Many of us know millet primarily as an ingredient in bird feed, but it’s also a highly nutritious and tasty staple that can complement a wide array of flavors and cuisines.
Like quinoa and amaranth, millet is actually a seed, but it’s classified as a grain in cookbooks because that’s the way it’s most often prepared. Gluten-free, and high in both protein and fiber, this subtle and slightly nutty-flavored traditional grain is enjoying a comeback in prepared foods, like cereals, breads and crackers, and as an alternative grain for healthy home cooking.
Millet is most often served like rice, although in Eastern Europe, China, India and Africa, it’s also used to make hot cereals; thin, unleavened breads; and even fermented beverages.
Millet seeds are tiny and almost perfectly spherical — about 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter. Although there are several types of commonly eaten millet, pearl millet, which is usually eaten in the United States, accounts for 50 percent of the world’s millet crop.
Typically sold whole, millet is also available in a cracked form (which is used in traditional couscous) and, increasingly, as a whole-grain flour.
Thanks to its mild, neutral flavor and delicate texture, millet combines well with a wide variety of dishes. So read on to learn all about it — then experiment and enjoy!
- Easy to digest, millet is gluten-free and rich in amino acids, especially leucine, cystine and phenylanaline.
- A 1-cup serving of cooked millet provides about 12 percent of the daily recommended amount of protein.
- The seed’s dietary fiber — 1 cup has about 9 percent of the daily recommended amount — helps keep the digestive tract operating smoothly and lowers the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
- Studies have shown that fiber in whole grains like millet helps protect women against gallstones and premenopausal women against breast cancer. It also supports cardiovascular health in postmenopausal women.
- It’s a great source of B vitamins, especially niacin (B3), thiamin (B1) and B6, which play critical roles in the body.
- Millet is also rich in minerals such as manganese (an enzyme activator that improves bone structure), magnesium (which lowers cholesterol and the risk of heart attack and type 2 diabetes), phosphorous (which helps the body efficiently process carbohydrates, fats and proteins), and copper (which supports good metabolism).
- Millet is a thyroid peroxidase inhibitor, so if you suffer from thyroid-related diseases, you may want to avoid it.
To bring out the nutty flavor in millet, first rinse and drain it in a fine mesh strainer, then place damp seeds in a dry sauté pan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the water has evaporated and the grains have separated, turned lightly brown and smell nutty (about four minutes).
Then cook as directed below.
- For a classic, ricelike texture, use 1 cup millet to 21/2 cups water or broth. Bring to boil, then reduce to a low flame, cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed.
- For a lighter, fluffier effect, cook with a little less water (1 cup millet to 2 cups liquid).
- For a dense, creamy texture (good for cereal or polenta), use more water (1 cup millet to 3 cups liquid).
Shopping and Storage Tips
- Millet seeds can go rancid quite quickly (a bitter flavor and aftertaste is your clue). Ground millet flour spoils even faster, so store it in the refrigerator. If you use only small quantities of millet flour at a time, you can buy the whole seeds and grind them into a coarse flour in a clean coffee grinder or spice mill.
- Prepackaged millet seeds are available in many grocery stores (often in the natural foods section), but you may opt for a bulk bin at a natural foods market where the inventory moves quickly, and where you can buy only as much as you need.
- Store millet in a covered container in a cool, dark place for up to two months. Large quantities can be frozen in a freezer bag for up to six months.
- Toss leftover cooked millet with chopped vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette for a quick and easy salad.
- For a tasty vegetarian entrée, combine warm millet with finely chopped vegetables and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Form into cakes or croquettes, then refrigerate on a baking sheet for 30 minutes. Bake in a 350-degree F oven for 20 minutes until golden brown, or cook in a sauté pan in a small amount of olive oil to brown on both sides.
- Millet makes fabulous polenta. Cook with sautéed onions and vegetable stock until thick and creamy, then finish with a strong cheese such as Roquefort or Parmesan to make it extra creamy. Millet polenta can be served hot, or pressed into a pan, cut when cool, then grilled or sautéed.
- Keep cooked millet in your refrigerator so you can add it to dishes on the fly. Try it instead of breadcrumbs when making burgers, meatloaf or meatballs.
- Try substituting ¼ cup millet flour for 1/4 cup wheat flour in your favorite banana-bread recipe. Millet flour can also be mixed into pancake or waffle batter, adding a rich, nutty flavor.
- Homemade whole-grain bread can be made even better with a ¼ cup of washed and toasted millet added into the flour mixture, providing fiber, texture and flavor.
Apricot Millet and Quinoa Hot Cereal
Millet and quinoa both provide a wealth of nutrients, which makes them a great choice for a hearty breakfast. This cereal offers a wonderful alternative to oatmeal. Leftovers can be pressed into muffin tins and cooled in the refrigerator. Remove the next day for a hand-held breakfast treat (can be enjoyed with nut butters, fruit jams, cream cheese or any other toppings you enjoy).
Makes four servings
- 1/2 cup millet
- 1/2 cup quinoa
- 2 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups apricot or papaya nectar
- 1 cup finely chopped dried apricots
- 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. ground mace
- 1/4 cup cottage cheese (feel free to substitute cream or buttermilk, if you’d like)
- 2 tbs. maple syrup
Bring water, papaya nectar, apricots, cinnamon and mace to a boil. Rinse the millet and quinoa in a fine mesh strainer and toast in a sauté pan over medium heat until lightly browned or toasted, about four minutes. Add grains to sauce pot, reduce heat and simmer. Cover pan and cook until liquid is absorbed and grains are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cottage cheese and maple syrup.