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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:
Pearl millet [Pennisetum glaucum]
Foxtail millet [Setaria italica]
Proso millet, also called hog, common or broom corn millet [Panicum miliaceum]
Finger millet, also called ragi in India [Eleusine coracana]
Fonio [Digitaria exilis]
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.”