It’s the ‘International Year of Millet’

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When I attended the Natural Gourmet Cooking Institute in New York City in the ‘90s, I was introduced to a wide range of whole grains including quinoa, amaranth, and millet. Yellowish in color, millet is a round grain slightly larger than quinoa. At first, I had trouble cooking it evenly; it seemed a bit finicky, sometimes turning mushy, while at other times, some of the grains remained undercooked and hard. But eventually I got the hang of it and learned to enjoy millet mixed in hearty salads or pan-seared like polenta squares. My favorite preparation was burgers made from millet mixed with shredded carrots, fresh herbs and crunchy sunflower seeds (recipe below). 

Fast forward to the present: the United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of the Millets.(“Millets” is the plural, but it’s rarely used.) The UN, with its goal of ending global hunger, has focused on millet as a grain of the future because of the way it may be able to withstand climate change and warming temperatures. Grown primarily in India, but also in Asia and Africa, millet is highly tolerant to elevated temperatures as well as drought. It can be grown without inputs like fertilizers or pesticides and stored for several years without insect damage. And millet has nutrient density to help feed an ever-growing world population. 

Flower morphology of millets with their common and botanical names – Photo courtesy of the New Phytologist Foundation

Like many foods, millet comes in several varieties, with names like foxtail millet, pearl millet, and proso millet, — the more common variety grown and sold here in the U.S. Millet boasts a fairly high protein content (higher than brown rice), and numerous key nutrients like iron, calcium, and B vitamins, and it contains no cholesterol or sodium. Millet also contains no gluten, which makes it a useful grain for those on a gluten-free diet. 

In recent years, specialty grains like quinoa and farro have gained widespread popularity in American cooking, so I was surprised, when I went shopping for millet, that I couldn’t find it in any of several stores I visited — not even at Whole Foods. Millet seemed to have fallen out of favor — or maybe never gained the popularity of some of the more popular whole grains. I got out my computer and mailed-ordered it. (See information below.)

Working with millet again brought back many of the lessons I learned in cooking school, including the trick of dry roasting the grains in a pan before cooking to bring out the mild nuttiness that millet is known for. Revisiting millet burgers — still a favorite with me — made me eager to try more millet recipes. Maybe this ancient grain, found in archeological sites around the world, is here to stay this time.

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RECIPE: Millet Burgers


  • Author: Catherine Walthers
  • Yield: Approximately 6 burgers 1x

Description

Millet is an ancient grain believed to be among the first that humans consumed as they transitioned to an agricultural lifestyle Now, the U.N. views millet as a possible grain of the future because of its potential to withstand climate change and warming temperatures. It’s nutty, full of nutrition, and like rice or quinoa, versatile and easily adaptable flavorwise. I first made these millet grain burgers in cooking school some years ago, and they remain a favorite.

Adapted from Judith Friedman, instructor at the former Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 1 cup millet, washed and dry roasted (see note)
  • 1 2/3 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 carrot, peeled and shredded
  • 4 scallions, rinsed and finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seeds, roasted and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • canola or olive oil for pan searing
  • garnish:  lettuce leaves, tomato slices, and microgreens or sliced red onion

Instructions

  1. Combine millet, water, bay leaf, and salt in a 1 quart pot. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes or until grain has burst and water is absorbed. Let sit for five minutes.
  2. Place chopped vegetables in a large bowl. Remove warm millet from the saucepan and place over vegetables. Add remaining ingredients and toss lightly to distribute. Taste to make any needed adjustments in the salt level.
  3. Gently squeeze millet mixture with your hands to moisten the grains. This is an important step to help the grains to stick together so they’ll form burger patties.
  4. Take up enough mixture to form a compacted snowball with your hands. Press into the shape of a burger between your palms. Be sure to seal all cracks.
  5. To cook, place a film of oil in a cast iron or other skillet and pan sear until golden on each side, about 5 minutes per side. Handle gently — the burgers are a little delicate.  Serve on a lettuce leaf garnished with tomato and microgreens or onion.

Where to find Millet

Like other grains, millet is typically sold in 1 or 2-pound bags. Widely used in India, which is the world’s largest producer of the grain, nutrient-dense millet does not currently seem to enjoy the same acceptance (or popularity) in the U.S.; maybe it’s been temporarily eclipsed by other whole grains such as quinoa and farro. If you have trouble finding it in your local supermarket, health food store, or Whole Foods Market, try on-line mail ordering. About a half dozen companies carry millet, some of it grown organically, some not. Much of the millet consumed in the U.S. is grown here in several Western states like Colorado and Montana. Shiloh Farms Organics and Bob’s Red Mill both carry millet (though Bob’s Red Mill’s is not organic). You can also find millet flour, millet pasta, and even millet pancake mixes.

Ways to use millet 

There are two basic ways to use millet: as a fluffy grain, cooked like rice, or as a creamy porridge or risotto. You make the risotto by simply adding more water or stock when cooking. Millet packages can include instructions for stovetop, slow cookers, and instant pots. You can substitute millet for rice for other whole grains and use it in an array of dishes, including:

  • Grain bowls and hearty grain salads
  • Grain burgers – see Bluedot Living recipe
  • Veggie stir fries, or stirred into roasted vegetables 
  • Breakfast porridges and creamy rissotto-like millet 

If you’re feeling adventurous, check out traditional preparations in other countries, such as hand-rolled millet flatbread from India or candied millet puffs, a popular snack in Japan. 

Best way to cook fluffy millet

Some people like to dry toast millet in a skillet before cooking to enhance the nutty flavor of the grain (see below). You can try it both ways to see if you have a preference. It may take a few tries for you to get the right consistency for fluffy millet — but don’t give up. Add a little more, or less, water as needed. Alternatively, try cooking millet in a rice cooker. A friend who does this says her millet comes out perfectly every time. For stovetop cooking, follow this recipe:

Ingredients

  • 1 cup millet, rinsed
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • 2 pinches of salt
  1. Before adding to a saucepan, dry roast the millet. After rinsing, place strained millet in a heavy, dry skillet (don’t add any oil) on medium to medium-high. Toast, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until dry and nutty smelling, about 5 minutes. 2.     Combine toasted millet, water, and salt in a 1-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the grain is uniformly cooked and water is absorbed. Let sit for five minutes. Remove cover and fluff with a fork. Add to a bowl or store in the fridge.

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Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers, Bluedot’s food editor, is a Martha’s Vineyard-based writer, culinary instructor, and private chef. A former journalist, she is the author of 4 cookbooks, including Kale, Glorious Kale, Soups + Sides, and Raising the Salad Bar. She wrote an environmental guidebook called A Greener Boston published by Chronicle Books in 1992. Follow her on Instagram @catherine_walthers.
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