Conquering the Plant-Based Kitchen: Cooking Whole Grains

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Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains Every Day

Whole grains are a staple of plant-based diets, but if you’ve ever wound up with a pan full of gummy rice, you know cooking them the right way is essential if you actually want to enjoy what you’re eating.

No worries, we’ve all been there! (Ask me about my adventures with buckwheat, for example…) Fortunately, cooking whole grains isn’t hard once you know the right amount of water to use, the optimal length of time to cook each grain and the how to achieve a deliciously fluffy texture. You’re probably already familiar with a few like oats and brown rice, or you might be new to the world of whole grains. Either way, let me share what I’ve learned experimenting with plant-based cooking and few tips from other talented cooks to help you master the technique of cooking perfect grains.

many whole grains (and beans)Why Whole Grains?

I covered the basics of whole grains in my previous post about “carbs,” but here’s a quick run-down of the reasons to make them part of your daily diet:

  • A whole grain has three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm
  • The majority of the nutrients, including protein, minerals, B vitamins and fiber, are in the bran and germ
  • Refined (“white”) grains are stripped of one or more parts and the associated nutrients
  • “Enriched” grains only have a handful of nutrients added back after refining

Most of the grains in the standard Western diet are refined, but switching to whole grains brings back all the missing nutrients and gives your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy instead of delivering a bunch of empty calories. When you eat grains their whole forms you:

  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Lower your risk of digestive cancers
  • Boost your gut health
  • Reach your weight goals more easily

This is all thanks to making one simple swap in your diet. As part of a completely plant-based lifestyle, whole grains contribute to a balanced diet and complement the benefits of everything else you eat.

Cooking Whole Grains: The Basics

The most common method for cooking whole grains is to simmer them in water on the stovetop. To add extra flavor, use low-sodium vegetable broth instead of water or toast the grains over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, before cooking. Toasted grains are done when they smell nutty and are lightly browned.

For basic stovetop cooking:

  • Place the grains and water in a saucepan or stock pot
  • Cover and bring to a boil
  • Reduce the heat to a low simmer
  • When the liquid is absorbed, remove the pan from the heat
  • Let rest for 5 minutes with the lid on
  • Remove the lid, fluff and serve!

cans of whole grainsThe ratio of liquid to grains differs depending on what you’re cooking, as does the cooking time. Here are the basics for the grains you’re likely to use most often on a plant-based diet:

  • Brown rice: 2 cups liquid to 1 cup grain (2 to 1), 40 to 45 minutes
  • Quinoa: 1 1/2 to 1, simmer for 15 minutes, turn the burner off, let sit for 15 minutes
    • Note: Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh sieve first to remove the natural bitter coating
  • Millet: 2 to 1, 20 to 25 minutes
  • Barley (pearled): 2 to 1, 40 to 45 minutes
  • Oats (rolled): 2 to 1, 5 to 10 minutes
  • Oats (steel cut): 3 to 1, 20 to 30 minutes

If you want to cook large batches of grains, a pressure cooker or Instant Pot is more efficient. Liquid ratios and times are different from stovetop cooking, so consult the booklet that came with your cooker for the best cooking method. You can also refer to the charts for whole grains and rice from Hip Pressure Cooking, which I find to be the most accurate of all I’ve used.

What Whole Grains are Best to Eat?

wheat stalk and grains featureIf a client asked me this, I honestly would have to say, “ALL of them!” Every time you choose whole grains over refined, you do your body a huge favor. But there are some grains that are more nutrient-dense than others, meaning they have more nutrients per calorie. Whether you’re completely plant-based already or making the switch, you want to include as many nutrient-dense foods as possible to maximize the health benefits of your diet.

When it comes to whole grains, the best choices include:

  • Whole rye
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Whole wheat
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Amaranth

What makes these the best? They’re high in fiber, trace minerals and antioxidants, and they contain ample protein. Many of these grains are also beneficial if you’re trying to keep your blood sugar in check.

Getting Started with Grains

Use the cooking guidelines in this post to experiment with as many whole grains as you want. If you have access to a store with a bulk department, such as Whole Foods or a co-op, spend some time browsing. Pick up a few grains you’ve never had before, and try adding them to meals or experimenting with recipes like these:

The USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest 5 to 8 servings of whole grains per day, and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recommends at least five. A serving works out to about 1/2 cup cooked grains, 1 slice of bread, 1/2 of a bagel or 1/2 of an English muffin. Whole grain pasta serving sizes vary, but the most common is 2 ounces of dry pasta.


Cookie Q&A: Your Guide to Plant-Based Cookie Success

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Christmas time is cookie time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a staunch believer in the oil-free lifestyle or a lover of all things sweet and sticky — the Christmas season just wouldn’t be complete without a few batches of your old favorites. So grab your cookie sheets, break out the mixing bowls and let’s get started!

Recipes for a Sweeter Holiday

Last year, I rounded up over a dozen cookie recipes ranging from traditional buttery, sugary treats to raw makeovers of the classics. This year’s list is a little shorter and includes a couple of repeats simply because they’re so darn iconic. These five recipes are great for inspiration, and they’re simple enough to tackle even if you’re not terribly familiar with vegan cookie baking:

For those of you who are ready to dive head-first into holiday cookie madness, Pretty Bee has a roundup of 50 — yes, 50 — recipes for you to bake your way through. But you don’t have to try them all. Unless you want to. (If you do, you’re inviting me over, right?)

On the other hand, if you want cookies you can snack on without sending yourself through the roof from the sugar rush, keep an eye out for my healthy-but-tastes-totally-like-candy peanut blossom cookie bite recipe. Believe it or not, they taste exactly like Reese’s Puffs cereal without a single trace of hydrogenated oil, refined sugar, artificial coloring or preservatives. I’ll be posting it in time for the holiday!

Tips for Plant-Based Cookie Successmaking gingerbread cookies

Now that you’ve got the recipes, it’s time for a cookie-baking reality check. I’ve been baking since I was tall enough to see over the counter (okay, my mom did the baking then — I just dumped things in the bowl and went crazy with sprinkles). Even with all that experience and a lot of trial and error since going vegan, there are still times when my baked goods are less than perfect.

Alas, baking is much less forgiving than cooking. Cooking gives you a little wiggle room, and you can generally salvage a “bad” dish with a little creative seasoning. Baking oscillates between demanding precision and not caring what the heck you do. In light of this highly fickle nature, I present to you a few tips for making your holiday cookie baking go more smoothly whether you’re a seasoned vegan cookie connoisseur or new to the world of plant-based desserts.

  • Use smart oil substitutions. I’ve learned from experience that cookies need fat to get the proper chewy or crunchy texture. Standard oil-free substitutions like mashed banana or applesauce result in cake-like finished products, so you’re better off swapping fat for fat using coconut butter or the nut or seed butter of your choice. Dreena Burton has a great primer on this over at Plant-Powered Kitchen, and her suggestions have worked quite well for me!
  • If you use oils, choose wisely. Look for non-hydrogenated options for vegan butter and shortening, such as the Earth Balance and Spectrum brands. In recipes calling for canola oil, either substitute vegan butter or choose a cold-pressed organic brand.
  • For completely oil-free baking, try nonstick mats. Silpat, Silchef and other brands offer silicone baking mats that eliminate the need for greasing cookie sheets and make cleanup easier. If you can’t find nonstick mats, grab a roll of parchment paper instead.
  • Opt for unsweetened, unflavored plant milks. Non-dairy milk can be used cup-for-cup in place of dairy milk, and avoiding sweeteners and flavorings preserves the taste of the cookies. But if you’re feeling adventurous, vanilla, chocolate and “eggnog” flavors can be fun to play with.
  • Need buttermilk? Add one teaspoon of cider vinegar per cup of milk and let it sit for about ten minutes to “curdle.” Ta-da! Vegan buttermilk!
  • Go natural with decorations. Standard food colorings and sprinkles can contain non-vegan ingredients and are almost always artificial. Keep your cookies chemical-free by using products made with vegetable or fruit ingredients from companies like India Tree and Sprinklez.

What if you’re diligent, do everything you should and your cookies still flop? Never fear! There are plenty of ways to “recycle” a less-than-perfect batch:

  • Pulse in the food processor and use them to make a crumb crust or topping for pies and cakes
  • Crumble on top of a bowl of nondairy ice cream
  • Break into chunks and add to a vegan milkshake
  • Invite friends over to help you “dispose” of unattractive cookies
  • Feed the birds in your yard (as long as the cookies aren’t too sweet)

Mittened hands holding hot coffeeWhat’s a Cookie Without a Warm Drink?

I have fond childhood memories of coming indoors after many hours of playing in the snow to sit down with a cup of hot chocolate and my favorite Christmas cookies. It wasn’t exactly the healthiest habit, but I don’t let that put a damper on my nostalgia. In fact, it makes me want to find ways to recreate those memories that don’t sacrifice any of the flavor but are more in line with the way I approach my diet now.

Enjoy your own little trip back in time by pairing your cookies with one of these warming beverages:

  • Luxurious Dairy-Free Hot Cocoa — My absolute favorite from Oh She Glows. She’s not kidding when she calls it luxurious; cashews make it decadent and creamy!
  • Mulled Cider — A classic with step-by-step instructions and pictures courtesy of The Pioneer Woman.
  • Hot Apple Cider with Superfood Power — Healthful Pursuit gives mulled cider a nutritious boost.
  • Vegan Chai Latte — Make this delicious drink at home with simple instructions from The Blenderist.
  • Vegan Peppermint Mocha — Vegnosity’s recipe for this drink is so easy, it’s like having a coffee shop in your kitchen.

Lattes and other drinks can be a bit challenging to recreate at home because non-dairy milks tend to be stubborn about foaming. Hence why I was happily surprised to discover a local cafe using a strange and wonderful product in their drinks — “Barista Series” almond milk from the Pacific brand. I had no idea such a thing existed, but apparently it’s formulated to behave the way milk should when it encounters the foam arm on an espresso machine. I haven’t tried it when making my own drinks, but if you have a way to foam milk at home, I’d say give it a shot (pun intended).

Baking cookies is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit. It’s even better when you bake big batches to give as gifts or share at parties with family and friends. For me, family time is a big part of the holiday season, and Christmas is the most special day of all. Getting in the kitchen and whipping up a batch of sweet homemade nostalgia offers a way to step back from the commercial craziness and reflect on what the holiday is really about and how the birth of the Savior of the world in a stable in Bethlehem changed the course of history for all mankind.

Warm cookies (and drinks) just make it that much nicer. Merry Christmas!

Have you started your holiday baking yet? What traditions do you have in your family? Are you cookie fans, or do you prefer other seasonal sweets?

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