Ingredient: It's Time to Meet Millet

As some of you who follow me on social media may know, I recently did a weight-loss thing. I hit my goal of losing 30 pounds (yay!) and I am in the process of “short-term maintenance”. This part of the plan involves adding some foods back into my diet. One thing this includes is a limited number of grains. And one of the grains that’s at the top of my list is millet. Have you ever heard of millet? Have you ever used it? Since I now get to include some carbs back into my diet I thought I’d introduce you to this wonderful ancient grain.

A Little Background

One look at millet and you’ll probably say “Hey, this looks like that stuff that’s in bird seed!”. And you’d be right. Millet is one of the most common seeds used in bird seed. But, it’s also been used for centuries as a human food crop. It’s an ancient grain that was cultivated in East Asia as far back as 10,000 years ago. 

Millet in the field

Millet in the field

Millet is actually a broader term that is used to cover about 500 species of grass seeds.  For those of you who are familiar with millet, pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is probably the one you are most likely to have run across. It’s the most widely produced millet worldwide. As a crop, millet uses relatively little water and so is considered drought-resistant - which is most likely why over the centuries it has been cultivated in places that have been known for periodic droughts like Africa. India is the world’s largest producer. China is also a large producer.

Millet is a good source of some very important nutrients, including copper, manganese, phosphorus, and especially magnesium. It’s high in antioxidant activity as well.

One other thing to know. It's been reported that millet does contain goitrogens (substances in food that suppress thyroid activity and can lead to goiter). This can lead to hypothyroidism. Typically, goitrogens in foods are reduced as they cook. However, in millet their effect reportedly is increased. Just something to know. But, when used in moderation millet will have no negative effect on your health.

Millet has a mild flavor that pairs well with other foods. It has a sweet nutty, almost corn-like flavor, and is considered to be one of the most digestible and non-allergenic grains available. Millet has a soft, light texture. Think of something similar to quinoa. And they are very small seeds, which makes them quick-cooking as well.

Cooking with Millet

There are two primary ways people use millet (yes, other than as bird seed) - as a grain side-dish (like rice or quinoa) or as a creamier, polenta-like porridge.

When making millet as a side-dish, I love to toast millet before I cook it to really bring out the nutty flavor. To do this I start with a large, dry saucepan. I toast the raw millet over medium heat for about 4-5 minutes. The grains will make a "popping" sound and turn a rich golden brown. You will definitely smell the nuttiness. But be careful not to let them burn.

From this point on cooking millet is much like cooking other grains. You add your liquid (water or broth, two cups for each cup of dry millet) to the saucepan, give it a good stir, turn the heat up to high, and bring it to a boil. You can add a pinch of salt when you add the liquid as well. Once the millet is boiling, lower the heat to low, cover, and simmer. At this point you can also add a little butter (maybe just a tablespoon). It’s not required, but the butter does seems to help keep the grains from sticking together. The grains will absorb the liquid as they simmer (and a little bit after they are finished). Don’t stir TOO much. I think they do best when you mostly just let them simmer. Let them simmer for about 15 minutes. When the liquid is almost completely absorbed, remove the millet from the heat and let it stand for about ten minutes (covered). This will allow the grains to absorb the rest of the liquid. Just before serving, fluff the grains with a fork. One cup of millet usually makes about 2 1/2 cups of finished grain. 

If you are making the creamier, more porridge-like millet, use three cups of water instead of two. And stir it a little more often as it cooks. The end result will be a lot like polenta. For instance, once it’s cooked you could pour it into a pan, press it, and let it cool. Then you can cut it and then sauté, fry, or broil it. Or the creamier millet can be eaten as a breakfast cereal like oatmeal. 

One thing I have noticed is that millet doesn’t store very well. It just seems to get pretty dry, pretty quickly. At least that's been my experience. So, I just make what I'm going to use.

If you haven't discovered millet yet, I urge you to give it a try. You'll love it's lighter, nutty taste. I think it's a nice alternative to rice. Give it a try. You can find it at most stores. If your normal grocery doesn't have it, any natural foods store will. Check it out.

If you liked this post, you may also want to check these out:
- "Ingredient: The Vanilla vs. Vanilla Smackdown"
- "Season it Up!"
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