Austrian Millet Plum Cake

Imagine Marian Burros’s Plum Torte but packed with healthy whole grains, honey, and protein-packed cheese curds. Now imagine eating a slice in the Alps wearing lederhosen. That’s what this cake is all about.

Have you ever cooked with millet? Let me know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Holly Pedrini
    Holly Pedrini
  • Huyen Tran
    Huyen Tran
  • Pamela_in_Tokyo
    Pamela_in_Tokyo
  • Clare Colley
    Clare Colley
  • Redrose
    Redrose
Sam is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at arecipefordisaster.org.

10 Comments

Holly P. October 5, 2020
I cook millet all the time, usually as a porridge for breakfast. I use 'sweet' veggies like onion, carrot, squash, cabbage and do about 1:6 ration millet to water so it's nice and creamy but not too watery. Toppings: toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds
 
Huyen T. October 5, 2020
Dear friends at food52, thank you for sharing the recipes for millet.
May the Lord bless you and take care of you; May the Lord be kind and gracious to you; May the Lord look on you with favor and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
Shalom!
 
Pamela_in_Tokyo October 4, 2020
Thanks for this interesting collection of millet recipes. Before the modern era, more than a hundred years ago, rice was used to pay taxes by farmers in Japan and they rarely, if ever, ate rice in those days. Millet was their main stay. It was looked down upon by everyone after eating rice became common. But there is a small come back for millet, often found as an add-in to rice to add other grains to the rice for better nutrition. I, for one, would like to try more millet!
 
Clare C. October 4, 2020
Gluten free is all well and good, but I wish authors here and elsewhere would take a few of the copious words they write about the latest “hot” grain to discuss carbohydrates and whether this grain works on a low carb diet. There are very few people with genuine gluten sensitivity, let alone serious conditions like celiac disease. (Most people avoiding gluten are doing it because it’s what everybody else is doing, not for genuine medical reasons.). Yet, even with the epidemic of obesity, very few authors discuss carbohydrate content and blood sugar profiles of the grains they are introducing/describing. That would be more useful information for the vast majority of your readers.
 
Redrose September 30, 2020
Recently heard about positive millets ( little millet, Kodo millet, brown top millet, foxtail millet , barnyard millet ) where these millets have right fiber when compared to other grains or millets . This fiber causes positive millets to release glucose in blood slowly and steadily every hour for 6 to 7 hours after consumption of these positive millets . Since it regulates release of glucose ( which is final and end product in our digestive system and our human body needs only 5 or 6 grams of glucose in our blood ) So no diabetics, Blood Pressure, Cancer , heart related problems , Thyroid problems or any kind of diseases can be eliminated in 6 months to 2 years if you consume regularly . For more details visit https://www.sirijeevan.org Dr. Khader vali a scientist did research on these positive millets and found that we can live disease free life with these positive millets .
 
Clamunu September 29, 2020
I am excited to see this ,millet is my staple food it's largely grown in my city where I come from and I usually love to prepare/cook and eat it more often.
 
heyheyitskay September 29, 2020
Woah! I JUST made Mexican Quinoa with millet this weekend. Forgot I had gotten a bag at our Asian supermarket. SO GOOD! https://www.simplywhisked.com/mexican-quinoa/
 
Jacob K. September 28, 2020
I started eating millet when I lived in Germany several years ago. With it being so similar to quinoa, it is more affordable and it's great to use it interchangeably in a number of things. Thanks for writing this. Looking forward to trying out some of the recipes.
 
OldNo7 September 28, 2020
Bird seed? We're down to posts about how to cook bird seed??
 
Author Comment
Sam S. September 28, 2020
You're going to be shook when you find out that pigs eat truffles.