The public has had a fun time joking about how to pronounce “quinoa”—it’s keen-wah, for what it’s worth—but what’s no joke is the ingredient’s growth on U.S. menus. According to Datassential, quinoa’s penetration on U.S. menus grew 21 percent between 2015 and 2016, and it was on 21.5 percent of fast-casual menus last year.
Quinoa’s success is part of a broader trend that has seen several other grains—from freekeh to flax seeds and from kamut to couscous—make gains on menus. Chef Michael Holleman, director of culinary development at rice, grain, and legume provider InHarvest, shared his thoughts on why grains are taking off in limited service—and where the grain trend goes from here.
What’s the status of grains in quick service and fast casual?
We’ve certainly seen an explosion over the last couple of years of quick service and fast casual entering into the grain world. The different grains that we’re seeing is what’s amazing to me. A lot of the restaurants a few years back were only dealing with brown rice to introduce whole grains onto their menu, and then quinoa exploded. Now we’re seeing that quinoa has become a household name; people know how to pronounce it, even.
What we’re seeing is quinoa is starting to be introduced into restaurant concepts as a blend. When chefs or nutritionists want to introduce new grains to the customers, a lot of times, if they put it in pure, it’s going to scare people off. People aren’t willing to make that investment on a whole bowl of quinoa, for example. But, if you have maybe 10, 15, 20 percent of quinoa blended in with, say, brown rice, then it’s less of a risk, as it’s paired with something they’re familiar with already.
Beyond quinoa and brown rice, we’re also seeing farro, the Italian wheat, entering at a pretty good rate. And sorghum is kind of the new up-and-comer—not only in its whole-grain form for cooking in a blend, but also as a popped or puffed item. We’re seeing some restaurants introduce the popped sorghum, which looks like miniature popcorn, so it’s very kid friendly. Sprouted grains are also on the rise, and in addition to that, for years we’ve seen the colored varieties start to trend pretty heavily—so, black rice and red rice.
What’s the easiest access point for operators new to grains?
The blends are where they’re going, and that’s because they’re able to introduce multiple grains at the same time. Beyond the blends, I really think that pure varieties offered right now are going to be the lower-cost items, like the wheat berries and brown rice of the world. Of course, cost is always a bigger factor in this. In addition to that, another big challenge is consistency. If they’re going to bring dry product in and cook it in the back of the house, consistency is ultra-important, especially in quick service and fast casual. They need that consistency.
What freshness concerns are there with grains?
Knowing the potential volumes you’re going to go through is important. Only prepare enough for that day and maybe the next day. But when you start getting into that third day, that’s where I hear most operators saying, “You know what, we want it gone after that 48 hours.” Even though you’re probably safe going into that third day—as far as food safety, as long as it’s handled correctly—you do start to lose freshness at that point. The moisture starts to leave the grain because you have it refrigerated.
What are some more common applications for grains, and what are some more creative applications?
Right now, salads and bowls are taking over everything. Everyone is doing those because of their popularity and their ease. A lot of restaurants are able to capitalize on ingredients they already have in stock.
I think dessert is an interesting place to have grains. We’re also seeing some whole grains being incorporated into breakfast. Parfaits are big. We’re seeing some grains as toppers on the parfait, whether it’s puffed or toasted grains going on there, or that grab-and-go part where they have the dry component on top and they open the dome lid and stir it in.
What’s the difference with ancient grains?
It’s really tough to put a definition behind that, because I think everybody jumped in on ancient and heirloom immediately, to the point that it just got overused. Ancient and heirloom are really one and the same to me. We’re talking about grains that have been passed down from generation to generation without any purposeful alteration to the seed—so, non-GMO. When we look at varieties of farro coming out of Italy, that’s a great example of a non-GMO heirloom or ancient grain. Wheat has been around forever, but some of those varieties in the U.S. are not GMO-free. That’s how we view ancient and heirloom grains.