Cereals and Pulses

  • Post last modified:6 July 2023
  • Reading time:33 mins read
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Cereal Varieties

Grains form the base of the Food Grid Pyramid, and nutritionists are constantly nagging us to eat more of them. Sure they’re a bit bland, but they’re high in nutrients, low in fat, and “dirt is cheap.”

Cooks usually consign grains to supporting roles, letting them absorb the flavors of other ingredients while adding texture and body to food. It often helps to toast grains briefly before cooking them to bring out the flavor and speed up the cooking time.

Most grains have been processed (post-harvest handling) by the time they reach us. The first step at the mill is to remove the inedible outer hull, yielding what’s called a whole grain, berry, or groat. Whole grains are nutritious, but they’re chewy and slow to cook. To counter that, the nutritious bran layer beneath the hull is sometimes scoured off as well, resulting in a pearled or polished grain. Whole or polished grains are then sometimes ground, rolled, or chopped into flakes, small grits, meals, or flour. The following are major cereal grains used worldwide:


Rice is the most important food crop in Asia. It can be cooked whole and served with stir-fries, sauces, and curries, or made into flour, wine, Japnese Saké cakes, vinegar, milk, flakes, noodles, paper, and tea.

Rice is classified mostly by the size of the grain. Long-grain rice is long and slender. The grains stay separate and fluffy after cooking, so this is the best choice if you want to serve rice as a side dish, or as a bed for sauces. Medium-grain rice is shorter and plumper and works well in paella and risotto. Short-grain rice is almost round, with moist grains that stick together when cooked. It’s the best choice for rice pudding and molded salads.

Other specialty varieties include Spanish rice for paella, glutinous rice for sushi and rice balls, and risotto rice for risotto. Most varieties are sold as either brown or white rice, depending on how they are milled. Brown rice retains the bran that surrounds the kernel, making it chewier, nuttier, and richer in nutrients.

White rice lacks the bran and germ but is more tender and delicate. It’s less nutritious than brown rice, but you can partially compensate for that by getting enriched white rice. Brown rice takes about twice as long to cook as white rice. Converted rice is beige. It tastes a lot like white rice, but it has more nutrients. Instant rice is white rice that’s been precooked and dehydrated when needed to serve, it can be rehydrated and served. It is convenient but expensive and bland.

1Basmati riceThis aromatic, long-grain rice is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and is especially popular in India. The cooked grains are dry and fluffy, so they make a nice bed for curries and sauces. Basmati is available as either white or brown rice.
2Instant rice (precooked rice)This is white rice that’s been precooked and dehydrated so that it cooks quickly. It’s relatively expensive and you sacrifice both flavor and texture. White instant rice cooks in about five minutes, and brown in about ten.
3Jasmine rice (Thai basmati rice)Jasmine rice is long-grain rice produced in Thailand that’s sometimes used as a cheap substitute for basmati rice. It has a subtle floral aroma. It’s sold as both brown and white rice.
4Bhutanese red riceThis red short-grain rice is a staple in rural areas of Bhutan. It has a strong, nutty flavor and is best served with other assertive ingredients. It cooks much faster than brown rice.
5Black forbidden riceThis has short grains which turn beautiful indigo when cooked.
6Glutinous (Chinese sweet rice)Despite its name, this rice isn’t sweet and it doesn’t contain gluten. Instead, it’s a very sticky, short-grain rice that is widely used by Asians to make sushi and various desserts.
7Himalayan red riceThis is a Himalayan version of our longgrain brown rice, only the bran is red, not brown.
Rice Varieties


Wheat is a domesticated grass from the Levant that is cultivated worldwide. Globally, wheat is an important human food, its production is second only to maize among the cereal crops; rice ranks third. Wheat grain is a staple food used to make flour for leavened, flat, and steamed breads; cookies, cakes, pasta, noodles, and couscous, and for fermentation to make beer, alcohol, vodka, or biofuel.

Wheat is planted to a limited extent as a forage crop for livestock, and the straw can be used as fodder for livestock or as a construction material for roofing thatch.

Wheat’s got a pleasant, nutty flavor and lots of nutrients, but it is prized most for being rich in gluten, the stuff that makes baked goods rise. Most wheat is ground into flour, but whole or cracked grains are used in pilafs and salads, and wheat flakes are made into hot cereals or granolas.

Wheat contains gluten which makes the dough rise. Wheat with low gluten is used for biscuits and high gluten content for breads. Wheat contains relatively more protein than rice. Wheat is also consumed as a breakfast cereal with milk and sugar. The different varieties of wheat are discussed below:

1Wheat berries (hard wheat berries)These are wheat kernels that have been stripped only of their inedible outer hulls. They’re nutritious, but they take hours to cook.
2Soft wheat berries (pastry berries)These are softer than hard wheat berries.
3Cracked wheatThese are cracked whole wheat kernels. They cook faster than wheat berries, but not as fast as bulgur.
4Wheat flakes (rolled wheat)This is wheat that’s been steamed, rolled, and flaked. Wheat flakes are often cooked as a hot cereal or added raw to granola mixes.
Wheat Varieties


Corn is the only grain that’s commonly eaten as a fresh vegetable. Native to the Americas, corn is a great source of vitamin A, fiber, and other nutrients.

Sweet corn is char-broiled or steamed and eaten with salted butter. Baby corn is used as a vegetable. Corn also contains lysine, an essential amino acid. There are some high lysine corn in cultivation. Corn is also an important source of edible oil called corn oil which is used worldwide. Corn flour is also used as a thickening agent in food preparation. Corn chips are also a popular snack food.

1Baby corn (Chinese baby corn)These are tiny ears of corn that are eaten cob and all. Asian cooks like to add them to stir-fried dishes, and they often show up in salad bars. It’s hard to find them fresh, but many markets sell them in cans or jars.
2PopcornAir-popped popcorn is a very popular snack that’s high in fiber and low in fat – assuming that you don’t add lots of butter and salt.
3Purple corn (Maiz morado)Peruvians use this to make beautiful purple drinks and puddings.
4Indian CornIt is more of an ornamental corn used for decoration during festival seasons. Kernals or the cob variation in color are therefore used in decoration and for eating.
5Nixtamal (uncooked posole)This is made with dried corn that’s been simmered in a solution of lime and water. This loosens the hulls from the corn kernels and makes the kernels softer and more nutritious. Mexican cooks grind nixtamal into masa, which they use to make tortillas, the Mexican version of chappatis.
Corn Varieties


Oats are highly nutritious and filled with cholesterol-fighting soluble fiber. They also have a pleasant, nutty flavor. Oat is the only cereal containing a globulin or legume-like protein, avenalin, as the major (80%) storage protein. Globulins are characterized by water solubility; because of this property, oats may be turned into milk but not into bread.

Most of us are familiar with rolled oats, which are used as a hot breakfast cereal and cookie ingredient, but many health food stores also stock oat groats and oat bran.

1Instant oats (instant oatmeal)These are very thin, precooked oats that need only be mixed with a hot liquid. They usually have flavorings and salt added. They’re convenient, but not as chewy and flavorful as slower-cooking oats.
2Oat groatsOat groats are minimally processed– only the outer hull is removed. They’re very nutritious, but they’re chewy and need to be soaked and cooked for a long time.
3Quick oatsThese are thin flakes of oatmeal that cook up in about three or four minutes. They’re a good choice for oatmeal cookies. Sweetened porridge with milk is a good breakfast cereal.
4Rolled oats (oatflakes)These are oat groats that are steamed, rolled, and flaked so that they cook quickly. They’re often cooked as a breakfast cereal, added raw to granola or muesli mixes, or used to make oatmeal cookies. Regular rolled oats take about five minutes to cook.
5Steel-cut oatsThese are groats that have been chopped into small pieces. They’re chewier than rolled oats and often preferred for hot oatmeal cereals and muesli.
Oat Varieties


Barley’s been feeding humans for millennia, though it fell out of favor during the last one as people came to see it as low-brow peasant fare. It is most often used in soups and stews, where it serves as both a puffy grain and a thickener, but it also makes a nice side dish or salad. At most markets, you’ll have to choose between two types of barley. Hulled barley is the most nutritious since only the tough outer hulls are polished off. Pearl barley is polished some more so that the outer bran layer is also scrubbed off. It is less nutritious, but more popular since it’s not as chewy as hulled barley and it cooks faster.

Barley is also the most important ingredient in beer-making universally. Malted barley is fermented to produce refreshing nutritive beer with hops. Both honey-colored clear liquid beer and a stronger black color stout are prepared. Unfermented sweet barley malt is also a popular drink. Barlet water is also known to have diuretic properties.

1Hulled barley (barley groats)This is the least processed form of barley, with just the outermost hull removed. While it’s chewier and slower to cook than more processed forms of barley, it’s rich in fiber.
2Pearl barley (pearled barley)This is the most common form of barley, but not the most nutritious. While hulled barley loses only the thick outer hull in the milling process, pearl barley is stripped of the nutritious bran layer as well, leaving just the “pearl” inside. Despite this, it’s still fairly nutritious. It takes about an hour to cook.
3Quick-cooking barleyThis is similar to pearl barley in taste and nutrients, but it only takes about 10 minutes to cook since it’s been steamed. It’s often served either hot as a side dish or cold in a salad.
4Sprouting barleyThis is unrefined barley, used for making barley sprouts. Don’t try to cook with it– it’s got a very thick hull.
Barley Varieties

Other Cereals

Other Cereals that are important in some places, but that have little production globally include:

1BuckwheatBuckwheat is loaded with nutrients, especially protein, and it has a nutty, earthy flavor. It’s most commonly ground into dark, gritty flour and used to make everything from pancakes to soba noodles. Some Buckwheat varieties are Buckwheat grits, buckwheat groats, and kasha.
2RyeRye isn’t as nutritious as other grains, but it’s hard enough to grow in very cold climates. This has made it a staple of Northern Europeans, who use it to make bread, crackers, and whiskey. It has a distinctive, hearty flavor that’s best when combined with other assertive ingredients. Some rye varieties are rye berries, rye flakes, etc.
3TriticaleTriticale is a wheat-rye cross that’s higher in protein than either of its parents. It has a pleasant enough wheat-like flavor, but it’s prized mostly for its hardiness and ability to grow in poor soils.
4Black QuinoaQuinoa cooks quickly, has a mild flavor, and a slightly crunchy texture. Rinse off its bitter coating before using.
5Pearl MilletUnhulled millet is widely used as birdseed, but many health food stores carry hulled millet for human consumption. It’s nutritious and gluten-free and has a very mild flavor that can be improved by toasting the grains.
6RagiIt is a ting round seeded mustard-like grain which is ground into a powder and used in the production of porridge. Ragi malt is also a popular high-protein, high-energy diet.
Other Cereals


Pulses are annual leguminous crops yielding from one to 12 grains or seeds of variable size, shape, and color within a pod. They are used for both food and feed.

The term “pulses” is limited to crops harvested solely for dry grain, thereby excluding crops harvested green for food (green peas, green beans, etc.) which are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soybeans and groundnuts) and leguminous crops (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa) that are used exclusively for sowing purposes. Both clover and alfalfa are excellent forage crops for animal feeding.

Pulses contain carbohydrates, mainly starch (55-65 percent of the total weight); proteins, including essential amino acids (18 – 25 percent, much higher than cereals); and fat (1 – 4 percent). The remainder consists of water and inedible substances. Many also contain harmful alkaloids. Legume crops also fix atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the soil where grown.

Varieties of Pulses

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations recognizes 11 primary pulses. The pulses which are widely used are discussed below:

Dry Beans

Dry bean is high in starch, protein, and dietary fiber and is an excellent source of iron, potassium, selenium, molybdenum, thiamine, vitamin B6, and folic acid.

Dry beans will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place, but as time passes, their nutritive value and flavor degrade and cooking times lengthen. Dried beans are almost always cooked by boiling, often after having been soaked for several hours. While the soaking is not strictly necessary, it shortens cooking time and results in more evenly textured beans.

In addition, discarding one or more batches of soaking water leaches out hard-to-digest complex sugars that can cause flatulence. There are several methods including overnight soaking, and the power soak method, which is to boil beans for three minutes, then set them aside for 2-4 hours, then drain and discard the water and proceed with cooking.

Common beans take longer to cook than most pulses: cooking times vary from one to four hours but are substantially reduced with pressure cooking. The traditional spice to use with beans is epazote, which is also said to aid digestion.

Dry beans may also be bought pre-cooked and canned as refried beans, or whole with water, salt, and sometimes sugar.

1Black beanThese beans are a staple of Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, where they’re used to make side dishes, soups, bean dips, and salads. They have a strong, earthy flavor, so they’re often combined with assertive flavorings.
2White kidney bean (Fazolia bean)It is used in Italian dishes in minestrone or bean salads. It’s prized for its smooth texture and nutty flavor.
3Fava bean (butter bean)These meaty, strongly flavored beans have been around for ages, and they work well in side dishes, soups, or salads. The larger ones are the best.
4Flageolet (pronounced: flah-joh-LAY)The French make good use of this small, creamy bean, often serving it with lamb.
5Lablab beanThese beans can be brown, reddish brown, or cream-colored, and they’re easily identified by a white seed scar that runs along one edge. They have a pleasant nutty flavor, but they need to be soaked and peeled before cooking.
6Mung bean (green gram)Whole mung beans are small and green, and they’re often sprouted to make bean sprouts. The sprouts are crunchy and are used in salads or snack foods.
7Rattlesnake BeanThe rattlesnake bean gets its name from the way its bean pods twist and snake around the vines and poles. These beans are good for making chili, refried beans, soups, or casseroles.
8Red Kidney Bean (rajma)These attractive and versatile beans are often used in chili, refried beans, soups, and salads.
Dry Beans Varieties

Dry Broad Beans

Broad beans are eaten while still young and tender, enabling harvesting to begin as early as the middle of spring for plants started under glass or over-wintered in a protected location, but even the main crop sown in early spring will be ready from mid to late summer. Horse beans left to mature fully, are usually harvested in the late autumn.

The beans can be fried, causing the skin to split open, and then salted and/or spiced to produce a savory crunchy snack. These are popular in China, Peru (habeas salads), Mexico (habeas con chile), and in Thailand (where their name means “open-mouth nut”).

Broad beans are rich in tyramine and thus should be avoided by those taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors. The different varieties of dry broad beans are Horse bean, Broad bean, and Field bean.

Dry Pea

Dry pea is an annual pulse, legume crop that is consumed throughout the globe. It is usually used in split form and forms an integral part of various cuisines of the world. The pea is obtained as seeds from the pod of the pea plant and is dried in the sunlight to produce a dry pea. This crop is considered to be the best crop for nitrogen-fixing of the soil as it converts nitrogen into nitrogen nodules in large numbers, making the soil fertile. Two types of dry peas are cultivated – dry green cotyledon and dry yellow cotyledon.

Pea is one of the most popular food crops in the world as they are very nutritious and also an easy-to-grow crop. Peas are excellent sources of proteins, carbohydrates, and other vitamins. The most commonly used peas are Garden peas and Protein peas.


The chickpea (also called Indian pea, chana, or channa) is an edible legume. The garbanzo is often used as a source of protein by vegetarians and vegans since it has one of the highest protein levels of all plants.

Chickpeas are a helpful source of zinc, folate, and protein. They are also very high in dietary fiber and hence a healthy source of carbohydrates for persons with insulin sensitivity or diabetes. Chickpeas are low in fat and most of this is polyunsaturated.

There are two main kinds of chickpeas:

  • Desi, which has small, darker seeds and a rough coat, is cultivated mostly in the Indian subcontinent, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Iran.

  • Kabuli, which has lighter-colored, larger seeds and a smoother coat, is mainly grown in Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Afghanistan, and Chile. It was also introduced during the 18th century to the Indian subcontinent)

Dry Cowpea

The dry cowpea also called black-eyed pea or blackeye bean or China bean or Southern pea is originally from China. These chewy peas were common fare on slave plantations. They’re still popular in the South, where they’re traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day or combined with rice and sausage to make Hoppin’ John. They don’t need soaking and cook fairly quickly. If overcooked they get mushy.

Pigeon Pea

Pigeon peas are both a food crop (dried peas, flour, or green vegetable peas) and a forage/cover crop. The dried peas may be sprouted briefly, and then cooked, for a flavor different from the green or dried peas. Sprouting also enhances the digestibility of dried pigeon peas via the reduction of indigestible sugars that would otherwise remain in the cooked dried peas.

In India, split pigeon peas (toor dal) are one of the most popular pulses along with chickpeas (chana), urad, and mung. It is also called ‘tuvara parippu’ in Kerala. In south India, a popular dish sambhar is made with this. Dal is also made with pigeon peas.

Pigeon peas are nutritionally important, as they contain high levels of protein and the important amino acids methionine, lysine, and tryptophan. In combination with cereals, pigeon peas make a well-balanced human food.


Like other legumes, lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fiber, but they have the added advantage of cooking quickly. Lentils have a mild, often earthy flavor, and they’re best if cooked with assertive flavorings. A variety of lentils exist with colors that range from yellow to red-orange to green, brown, and black. Red, white, and yellow lentils are decorticated, i.e. they have their skins removed.

Lentils are used to prepare an inexpensive and nutritious soup all over Europe and North and South America, sometimes combined with some form of chicken or pork. They are frequently combined with rice, which has a similar cooking time. A lentil and rice dish is referred to in the Middle East as mujaddara or mejadra. Rice and lentils are also cooked together in khichdi, a popular Indian dish.

A large percentage of Indians are vegetarian and lentils have long been part of the indigenous diet as a common source of protein. Usually, lentils are boiled to a stew-like consistency with vegetables and then seasoned with a mixture of spices to make many side dishes such as sambar, rasam, and dal, which are usually served over rice and roti.

Apart from a high level of protein, lentils also contain dietary fiber, vitamin B1, and minerals. Red (or pink) lentils contain a lower concentration of fiber than green lentils (11% rather than 31%). The different varieties of lentils are given below:

1Red lentilThe most common type of red lentil is the Red Chief. It’s a lovely salmon pink in its dried form, but it turns golden when cooked. These lentils cook faster than others. They’re best in purées or soups.
2Toor dal (tuvar dal)Whole toor lentils are yellow with tan jackets, but they’re usually sold skinned and split. They have a mild, nutty flavor, and they’re often cooked as a side dish or ground into flour.
3Urad dal (black lentil)These lentil-like beans have black skins covering creamy white interiors. Whole urad dal derives its strong, earthy flavor from the black skins and is often used in curries. Split urad dal retains the skins and also has a strong flavor. Skinned and split urad dal is creamy white and somewhat bland.
4Skinned and split black lentilsThese are black lentils (or urad dal) that have been split and skinned. They’re much milder than unskinned.
5Urad dal (split black lentils)These are black lentils (or urad dal) that have been split but not skinned. They’re not as mild as white lentils, which have been split and skinned.
6French green lentilsThese choice lentils were originally grown in the volcanic soils of Puy in France, but now they’re also grown in North America and Italy. They’re especially good in salads since they remain firm after cooking and have a rich flavor. They cook a bit slower than other lentils.
Lentil Varieties

Bambara Groundnut

Bambara (also spelled Bambarra) groundnut has many common names such as Congo groundnut, Congo goober, Madagascar groundnut, earth pea, Baffin pea, voandzou, nzama (Malawi), and underground bean. Bambara groundnuts are also popularly known as jugo beans. Jugo bean is indigenous to West Africa but is now grown widely as a crop in the tropical regions of Africa.

The Bambara groundnut ripens its pods underground, much like the peanut (also called groundnut). They can be eaten fresh or boiled after drying. The pods are round, wrinkled, and over ½ inch long. Each contains one or two seeds that are round, smooth, and very hard when dried. The seeds may be cream, brown, red, mottled, or black-eyed.


The yellow legume seeds of lupins, commonly called lupin beans, were quite popular with the Romans and they spread the cultivation of them throughout the Roman Empire; hence common names like lupini in Romance languages. Lupin beans are commonly sold in a salty solution in jars (like olives and pickles) and can be eaten with or without the skin. Lupins are also cultivated as forage and grain legumes.

Newly bred variants of sweet lupins are grown extensively in Germany; they lack bitter taste and require no soaking in salt solution. The seeds are used for different foods from vegan sausages to lupin-tofu or baking-enhancing lupin flour. Given that lupin seeds have the full range of essential amino acids and that they, contrary to soy, can be grown in more temperate to cool climates, lupins are becoming increasingly recognized as a cash crop alternative to soy. Lupin milk is a milk substitute made from lupin protein.

Article Reference
  • Edyth Young Cottrell (2004), The Oats, Peas, Beans & Barley Cookbook, TEACH Services, Inc.

  • Ruth Berolzheimer (1988), Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook, Perigee.

  • David A. V. Dendy (2001), Cereals and Cereal Products, Springer.

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