Welcome to the world of amaranth, another ancient grain making a modern-day comeback. A relatively unknown powerhouse until recently, amaranth is now rapidly climbing the ‘superfood’ charts, emerging as one of the hottest trends in the food industry.
Guide to Cooking and Baking with Amaranth
So why all the hype about amaranth? This guide to cooking and baking with amaranth will give you all the info you need to know to add amaranth to your recipes, dishes, and foodservice menus. Whether you are a gourmet chef, professional baker, caterer, or restaurant owner, there are many great reasons to sink your teeth into this prized crop. Pleasing to the palate, it also meets the needs of almost all of today’s consumers. Amaranth is not only gluten-free and wheat-free, making it suitable for customers with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, but it packs more nutrients than almost any other grain. It is also easy to add to recipes, has a versatile texture depending how it is prepared, boasts an earthy, nutty flavor that works well in a variety of dishes, and is one of the most impressive plant-based foods to hit the market.
Grains, Pseudograins, and Pseudocereals
First, let’s clear up some of the confusion in the food industry regarding grains, pseudograins and pseudocereals. Similar to quinoa and buckwheat, amaranth is not technically a grain (such as oats, wheat, corn, and rice) but is from the botanical family classified as a pseudocereal/grain. This means it is used and cooked like other grains and has a similar nutritional profile. However, what makes pseudocereals such as amaranth stand out from the pack is that unlike most grains, they are ‘complete proteins,’ containing all nine amino acids required by the human body.
So, what else do we know about Amaranth? One thing we know for certain is that it has been consumed for millennium, dating back 8,000 years when it was a dietary staple for the ancient Aztecs and Incas. Originating in Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala, where it is still cultivated today, in is now grown in India, China, Nepal, parts of Africa, and is emerging in North America.
Giving us a more anecdotal history is Dr. Rob Myers, a plant scientist at the University of Missouri and author of the book, Amaranth: An Ancient Grain and Exceptionally Nutritious Food: “In 1519, when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Aztec empire’s capital city of Tenochtitlan, amaranth – sometimes called the ‘food of immortality’ – was the second most important food crop in the Americas after maize. However, the Spanish invaders quickly began to restrict production of the crop in order to defeat the Aztec people and suppress their culture and traditions…” Other accounts add that amaranth was believed to have supernatural powers, hence when Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez and his men arrived in the New World in the 16th century to convert the Aztecs to Christianity, one tactic was to forbid foods such as amaranth that were part of ‘heathen’ ceremonies and punish anyone growing or possessing the seed. Luckily for us, they failed to entirely wipe out the crop.
Amaranth Agricultural Advantages
According to Dr. Myers, who has been growing amaranth for three decades and is one of the foremost authorities on the subject in the United States, amaranth has several agricultural advantages over other major crops. Foremost is its high drought tolerance and low water requirements – irrigation is seldom needed, and unlike other crops (i.e. corn), whose leaves brown and curl up under moisture duress, amaranth plants droop or wilt so that they stop transpiring water, maintaining the viability of their leaves and hastening their recovery. Amaranth can also tolerate hot, dry weather conditions, and since it grows well in a range of elevations, it’s easy for farmers across a wide range of geographical landscapes to add it to their crop rotation.
If your chef’s thinking cap is on, you might be wondering: How is this ancient history relevant to modern times? The answer is that it brings us full circle to 2019, with pseudograins catering to the interests of consumers, farmers, and the food industry alike: 1) The popularity of ancient grains is soaring; 2) There has been a swell in demand for systems that connect buyers and growers more directly; 3) Farmers facing the challenges of climate change have begun seeking crops that are environmentally friendly and adaptable.
And now, if this has whet your appetite for more tasty nuggets about amaranth, let’s find out why this winning crop is also taking first-place in the nutrition department.
Amaranth Nutritional Profile
Though small in size, amaranth is a giant when it comes to nutritional content. It surpasses most of its pseudocereal and true-grain counterparts, boasting some truly impressive nutrient stats. If your customers are hungry for a large serving of healthy grains, satisfy their appetite with the following info from the USDA National Nutrient Database, along with an amaranth dish that is chock-full of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and more.
One cup of amaranth contains:
- 13-14% (26 grams) protein (that’s higher than most other grains, i.e. rice, which contains only 13 grams); this includes the often absent but important essential protein lysine
- 31% of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for calcium (that’s more than three times the average amount of calcium found in other grains)
- A whopping 82% of the RDA for iron
- 31% of the RDA for calcium; moreover, amaranth is the only grain known to contain vitamin C!
- Good source of magnesium, potassium, phosphorus
- Good source of sodium, zinc, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate
- Good source of Vitamin A and Vitamins B6 and B12
- Good source of health-promoting antioxidants (those naturally occurring compounds that help protect against free radicals that may contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer)
How to Cook and Bake with Amaranth
Before we learn about cooking with this powerhouse and share a great amaranth recipe, you probably want to know how the ancient grain tastes. And since it’s new on the market, you may also want to know how it looks… So here’s the scoop: sold as amaranth or kiwicha, look for a tiny, off-white, round grain (size of a pinhead). It boasts a fresh corn-like aroma, and its flavor is described as mildly nutty or peppery. Depending on how you prepare it, amaranth’s texture can range from slightly sticky, to crunchy, to heavy. You can easily use it as a rice or potato substitute in recipes, and when boiled in water, it makes for a delicious breakfast cereal with a porridge-like consistency. It is also becoming a favored type of flour used in baking recipes, especially breads, and is now being added to cookies, granola bars, snack bars, and cereals for an added nutritional punch. Finally, due to its high density, amaranth makes for a great thickener in sauces, stews, soups, and jellies. It can also be combined with guar gum to imitate gluten.
And here is a piece of amaranth trivia for you, as well as a great serving tip: You can pop amaranth (like popcorn) and use it as a garnish for appetizers and main course dishes, toss some into your customers’ salads as a wheat-free, gluten-free crouton, or munch on it for a snack!
How to Cook Amaranth
Make amaranth as you would prepare rice or pasta – on the stovetop, in your pressure cooker, or in a slow cooker. Here are some guidelines:
Stovetop: Boil a pot of water (about six cups water per 1 cup of amaranth), add the grain, cook for 15-20 minutes or until all the water is absorbed, rinse (optional), and Bon Appétit!
Pressure Cooker: Combine amaranth with 2 cups of water. Cook for 8 minutes under high pressure, then release (10-15 minutes)
Slow Cooker: Combine amaranth with 3 cups of water. Cook for 6-8 hours on low or for 3 hours on high
Now that you know the basics, we can’t end without treating your taste buds to a recommended amaranth recipe. Hopefully it will stir your chef’s own culinary juices and you can experiment with adding amaranth dishes to your restaurant’s menu.
Tabbouleh Amaranth Salad
- 1 1/2 cups cold water
- 1/2 cup uncooked amaranth
- 2 cups diced cucumber
- 1/2 cup chopped red onion
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp. grated lemon rind
- 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper (optional)
- 1/2 cup chickpeas
- 1 cup (4 oz.) crumbled feta cheese
- Boil water and amaranth in a medium sauce pan. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until water is absorbed (15-20 minutes)
- Rinse cooked amaranth and drain well in a fine mesh sieve (the grain is so small, it will slip through a standard strainer); alternatively, spread cooked amaranth in a thin layer, allowing it to cool without clumping
- While cooking the amaranth, combine rest of the ingredients, minus the cheese, in a large bowl.
- Add to cucumber mixture and toss until blended
- Add cheese and gently toss
- Serve and enjoy!