Whole Grains 101

whole grains 101

Millet and Teff – November Grains of the Month

Each month we feature a different whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health benefits, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more.  Click here to see the full calendar.

In November we’re celebrating two grains – Millet and Teff, both of which have a long history in traditional diets. In November, Taiwan's indigenous Bunun people hold a huge millet festival – you can even see the traditional singing of the millet hymn on YouTube. Meanwhile, across the globe in Ethiopia, teff is being harvested in November, to be made into injera, the country's traditional spongy flatbread. So this month we’re offering two full Grain of the Month features.

Continue reading below for our feature on millet.
Click here to access our feature on teff.

All about Millet(s)

Millet is not just one grain, but the name given to a group of several different small-seeded grains from several different genera of the grass family Poaceae. Four different millets are mostly commonly cultivated worldwide, listed here starting with the most widely produced:

  1. Pearl millet [Pennisetum glaucum]

  2. Foxtail millet [Setaria italica]

  3. Proso millet, also called hog, common or broom corn millet [Panicum miliaceum]

  4. Finger millet, also called ragi in India [Eleusine coracana]

AACC International recognizes seven genera of millets: Brachiaria spp.; Pennisetum spp.; Panicum spp.; Setaria spp.; Paspalum spp.; Eleusine spp.; Echinochloa spp. Teff [Eragrostis tef], Fonio [Digitaria exilis] and Job’s Tears [Coix lacrima-jobi] are also sometimes classifed as millets, including by the USDA.

Before rice was widely consumed in Asia, it’s thought that different forms of millet were the staple grain in this region, as long ago as 8300 B.C.E. Millet’s legacy persists in the Chinese language, where the signs for “millet” and “mouth” together make the word “harmony” and contribute to the word for “peace.” Evidence indicates that millets spread to the Black Sea area by 5000 B.C.E.

Today, millet is the world’s sixth most important grain. India is the world’s largest producer of millet, with eight African countries and China making up the rest of the top ten producers. Depending on variety, millets can grow anywhere from one to 15 feet tall, and usually have a an undigestible hull (ranging from papery-thin to hard) that must be removed before the grain can be eaten. Most millets do best in dry, warm climates.

In India, ragi (finger millet) is used to make roti, a staple flat bread. And in much of Africa, millet is commonly eaten as a porridge, and is also used for brewing millet beer. In the United States, millet is probably most familiar as the primary component of birdseed, but it would be a shame to leave this grain “to the birds.”

Click here to see photos of different kinds of millets.

Health Benefits of Millet

Millet is a gluten-free grain that’s high in antioxidant activity, and also especially high in magnesium, a mineral that helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function. For many years, little research was done on the health benefits of millets, but recently they have been “rediscovered” by researchers, who have found millets helpful in controlling diabetes and inflammation.

Click here to learn more about recent studies highlighting the health of millet.

Cooking with Millet

Millet grains are usually small and yellowish in color. They have a mild flavor that pairs well with other foods. Most sources recommend cooking millet with about 2 ½ cups of liquid for each cup of millet grain.

Like most other whole gains, millet can be made into pilafs or breakfast cereals, or added to breads, soups or stews. It can also be popped like corn and eaten as a snack.  You can substitute up to about 30% millet flour in your favorite baking recipes, and even more in foods like cookies that do not need to rise as much.

WGC Culinary Advisor Lorna Sass, in her book “Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way” recommends three ways to cook millet:

  1. Fluffy Millet – toast 1 cup millet for 4-6 minutes in a dry pan then add 2 ¼ cups boiling water, simmer 13-18 minutes, then let stand 10 minutes.

  2. Sticky Millet – Bring 1 cup millet to a boil in 2 ¾ cups water, simmer for 13-18 minutes, then let stand 10 minutes. Sticky millet can be molded in croquettes and patties.

  3. Creamy Millet – Grind 1 cup millet in a spice grinder. Bring 5 cups water to a boil, then gradually whisk in millet. Cover, lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for 15 to 30 minutes until grits are tender. Makes a great porridge or polenta.

If you'd like to experiment with the taste of millet, try one of the recipes below:

Millet Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes

Curried Sweet Potato and Millet Soup

Sesame Millet Crackers

Millet Apple Raisin Cake

Fun Facts about Millet

  • Many sources say that millet was a staple of the Sumerians and was grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

  • Millet is often used as a filler for bean bags – they're not filled with beans! 

  • Millet matures in about 65 days, quicker than many grains.

  • Proso millet has the lowest water requirement of any grain crop, while finger millet grows best in damp conditions.

  • Finger millet is widely enjoyed as a popped snack in India.

If you'd like to know more about teff and the various millets, we highly recommend the book "Lost Crops of Africa."

All information on this website is © 2003-2013, Oldways Preservation Trust/Whole Grains Council, unless otherwise noted.