As various eating trends – such as whole grains, ancient grains and gluten-free – have converged in the American consciousness, more of us have become acquainted with a variety of foods that our parents had never even heard of … except possibly in the Bible. In the past decade, grains like spelt, einkorn, millet, quinoa and buckwheat have appeared in our cereals, granolas, energy bars, chips, breads, noodles and cookies. But even among the whole-grain and gluten-free cognoscenti, one incredibly nutritious grain has managed to fly under the radar: sorghum.
As the endless search for novelty marches ever forward, however, sorghum has begun to step into the limelight, claiming its rightful place among the pantheon of popular gluten-free, high-fiber, diabetic-friendly grains and offering itself as an amazing alternative to rice, barley, Israeli couscous and quinoa in recipes. And for good reason! If you like black beans and rice, you’ll love black beans and sorghum. If your gluten-free diet rules out mushroom barley soup, a bowl of hearty mushroom sorghum soup will serve as the perfect stand-in.
Sorghum is a drought tolerant cereal grass native to Africa, but it’s widely cultivated throughout the world, including in the U.S., Central and South America and India. It’s high in protein at about 5 grams per ¼ cup dry, which is in the same neighborhood as quinoa; high in fiber; and a good source of iron and zinc – nutrients of particular importance for those following plant-based diets.
In the mid-1800s, sorghum came into use in America for two purposes: the grain itself was used to feed livestock, while the sweet syrup derived from the grain was used as a sweetener, especially popular in the South. Perhaps it’s this historical association of sorghum with animal feed that prevented it from being embraced as a food fit for people here in America, despite its popularity elsewhere in the world and its impressive nutritional profile.
But times have changed. As more of us seek to diversify our narrow diets beyond staples like wheat, corn and rice, we’ve collectively embraced a variety of whole grains from other parts of the world. And as more Americans adopt gluten-free diets, they’ve voiced frustration with the predominantly low-fiber, low-nutrient grains, flours and starches that comprise the majority of products. This has set the stage for foods like quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat to find a permanent place on U.S. supermarket shelves – and increasingly, for even lesser-known grains like sorghum to do so as well. While whole grain sorghum has been slower to catch on than, say, quinoa, based on its relatively long cooking time, it’s easily accessible for those time-pressed home cooks armed with slow cookers, rice cookers or pressure cookers.
So if you’d like to make sorghum’s acquaintance, here are five ways to do so. (Note: I have no material affiliations with any of the companies whose products I mention here.)
- Cooked whole-grain or pearled sorghum: Whole-grain sorghum is a large, round grain – similar in appearance to Israeli couscous. It takes about 50 to 60 minutes to cook on your stovetop; in a pressure cooker, it takes closer to 35 minutes. The pearled version cooks faster, taking 35 minutes on the stovetop and 18 minutes in a pressure cooker, and remains a good source of fiber. Given its cook times, I find it most convenient to batch cook sorghum once a month, and then freeze individual portions until I’m ready to add them to a meal; because of its robust, hearty texture, it holds its form perfectly even when thawed. Alternatively, sorghum would be a perfect addition to slow cooker recipes. Look for brands such as Bob’s Red Mill, Hodgson Mill or Wondergrain; the latter company’s website offers a treasure trove of sorghum-based recipes, and provides the correct ratios of water to sorghum and cooking times depending on the type of sorghum you’re using and the method of cooking you’ve chosen.
- Popped sorghum: Whole-grain sorghum can be popped on your stovetop in a little bit of oil, just like popcorn, or even microwaved in a paper bag. You can eat popped sorghum on its own, or add it to trail mixes or homemade granolas for crunch. The cute little popped sorghum grains make it an especially appealing snack for kids. Bob’s Red Mill offers this simple recipe. If you prefer to buy your sorghum pre-popped and are willing to pay a premium, look for Mini Pops brand ready-to-eat air-popped sorghum.
- Sorghum flour: This is an essential in the gluten-free baker’s pantry, and it substitutes easily for gluten-free oat flour in recipes. Carol Fenster’s sorghum flour blend has been a pantry staple of mine for years; I mix up a batch and store it in an airtight container to help make whole wheat-based pancake recipes gluten-free, so I can enjoy them with my family. I also use plain sorghum flour in lieu of oat flour in any recipe that calls for it. Bob’s Red Mill markets sorghum flour.
- Packaged foods: Sorghum is the star ingredient in Enjoy Life’s Perky’s Crunchy Flax Cereal, one of the highest fiber and highest protein gluten-free breakfast cereals around; eat it straight or add it toyogurt parfaits for crunch. It’s also the first ingredient in the dairy-free version of Pamela’s gluten-freepancake and waffle mix, which makes deliciously fluffy pancakes you’d never know were gluten-free. Sorghum also lurks in many popular gluten-free crackers, like Crunchmaster’s 7 Ancient Grains Crackers and Mary’s Gone Crackers’ “Thins” line of biscuit-textured crackers.
- Sorghum beer: While I was never much of a beer drinker even before my celiac disease diagnosis, plenty of my patients were. And they miss good beer. Fortunately for them, gluten-free brewing has come a long way in a short time, and there are many craft offerings that use sorghum and sorghum syrup instead of traditional gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley. If you’re looking for a good sorghum beer these days, you’re spoiled for choice. Among the more critically acclaimed options are: Green’s Enterprise Gluten-Free Dry-Hopped Lager, Sprecher’s Shakparo Ale, Dogfish Head Tweason’ale, Bard’s Gold and Steadfast Sorghum Pale Ale. Cheers!