How to Cook Any Whole Grain Like Popcorn

Barley, rice, quinoa, amaranth – you name it – can be quickly popped like corn. I just did this and it's delicious!

Popped buckwheat
Pooped buckwheat is adorable and delicious.

Treehugger / Melissa Breyer

I have always been an obsessively curious cook – and one that has forced whole grains into many many forms of awkward submission. How did I not know that just about any whole grain can be popped on the stovetop like popcorn?

I just saw this idea on Epicurious and thought, yeah right. And then little visions of puffed rice and popped wheat on cereal boxes started flitting through my memory and holy spelt! Of course! So I went to my cupboard and pulled out whatever grains were there and got popping.

While I would have loved to try sorghum, which is said to pop into a big popcorn-like poof, I had to settle for what was on hand, which wasn’t much, but a good enough variety to play with. The basic consensus is that most grains don’t completely turn inside out like corn does, but they do puff up and become edible and really delicious.

The How-To

It’s actually much easier than popcorn – no oil is required and you don’t need to cover the pot. I used a regular heavy saucepan on medium-high heat. Let the pan get quite hot, just before smoking – enough that a drop of water sizzles and quickly evaporates. Toss in the grains; no more than a single layer with room. Shake the pan so they don’t burn, and toast away. Some sizzle and crack and that’s all, some actually split and poof. I took each of mine off the heat when they stopped crackling, before they got too dark to avoid the bitterness of over-toasting. None of them took more than two minutes.

What I love about this is that whole grains are all too often dismissed because of long cooking times and heavier texture – popping makes mincemeat out of both of those excuses.

Here’s What I Tried

Popped grains of Barley, quinoa, Arborio rice, short grain brown rice, buckwheat
Left to right: Barley, quinoa, Arborio rice, short grain brown rice, buckwheat.  Treehugger / Melissa Breyer

Pearl barley: Raw pearl barley is very hard. I know because I just bit into one. But popped, wow. It’s toasty and nutty and soft but with some chewy texture. It’s really good! My pan may have been too hot and they browned before they all cracked, but you can see above that the ones that cracked definitely transformed. I wish had proper barley groats to try, alas!

Quinoa: Raw quinoa is so tiny that it’s not terribly offensive raw and won’t threaten the integrity of your teeth. But toasted and popped it’s wonderful. Mine didn’t exactly “pop” like corn, but it expanded slightly and crackled and jumped around exuberantly. The end result is toasty and crunchy with deep flavor.

Arborio rice: Well, I had some, so why not? I would never eat white rice raw – but puffed Arborio is wonderful! Since it’s white and already has the hull, bran and germ removed there isn’t that much flavor, but the texture is lovely and it will provide a nifty texture as a garnish.

Short-grain brown rice: Mmm. The texture is completely transformed and it tastes like rice cakes.

Buckwheat: This one is my favorite. Buckwheat turned into miniature little popcorn kernels. And although it looks like barely-popped popcorn, it tastes fully popped with a wonderful texture that is crunchy and tender at the same time. And tastes amazing – like a bowl of kasha meets perfect toast meets popcorn. It’s probably too little to eat by the handful, but that is what I’m doing as I write this, so...

Next up I need to start putting popped grains to work. They will be great to add crunch to salads and pop to grain dishes; they'll be cute on soup and good in yogurt and perfect in granola. I have a feeling they'll be showing up in everything I cook for a while.