Going with the grains

by Donna Berry
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Chicken with ragu sauce
Ancient grains have been largely unchanged since the beginning of time.
 

Ancient grains add culinary adventure and great-tasting whole grain nutrition to battered and breaded meat and poultry, with each grain delivering unique flavors and textures. The grains also provide a back-to-basics approach to food preparation, a wholesomeness embraced by today’s consumers.

Ancient grains are defined as grains that have been largely unchanged since the beginning of time. This definition suggests modern varieties of corn, rice and wheat, which are products of years of selective breeding, are not ancient grains, according to The Whole Grain Council. Thus, by definition, ancient grains are not genetically modified, enabling a non-GMO claim. Most ancient grains are also available in organic versions. Further, many ancient grains are gluten free, making them possible substitutes for wheat flours for gluten-free product development.

Ancient grains present an opportunity to get creative with breadings and batters on meat and poultry. Such innovative products appeal to consumers who want to experiment and explore new tastes and textures.

At the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show (NRA), held May 20-23 in Chicago, acclaimed menu analyst and trends tracker Nancy Kruse, president of Atlanta, Georgia-based The Kruse Company, explained to culinary professionals and chefs that schnitzel is making a comeback on menus. She said that consumers appreciate the worldly nature of different treatments of meat.

President's Choice Quinoa meal
Quinoa has an unusually high ratio of protein to fiber and is very high in potassium.
 

“Chicken schnitzel is especially popular,” she said. “Katsu is Japanese schnitzel. In other words, it’s breaded and fried meats, and I’m seeing it appearing on mass market menus.”

The breadings on these meats present an excellent opportunity to be creative with ancient grains. There’s nothing particularly “Japanese” about katsu, other than the fact that it is established in the Japanese food culture as a comfort staple food, much like pizza is to Americans. Katsu is usually chicken or pork cutlets with a crisp breading, typically panko-style bread crumbs. These, of course, can include ancient grains for added flavor, color and texture.

While most meat and poultry processors have heard of the many ancient grains, they don’t typically have experience working with them. The good news is that ancient grains are very versatile. Most are available as a flour and readily replace wheat flour. For texture and visual appeal, coarse ground and flake options are available, too. These identifiable grain forms maintain a desirable crunch when baked or fried. Often a natural antioxidant such as rosemary extract may need to be added to slow oxidation of the healthful fatty acids in the ancient grains.

Many ancient grains come sprouted, which adds depth to the flavor of these already flavorful grains. Sprouting also results in biological changes to the grain, unlocking inherent nutrition.

Kirkwood
Ancient grains are very versatile and most are available as a flour. 
 

With batter, which is a liquid mixture usually based on one or more flours and starch (80 percent to 90 percent of the total system) combined with one or more liquids, it is often necessary to blend grains to achieve the best texture and appearance. Most often the system includes a leavening agent (i.e., sodium bicarbonate, egg or even seltzer or beer) to aerate the batter as it cooks. The viscosity of batter ranges from thick, as in the corn bread-like covering of a hot dog to quite thin, as in the light tempura layer on Asian chicken strips. Batters are an ideal carrier for all types of flavors, including sweet and savory herbs and spices, as well as very small fruit and vegetable particulates.

Breading, on the other hand, is a dry coating made from bread crumbs or a mixture of grains. This system is typically combined with seasonings and larger, identifiable flavor particulates. A breading is designed to stick to the surface of the protein when it is cooked, whereas a batter typically puffs up around the protein. When heat is applied, the breading is what dries out instead of the protein inside. Breading is typically applied with the assistance of an ingredient system that helps adhere the breading to the protein. The system is usually determined by how the protein will be cooked.

Both battered and breaded products often undergo a pre-dusting, which is a preliminary coating of a fine layer of flour, starch or a protein (think egg white wash) to prevent moisture release from the protein. Poorly controlled moisture yields a soggy product and fryer blow-outs, which is where the product bursts through the coating. This pre-dust system can be designed to include the adherence ingredients required by the breading.

Ancient grains are an easy way to differentiate and premiumize in the crowded marketplace. Such products are increasingly appearing on restaurant menus and in retail heat-and-eat departments as well as freezers.

Common Ancient Grains and Their Culinary Profile
amaranth grains
Amaranth

 

An Aztec grain that is high in fiber and protein, as well as multiple vitamins and minerals. It has a sticky, gelatinous texture and a nutty, slightly earthy and spicy flavor with peppery notes.

 

barley
Barley

A gluten-containing grain that packs in the fiber, some of which is the form of beta-glucan, a soluble fiber with recognized health benefits. Mildly flavored, the pearled variety is chewy, while whole barley very chewy.

 

buckwheat
Buckwheat

 

Not part of the wheat family and is gluten free. It’s a dark red grain with an intense roasted, nutty flavor.

 

spelt
Einkorn, Farro and Spelt

 

Basically the same grain. Names vary because of country of origin. Because of this grain’s low-gluten content, it is often favored by those who cannot tolerate wheat. However, because of the low-gluten content, this grain is not typically used in bread production. It contains about 40% more protein and 15% less starch than commercial wheat, and is abundant in B vitamins and trace minerals, including iron. It has a nutlike flavor with a hint of sweetness, making it very versatile.

 

kamut
Kamut

 

A wheat with about 30% more protein and more healthful fatty acids than traditional wheat. Though it’s not gluten free, some people who are allergic to wheat can tolerate kamut. It has a chewy texture and buttery, nutty, sweet flavor.

 

millet
Millet

 

A tiny, gluten-free seed-like grain that is easy to digest. It has a bland, neutral flavor.

 

plain oats
Oats

 

Inherently gluten free; however, commercially rolled oats are often processed in facilities with wheat, making contamination possible. The steel-cut version is considered the “ancient” variety, as it is minimally processed and has a coarser texture and nuttier flavor than rolled oats.

 

quinoa
Quinoa

 

A tiny, disk-shaped seed that is recognized as the only grain containing all of the essential amino acids in a healthful balance, rendering it a complete protein. It has an unusually high ratio of protein to fiber and is very high in potassium. This versatile light grain has a slight nutty flavor.

 

sorghum
Sorghum

 

Similar to corn. This gluten-free grain is light in color with a slightly sweet mild flavor.

 

teff
Teff

 

A gluten-free grain best known for being very high in calcium and fiber. It has a sweet, nutty, molasses-like flavor.

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