Weeknight Vegetarian: Don’t cook these grains. Soak them.


Couscous With Beets, Greens and Garlic Yogurt, a Greek mezze transformed into a main-course plate. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Joe Yonan
Food and travel editor July 15

If you can’t cook, soak. That’s what I’ve started doing when I want to prepare grains without raising the temperature — the stove’s, the kitchen’s or mine.

It’s not a new idea. The technique goes back to traditional preparations for that classic Middle Eastern parsley-and-bulgur salad, tabbouleh. Rather than boil water and pour it over the bulgur (parcooked cracked wheat), traditionalists such as the eminent Claudia Roden call for the grain to be soaked for a longer time in cold water, then squeezed dry so it can absorb the salad’s other flavors.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool. View Archive

I didn’t have to make tabbouleh — as much as I love it — to realize the benefits of such a technique when concocting other warm-weather, grain-based dishes.

For instance, couldn’t I apply the same idea to another quick-to-cook “grain” (really a pasta), instant couscous? I used to start preparing it the same way as bulgur, by putting a teakettle on to boil, but no more. It soaks up cool water in less than an hour, while the bulgur — the coarse variety, anyway — soaks in about 90 minutes.

The best thing about this way of doing things, besides the no-heat benefit, is that you can combine grains with water (or vegetable broth, for more flavor), cover them and refrigerate them overnight — or all day. When I use a 1:1 ratio of grain to water, the grains soak up what they need and then stay put, not becoming soggy as they sit longer. That means they’re pretty much ready when you are, just the thing when you’re trying to keep the cooking as flexible and off-the-cuff as you can.


Bulgur, Vegetable and Watercress Salad comes together quickly after the grain is soaked. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

I’ve been using my soaked bulgur and couscous interchangeably, putting them to good use in two dishes: beets and their greens dolloped with garlicky yogurt, and a cold vegetable-and-chickpea salad doused with a sesame-miso dressing.

In case you’re wondering, this soak-instead-of-cook idea isn’t something you can do with just any old grain. Many of the bigger/tougher ones — barley, rice, farro and the like — will start to ferment and/or sprout long before they are tender enough to eat raw, so those require cooking.

As it happens, there’s plenty of evidence that pre-soaking improves the digestibility and cooking of whole grains. But that’s a topic for another column — and for a time when I’m not afraid to turn on the stove again.

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