Whole Grains: Putting Flavor First

Brought to you by Barilla.

More and more consumers are craving whole grains, not only because they are healthier, but also, the Whole Grain Council reports, because they “enjoy the nuttier, fuller taste of whole grains.”

Whether at home or in restaurants, Americans are embracing whole grains, as noted by several studies. Mintel Menu Insights reports that from 2008 through 2012, whole grains in casual dining restaurants rose by 105.8 percent, in fast-casual restaurants by 68.4 percent and in fine/upscale/gourmet operations by 42.3 percent. Offering more proof of the acceptance of whole grains in the American diet—according to the 2013 IFIC Food & Health Survey, 78 percent of consumers ate more foods with whole grains than they did the previous year.

Ongoing improvement in the quality of available whole grain products is one reason for the increase in popularity, especially when it comes to pasta. Barilla Whole Grain, for example, combines the perfect blend of whole wheat and semolina, delivering a much milder flavor, as well as a texture and color that resemble more traditional pastas.

“A lot of wheat pastas fall apart and get grainy; Barilla holds together better for a longer period of time, it has a smaller grain,” says Austin Independent School District Executive Chef Steven Burke. “The texture is the best overall, which in whole grain, is a big part of the taste.”

Beyond the product, the techniques, sauces and ingredients that chefs of all stripes are using to complement and mask the whole grain flavor are improving, leading to a flavor-first approach.

Chef Ida Shen, assistant director, culinary, of Cal Dining at the University of California at Berkeley, menus pasta dishes using both Barilla Whole Grain pasta and semolina, enhancing the flavor profile of each with sauces and ingredients that are complementary.

“If the pasta is whole grain, you work with it, using it to your advantage by pairing it with the right sauces,” says Shen.

She pairs Barilla Whole Grain with a hearty ragù, prepared with an abundance of vegetables, to deliver the right flavor elements. In general, robust sauces with more umami, such as a butter-based mushroom, complement the nuttier flavor of whole grain.

“We are also very influenced by Asian cuisine, looking to the Japanese soba noodle, made from buckwheat, as inspiration,” says Shen.  Borrowing a note from the Japanese, Cal Dining offers Barilla Whole Grain noodles tossed with fermented bean paste, soy sauce or peanut sauce.  

“Barilla Whole Grain lends itself to a sesame noodle type dressing, with umami, green onions, and sesame oil,” says Shen. “Our students don’t think of it as whole grain pasta, but as sesame noodle.”

Also from the Asian palate, Cal Dining offers a take on Chinese-style cold sesame noodles, prepared with tahini or peanut sauce and Barilla Whole Grain pasta. “The peanut and the whole grain pasta, which has a nuttier flavor, work really well together,” says Shen. “We are not trying to mask the flavor, but work with it.”

In Texas, Austin Independent serves only Barilla whole grain pasta to its students, a move made five years ago – well ahead of the federally-mandated switch scheduled for 2015. Chef Burke first changed up the technique for how pasta is cooked. Instead of boiling the whole grain pasta, it is steamed using a hotel-size perforated pan inside a regular pan. This lets the staff cook the pasta in small batches, for 11-12 minutes, avoiding overcooking.

For the elementary school cohort, Burke finds that serving whole grain pastas with ingredients and flavor pairings that are familiar work best. “For our flavor pairings with Barilla Whole Grain, we stick with the tried and true: Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Mac-and-Cheese and Spaghetti Marinara,” says Chef Burke. “These are really popular.”

Using Barilla Whole Grain also lets Austin Independent stick with its ‘stealth health’ model for menu development. “We try to bring in what kids normally eat at home, but sneak in some healthier options—like whole grain pasta,” says Burke.