Starches and Grains
Grains and starches are such a broad category. There are so many varieties of each that it can become mind-numbing to think about. We’re going to talk about the basics of identifying various types of grains and starches, as well as the cooking methods that are best applied to them.
Many grains and starches are particular to a certain method due to their inherent properties. I’m sure we’ve all made the mistake of purchasing Yukon gold potatoes to be used for mashed potatoes. While they aren’t necessarily wrong, they aren’t ideal. Knowing which grain and which starch are best for which cooking method makes you a better cook. It happens almost immediately, too. Going through your grocery store you won’t see 10 different types of potatoes anymore, you’ll see 3 types, each with different varieties.
Starches, as with most foods, can be easy or they can be complicated. They are deeply ingrained in classical French cooking and have made their roots in Europe and North America for centuries. That being said, there are hundreds of recipes out there and many of them are important due to the fact that they spawned an entirely new cooking style, such as potatoes au gratin.
What Are Starches and Grains?
Starches are basically any food that contains a large amount of starch. When referring to starches, it is almost used exclusively to refer to potatoes. As you should know, starches are part of a complete nutritional meal and are almost always present with a meal. Starches are very versatile, lending themselves nicely to a wide variety of flavors, textures, and color. Their use is fine dining is to complement the centerpiece.
Potatoes come in many varieties and can be distinguished by their starch content. Potatoes high in starch are more suitable for baking, frying or mashing and can be used to thicken soups. Potatoes low in starch are great for roasting, steaming and boiling and for use in potato salads. The terms used to identify these qualities are “waxy” and “mealy”. Waxy potatoes are low in starch and have smooth, waxy skin, while mealy potatoes are high in starch and have a rough, thick surface. A Yukon Gold is a waxy potato while a Russet is considered a mealy potato.
Grains, on the other hand, fill a similar role but also include many more nutrients and vitamins. While not as versatile as potatoes, they make up for it with their large variety in texture, flavor, and color. Grains consist of corn, wheat, rice, quinoa, oats, barley, couscous, kasha, and many more. Methods of how to cook grains can be applied with a general rule that governs almost all grains which we will get to shortly.
Fingerlings: Generally of the heirloom variety, they are small and finger-shaped with good flavor. They are waxy.
Purple Potatoes: With their deep purple skin and bright purple flesh, these potatoes are great for adding color and have a flavor similar to russets. They are mealy.
Red Potatoes: A popular a cheap potato, the red potato have red skin with a crisp white flesh. Best suited for boiling or steaming as they don’t have the dry mealy texture required for baking. These potatoes are waxy.
Russet Potatoes: One of the most popular and often referred to as Idaho potatoes, they are the standard baking potato. Long, with rough reddish-brown skin and mealy flesh, they are excellent baked and are the best potatoes for frying. This variety is mealy.
White Potatoes: Available in short or long varieties, they have thin, tender skin with a waxy yellow or white flesh. Often called an all-purpose potato, there are several varieties including Bintje (Finnish Yellow), Yukon Gold, and White Rose. Because of their all-purpose nature, white potatoes can be baked, boiled or fried well. Waxy potato.
Sweet Potatoes: Biologically, these potatoes are from a different family from regular potatoes. There are two types, one with a yellow flesh and dry, mealy texture also known as a boniato, white or Cuban sweet potato. The second is a darker orange with moister flesh and high in sugar and is known as the red sweet potato. These types of potatoes are commonly referred to as yams, which is erroneous. Best suited for boiling, pureeing, and baking, the less sweet varieties can also be deep-fried.
Yams: The third type of tuber and is botanically different from both sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. Yams can differ in flesh color from creamy white to deep red. Less sweet than sweet potatoes, they can be used interchangeably.
Identifying Rice & Grains
Grains are the edible seeds of many plants and grasses. To ensure proper softening and edibility, they are required to be cooked before serving. Due to the variety and size of grains, the time to cook and proportion of water/stock differs from grain to grain.
Corn: The most versatile and popular grain in North America, it is literally in almost 70%+ of everything you see in the grocery store. Corn can either be served whole (Corncob), in kernel form, or ground form (Cornmeal). Soaking dried corn in hydrated lime or lye, you yield hominy that has a smokey sour flavor. Ground hominy is referred to as grits.
Arborio Rice: A round, small short-grain that is used in Italian dishes. It has a high starch content and is used primarily to make risotto.
Basmati Rice: One of the finest long-grain rice in the world, basmati has a sweet delicate flavor and creamy yellow color. Basmati rice should be washed before cooking. Jasmine rice is another popular aromatic long-grain rice that is grown in Thailand.
Brown Rice: The whole natural grain of rice with just the husk removed. Brown rice has a nutty flavor and has a chewy texture. Brown rice absorbs more water and takes longer to cook.
Sticky Rice: A short-grain rice that is used in many Asian dishes, sticky rice has a high starch content with a pearly white color. When cooked, the rice tends to stick together forming a sticky mass. You must soak sticky rice for several hours before cooking. Japanese sake and Chinese Shaoxing are made from fermented sticky rice, as is rice vinegar.
Wild Rice: While not actually rice, wild rice is prepared in the same manner as all other rice. It has a dark brown to a black color and has a nuttier and chewier texture. There are 3 grades available when purchasing wild rice: Giant, Fancy, and Select. Wild rice is grown and cultivated in Saskatchewan and Ontario. It is an expensive grain, but only small quantities are needed.
Wild Pecan Rice: Neither rice nor made from pecans, pecan rice is a unique long-grain rice that has a nutty flavor and very rich aroma.
How To Cook Rice
Some rice may require washing before cooking. Washing rice removes some starches present on the surface, and doing so can inhibit the proper preparation of dishes that require substantial starches, such as risotto or sticky rice. If you desire a more starchy content, do not wash the rice. For some rice, such as basmati, it is recommended you wash before cooking to remove impurities rather than to remove starches.
The standard ratio for cooking rice is 2 parts water to 1 part rice by volume. The ratios do vary depending on the type of rice being cooked. Please refer to the table below to find the appropriate ratios.
|Type of Rice||Ratio Rice : Water (By volume)||Preparation||Cooking Time (Simmering Method)||Yield from 1 Cup of Raw Rice|
|Arborio||1 : 2.5-3||Do not rinse or soak||15-20 min||2.5-3 Cups|
|Basmati||1 : 1.75||Rinse well, soak||15 min||3 Cups|
|Brown, long-grain||1 : 2.5||Do not rinse. Can soak||45-50 min||3-4 Cups|
|Converted Rice||1 : 2||Do not rinse||20-25 min||3-4 cups|
|White, long-grain||1 : 2||Do not rinse||15 min||3 cups|
|Wild Rice||1 : 3||Rinse||35-60 min, depending on grade||3-4 Cups|
Bulgur: A wheat berry that has had its bran removed in referred to as bulgur wheat. It is steam-cooked, dried and ground into different degrees of fineness. Soaking the bulgur wheat in water and then draining before cooking is recommended. It is used in salads, or in accompaniment with meats. It is often packed in mixes such as tabouli.
Couscous: Removing the bran and germ from durum wheat yields the endosperm which is steamed and pressed into tiny pellets called couscous. You can buy couscous in varying degrees of coarseness. Due to the process of production, couscous takes very little time to prepare and can be used in salads or as a side. It is cooked using steam and is traditionally served with North African cuisines.
Barley: One of the oldest culinary grains in the world and used by humans in prehistoric times, barley is extremely hardy and grows in climates ranging from the tropics to near-arctic. Used in the production of beer, it is sometimes used in stews and soups. It has a chewy to soft texture depending on the amount of water used to cook it. It has good starch content that can be used to thicken soups or stews.
Buckwheat/Kasha: While not a type of wheat, buckwheat is served in the same manner as the other grains. A whole buckwheat kernel is referred to as a groat. What you typically see in stores is referred to as kasha which is hulled and roasted buckwheat groat. Kasha is reddish brown with a strong nutter flavor.
Oats: Second to rice, oats are the most widely used whole-grain product in North America. An oat groat is a whole oat kernel with the husk removed. Rolled oats are groats that have been steamed and rolled into flat flakes. Quick-cooking oats are just rolled oats cut into smaller pieces.
Quinoa: Native to the South American Andes, quinoa has an appearance of flattened spheres ringed with the germ. Quinoa should be rinsed before cooking to remove the bitter tasting coating that surrounds them. Cook quinoa like you would rice. Quinoa absorbs twice the amount of water than rice. To produce a nuttier flavor, toast the raw grain in a hot dry pan for 5 minutes. Store quinoa in the fridge or freezer if to be kept for long periods. Quinoa is known as a “super-grain” due to its ability to form a complete protein as well as having many vitamins and minerals.
Advanced Rice Cooking
How To Cook Risotto
Risotto is a dish that is prepared using Arborio rice. The starchiness of the rice gives a creamy, flowing texture. Preparing risotto takes patience. It is a dish that is only as good as the cook cooking it. Quality ingredients with careful attention will produce superior risotto. Making risotto requires that you have the foundational knowledge of the cooking methods as well as a firm understanding of consistency and al dente. A good risotto takes time and practice, and the only way to get better is to continually keep trying!
- Add cooking oil to a pan (Butter, olive oil, canola) and bring to medium temperature.
- Add any onions, garlic or other flavorings and saute to bring out the flavors for 1-2 minutes
- Add the arborio to the pan and stir to ensure the grains are coated entirely with oil.
- Add any white wine to deglaze and cook until fully absorbed
- Slowly add your liquid (Stock preferably) at around 4 oz or 120 ml at a time, stirring constantly. Wait until the liquid is almost completely absorbed before adding more. Do this until all the liquid has been used or the grains have become al dente.
- Remove from the heat and mount with any butter or add any cheeses, herbs or other flavorings.
How To Cook A Pilaf
Rice pilaf is very versatile and almost any combination of flavors can be used. It is a popular method in any culture that uses rice as a staple and is relatively easy to prepare. The most common form of pilaf involves using mirepoix and then simmering with stock to produce a flavorful dish.
- Heat cooking oil under medium-high heat
- Add any onions, garlic, or other flavorings and sweat for 1-2 minutes
- Add the grains and stir to ensure proper coating. Do not allow the grains to brown.
- Add all the cooking liquid at once. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for the appropriate time.
Cooking grains and starches need not be complicated. While some of these methods may require careful attention, they are not out of the realm of the average cook. What separates a spectacular cook from an average cook is not only using the proper method (That is foundational) but rather knowing and understanding flavors enough to create something that is unique and delicious. There are thousands of different ingredients to use in the culinary world and one only need to have the inspiration to create a truly professional dish.