In North America, most people are familiar with the staple crops: wheat, corn, soy, rice, and oats. Health-food lovers will know about barley, quinoa, buckwheat, and spelt. But do you know about amaranth? Perhaps you have heard the name, or seen it on a label for gluten-free bread. But what, exactly, is it? Is it good for us? And how the heck do you cook amaranth?
Consider this your amaranth cheat sheet.
What Is It?
Amaranth is an ingredient native to Central America; it was a staple food for the Aztecs and Mayans. It is often grouped among the family of grains despite it not technically being a cereal crop. (Cereal plants are grasses which yield a granule. This granule contains an endosperm, germ, and bran). Rather, amaranth is a tall, flowering plant that produces long strands of seeds—about the size of poppy seeds—which are rubbed or shaken off at the time of harvest.
Because these seeds are quite starchy, and mimic the taste, appearance, and cooking technique of grains, they are classified as pseudocereals. Like other pseudocereals, such as quinoa and buckwheat, amaranth is naturally gluten-free.
The greens of the amaranth plant are also edible; they are, however, more difficult to come across in standard grocery stores. They taste similar to other bitter greens like spinach, chard, mustard, and those of the beet plant. Many people don’t realize that florists often include amaranth in flower arrangements! The plant is long and exotic-looking and comes in a variety of color species: purple, red, green, and gold.
What are the benefits?
Because amaranth is naturally gluten-free, it has a low inflammatory and allergen rating. In comparison to grains, this pseudocereal is high in protein, iron, calcium, most of the B-Vitamins, and a variety of other minerals. Its amino acid profile makes it a good switch-up to your typical grain-based meals, as lysine and methionine are generally low in grains but high in amaranth. Thus, replacing and/or adding a scoop of amaranth to one of your weekly rice or pasta dishes can enhance the nutritional profile. Amaranth’s phytonutrients include carotenoids, saponins, and ionol-derived glycosides. And the cherry on the top? Amaranth is high in fiber.
What does it taste like?
Amaranth is nutty and wholesome. Flavor-wise, it tastes similar to brown rice or wheat berries. The texture, on the other hand, is very different. Amaranth is stickier and heavier than quinoa. The seeds have an outer shell that, unlike quinoa, do not completely soften or crack open when cooked. Only when chewing do they crackle in your mouth. Luckily, many people enjoy this texture! Some describe plain, cooked amaranth as having a caviar-like pop.
Like other grains and pseudocereals, amaranth will take on the flavour of whatever you put with it. It will absorb stocks and broths, blend with baking ingredients, or soak-up milk in a bowl of cereal.
How to cook amaranth
Amaranth is most often ground into flour and used in gluten-free baked goods. It is best to use amaranth flour in combination with other gluten-free flours to achieve a better texture. Or the whole seeds can be popped like popcorn when added dry to a hot pan. These ‘‘amaranth puffs’’ make a delicious cereal. Yet another option: Amaranth seeds or flour can be added as a thickening agent to soups, stews, and other grain dishes. It will “heavy” the load, add nutrition, and provide a nice texture. And, finally, yes: Amaranth can be eaten all on its own. The whole seeds can be boiled and simmered like quinoa to make a grain-based dish.
Simply boiled amaranth must be closely monitored, as it has a tendency to turn mushy and gelatinous. If you intend to make porridge, then this is no problem. (A bowl of thick and creamy whole-grains, with dried fruit and a pinch of cinnamon is delicious!) Savory applications, however, do best with a specific grain to water ratio, and a shorter cooking time. Also, because amaranth absorbs plain water more easily than salted water, it is wise to leave out the salt until it has finished cooking.
How to achieve the perfect texture
Below are the instructions to achieve your desired amaranth texture. For the liquid, you can use water, stock, milk, or a combination. As well, adding in a little puree—like tomatoes for savory dishes, or pumpkin and apple for sweet porridge—can be added to equal the necessary volume of liquid. Feel free to add spices, too. Thyme and dill for savory amaranth, or cinnamon and nutmeg for a sweet version.
Per 1 cup of grain…
- For fluffy amaranth: Bring 2 ½ cups of liquid and the amaranth to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook covered for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let absorb a final 5 minutes.
- For a porridge-y amaranth: Bring 3 cups of liquid and amaranth to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook covered for 20 minutes.
And now for a recipe…
SAVORY AMARANTH PILAF
- 2 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 cup of raw amaranth seeds
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 onion
- Salt and pepper to taste
- To serve: fresh parsley, olive oil, lemon juice
- Peel and mince the onions and garlic.
- Bring the stock, amaranth, onions, and garlic to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let continue cooking, covered, for another 5 minutes.
- Fluff with a fork (it will still be heavier and mushier than quinoa), season with salt and pepper, lots of fresh chopped parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, and a squirt of lemon juice.
Now that you know how to cook amaranth, serve it alongside:
- A farm fresh kale salad
- This stuffed portobello mushroom recipe
- A no-carb dessert that is unexpectedly delicious: Avocado and banana trifle
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