There’s something comforting about having a pantry stocked with whole grains. Just having them on hand, with intentions to put them to good use, feels nourishing.  

But you can’t eat intention — and because whole grains are not what I intuitively reach for in the kitchen, my answer is grain salads. They offer an easy, accessible way both to make use of the whole grains I’ve been neglecting and to explore the ones I don’t know as well.  

These types of room-temperature salads are just right for so many picnics, potlucks, desk lunches, even day hikes and captive dinners on the plane. They won’t suffer by being made in advance — the grains will actually absorb more flavor from the dressing as they sit, and, as long as you store add-ins (see “assembly,” below) on top, they won’t lose their textural appeal while they wait.

In the bigger picture, making grain salads provides good lessons in learning how to feel your way through a dish and adapt it to suit your own palate. They illustrate why, once you’re comfortable with a particular method or technique, you don’t have to follow a recipe to the letter.  

Creating a great grain salad can be organized into four key components: 

Grains. Virtually any grain can lay the foundation: wheat berries and their ancient relatives farro and einkorn, rye berries, sorghum, quinoa, millet, rice of all kinds. Even teff and amaranth, typically cooked to a porridge, can be refashioned as grain salads with careful preparation. Each offers a distinct set of flavor and texture characteristics, which means you could stick with your other salad components, switch only the grains around and end up with a different result every time. The key, when cooking them, is to err on the side of less water, so your grains end up pearly and distinct. Grains that have taken up too much water will not absorb dressing as well and can lead to a salad that tastes waterlogged. 

Supporting ingredients (vegetables, herbs, proteins). They can bring the most expression to the whole and can be a repository for whatever seasonal bounty you have on hand: slivered asparagus, wedges of radish and fresh peas in the spring; halved tomatoes and coins of zucchini in summer; fistfuls of whatever fresh herbs you have in plenty (I like abundant parsley, cilantro, chervil, and smaller amounts of tarragon, marjoram, oregano and thyme).  

But they are also perfectly nice with year-round supermarket offerings, such as carrots and scallions — two stalwarts that feature in so many of my cold-weather versions. Depending on their age and freshness, the vegetables can be served raw or they can be dunked in boiling water for a minute or two, which will leave them firm but diminish signs of crisper-drawer fatigue. If you have more time on your hands, you can also grill or roast them (and if you have leftover grilled or roasted vegetables, a grain salad can be a cozy second home). Proteins can include lentils or beans, baked tofu, cubed or crumbled cheese, hard-cooked eggs. If you eat meat, you could add shredded bits from a leftover roast, or flaked smoked fish. 

Dressing. You could use a good bottled dressing, but it’s easy (and typically better-tasting) to make your own. Because of the earthy foundation laid by the grains, a more acidic-tasting dressing is what I tend to prefer. A red- or white-wine vinaigrette or lemon dressing pairs well with most grains and accompaniments, but the choice of acid can also set a more distinct tone; think sherry vinegar for a salad with a Spanish tilt, or rice vinegar or fresh lime juice for something that leans Southeast Asian. Prepared condiments, such as harissa, tapenade, pounded anchovy and garlic, or a Chinese red chile-garlic sauce, are easy routes to extra dimension. Fresh, best-quality oils are important to use here, because any flaws (rancidity, plastic off-flavors) will be impossible to conceal.  

Add-ins. Toasted nuts or seeds, olives, capers, toasted and crumbled seaweed, pungent or salty cheeses, avocado, chopped dried fruit (apricots and golden raisins are particularly nice, with their sweet-tart balance) are optional, but such a good idea. They add texture and extra pops of flavor, making each bite (and the whole picture) a little more interesting. You can go overboard with these, so try combinations of two or three per salad. Examples: toasted almonds, green olives and golden raisins; seaweed and sesame seeds. 

Whatever the actual ingredients turn out to be, you’re always striving for a balance of texture and flavor. The proportions of each component will vary, depending on what you want to emphasize, but a salad composed of equal parts grains and vegetables by volume, with perhaps half as much protein and a modicum of accessory ingredients is a sound guide. 

A few notes on assembly:

  • Make sure all your moistened ingredients — rinsed vegetables, drained grains and legumes — are dry before combining them with the dressing or you will run the risk of diluting the salad’s flavor.
  • If you won’t be serving the salad right away, hold ingredients you want to prevent from wilting (scallion greens, arugula, herbs) on top of the salad before folding them in.
  • Sturdy leafy greens such as collards and mustards, on the other hand, can be nice to combine in advance, giving the dressing time to soften them somewhat.
  • Flavors are fullest at room temperature, so if possible, leave a refrigerated salad out on the counter to warm for an hour or so before serving. 

Here are three recipes to get you started: a salad of short-grain brown rice, its sweet, nubby grains, slivered carrots, scallions and cubes of baked tofu slicked with a toasty-tart soy-sesame vinaigrette; a texturally overachieving salad of quinoa, poblano peppers and zucchini, bound by a lemon dressing and crowned with avocado; and a version based on wheat berries and lentils, their profound earthiness lifted via briny green olives, creamy marcona almonds and a fiery (as you want it) harissa dressing. 

For each salad, I’ve provided a basic version, with suggestions for variations or additions. And now, you take it from here. Before long, you’ll need to replenish your grain stores. 

Horton is a freelance food writer. Questions about grain salads? She will join our Free Range online discussion on June 13 at noon:

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