Whole grains offer a pathway to better-for-you positioning, but that’s not all that’s driving menu innovation. Today’s diner is also responding to nuanced flavors, firmer textures and compelling narratives. Ancient grains (and seeds) tell unique stories, linking farm to table through folklore, history and community. And those stories work hard for a restaurant’s brand, expressing authenticity and craftsmanship in meaningful ways. Although harder to measure, that wholesome narrative has helped propel many ancient grains into the spotlight.
Not so hard to measure: Technomic tells us that 45 percent of consumers believe that dishes featuring 100 percent whole grains are more flavorful than other menu items. Flavor, then, holds the key to success here. With so many grains offering blank canvases, it’s up to the chef to cook and hold the grains properly, pairing them with flavors that move them into the coveted craveable category. Here are 12 categories of grains and seeds presenting on-trend opportunities for menu growth and differentiation.
Naturally gluten free and a high-quality source of plant protein, amaranth has been cultivated for thousands of years. Harvested first in Latin America, it offers a creative gateway to the cuisines of both Mexico and Peru, primarily. Indeed, one popular preparation in Mexico “pops” this seed, then combines it with honey and butter to form “dulce de alegria,” or amaranth bars. Amaranth, or kiwicha, as it’s known in Peru, has a sticky texture and somewhat sweet flavor. It can be cooked as a cereal, added to other grains in a pilaf or popped like corn for a unique garnish. It also works well as a thickener for soups and stews.
- Bloody Beet Steak, yogurt, pan drippings, aged balsamic, amaranth
— The Farm and Fisherman, Philadelphia
- Amaranth Toast, smoked roe, tartar sauce
— Atera, New York
Talk about a backstory—barley grew on the shores of the Sea of Galilee 23,000 years ago. Today, it’s a staple across the globe, but is enjoying a renaissance of sorts on American menus. Prized by chefs for its starch release, barley boasts a creamy texture and mildly nutty flavor. This whole grain has its bran layer intact, and it’s making moves beyond soups, thankfully. The South Korean hot beverage, called boricha, consists of roasted barley steeped in hot water, then drained and served as barley tea. Barley grits offer a familiar form for a whole-grain offering—just make sure you go with hulled barley instead of a pearled one to make that whole-grain claim.
- Apple butter, Brie cream and barley
— Trois Mec, Los Angeles
- Barley Risotto, little neck clams, oregano
— Narcissa, New York
This whole wheat, known as “Middle Eastern pasta,” has been parboiled and ground into a smaller size. Bulgur (also spelled bulghur) cooks in less than 10 minutes, making it ideal for à la minute preparation. Its mild flavor makes it palatable for the less adventurous, and offers an authentic connection to Lebanese, Armenian and Turkish cuisines. We’re seeing moves beyond tabouleh, that refreshingly acidic salad that stars bulgur, parsley, tomato, onion, mint, olive oil and lemon juice. From veggie burgers that get their heft from bulgur to stuffings flavored with dried cranberries and hazelnuts, this wheat may lack the sex appeal of quinoa but offers tremendous versatility.
- Lamb & Bulgur Croquettes
— Glasserie, New York
- Chopped Bulgur Salad, Medjool dates, pomegranate, olives, breakfast radish, peppers, grilled onions, smoked almonds, pistachio
— Fishtag, New York
It was just a few years ago that this seed, native to Mexico and Guatemala, was relegated to health stores—and, before that, to comical flowering ceramic pets. But take heed—chia is having its moment. It’s the new flax seed—offering many of the same health benefits without the hassle. Chia is a super seed, loaded with omega-3 fats, calcium, protein and fiber, and it’s an easy addition to a slew of menu items. Sprinkle atop yogurt, oatmeal and salad dressings, but if you want crunch, do it right at service. Chia absorbs up to 12 times its weight in liquid, which changes its profile from crunchy to soft and chewy. Some operators are upping the flavor by infusing the chia with fruit juice or booze. In Mexico, the Latin take on bubble tea is chia fresca, a blend of water, chia seeds, sugar, lemon juice and lime juice.
- Ginger Mint Chia: Filtered water infused with ginger, lime, mint and chia seeds
— LYFE Kitchen, Irvine, Calif.-based
- Lemon Chia-Seed Cake with Meyer lemon panna cotta, blood-orange sorbet and winter citrus salad
— Café des Architectes, Chicago
We could easily call this the year of farro—it’s being embraced by chefs nationwide. An ancient strain of cultivated wheat, farro is an heirloom variety of spelt (but doesn’t “farro” sound better?). Farro risottos (farrottos) are the new kid on the Italian block, replacing Arborio or Carnaroli rice for added menu interest and nutrition. It also helps tell a flavor story, bringing the growing valleys of Italy to life on the menu. Farro performs well in pilafs and stuffings, too. At the newly opened Fenton Fire Hall in Fenton, Mich., a farro hash stuffing cleverly fills a poblano, along with balsamic eggplant, roasted vegetables, smoked Gouda and herbs; the poblano is baked with a smoked Pecorino crust and served on a spicy tomato basil sauce.
- Farro Salad with pistachios, favas, mint and Parmesan
— Charlie Bird, New York
- Seared Sea Scallop Farrotto
— Silver Diner, Rockville, Md.-based
Freekeh, perhaps, has the most fascinating tale: More than 1,000 years ago, villagers in the Middle East harvested their wheat early, trying to avoid losing the crop to an impending siege. After the siege, the villagers returned to find their crops had been burned, but when they rubbed the burned stalks together, it yielded a flavorful, charred wheat. The process of “freekeh” was born. Intensely earthy with a chewier texture than farro, freekeh has a meaty density and unbelievably healthy profile. It has almost no gluten and is full of minerals, vitamins and fiber. But its big flavor and texture, as well as its long cook time, may limit its versatility. As a niche product? Freekeh, yes.
- Rose-Scented Duck Breast with “dirty” freekeh grains and honey-glazed turnips
— Levant, Portland, Ore.
- Freekeh Salad with chicken, fennel, red onion, toasted almonds, lemon olive oil
— Tanoreen, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Oatmeal, rolled oats and oat flour are how we generally see this grain. With ridiculous amounts of soluble fiber, it’s a dietary darling. That healthful claim has helped push it deeper into menu development. So, porridge is moving from stodgy breakfast staple to global flavor carrier, getting swagger from goji berries and Chinese dates. For appealing menu narrative, distinguishing features of oats can be called out—steel-cut and Irish are two examples. And whoever thought oats could be sexy? Try a deep, dark oatmeal stout for undeniable proof.
- The Poblano Stout: Oatmeal stout with poblano added post-fermentation
— Big Choice Brewing, Broomfield, Colo.
- Homestead Steel-Cut Oats with Texas pecans, sorghum, crème fraîche
— CBD Provisions, Dallas
Quinoa is the heavyweight champ in this set. It’s so ubiquitous, the pronunciation of the name has even become a non-issue. Technically a seed, quinoa cooks up quickly, and its flavor is pretty neutral—both clear advantages in volume cookery. With an easy-to-remember tagline of “the mother of all grains,” quinoa is here to stay. Now, it’s a question of adding creativity and craveability. For menu interest, look beyond white quinoa to red and black, although black is so dense it might best be used as a garnish or add-in. Quinoa, although hailing from Peru, can adapt to any global flavor palettes, from Asian spikes of soy, ginger, hoisin and basil to Latin profiles of cilantro, aji panca, garlic and lime juice.
- Quinoa & Beet Salad with arugula, white beans, pistachio, avocado and white balsamic
— Block Table & Tap, El Paso, Texas
- VegeFi Burger: Crisp quinoa burger, white cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and BurgerFi sauce
— BurgerFi, Palm Beach, Fla.-based
Sprouted grains are new on the trending whole-grains scene, but they’re definitely ones to watch. They’re whole grains that are brought to sprout—highly nutritious and rich in enzymes. Indeed, “bio availability” is a health term that applies here—it refers to how much nutrition is absorbed from foods, and sprouted grains rank high by that measure. Sprouted brown rice, barley and wheat berries are still hovering around health food concepts, but where we’re seeing movement is in the sprouted grain flours. Incorporating this flour brings a rock solid better-for-you positioning.
- Egg White, Avocado, & Spinach Breakfast Power Sandwich on a freshly baked sprouted-grain bagel flat
— Panera Bread, St. Louis, Mo.-based
- Buckwheat Crisps: Sprouted buckwheat and chia seeds
— 118 Degrees Cafe, Costa Mesa, Calif.
This isn’t a darling of the whole-grains world, but it’s stealthily moving further into menu development. One tactic for a healthful menu boost is adding it as a switch-out option for regular pasta, much like brown rice can sub in for white rice. But more and more, we’re seeing brands express their better-for-you commitment by crafting concepts around whole-grain pasta. They’re relying on a changing palate that actually appreciates the flavor and texture of whole-grain pasta as a benefit, not a sacrifice.
- Four Cheese Mazeman, dashi, pickled bean sprout, pork chashu, whole-wheat noodle
— Ivan Ramen, New York
- Whole-Grain Tuscan Linguine with broccoli, red bell pepper, onion, mushroom, garlic, white wine, cream and Parmesan
— Noodles & Company, Broomfield, Colo.-based
Wheat berries, or entire wheat kernels, were once relegated to the crunchy-granola crowd, but as with many of the whole grains on this list, they’re making their way onto mainstream menus. They’re chewy with a subtle nutty flavor, and they’re great absorbers of other flavor. Add cooked wheat berries to soups and chilis, or sprinkle them onto salads for a little wholesome street cred.
- Spring Beet Salad: Roasted beets, goat cheese, wheat berries, mixed greens, lemon vinaigrette
— Element 112, Sylvania, Ohio
- Beef Filet, spring wheat berries, honey-sizzled asparagus
— Camile’s Bistro & Bar, Wilbraham, Mass.