Years ago the bakery at a local natural foods store was famous for its Bird Man of Alcatraz Bread.* The name was a play on one ingredient common to bird feed: millet, the tiny round yellow seeds that dominate many bird seed mixes. The bread was delicious and very popular, thanks in part to the millet.
The United Nations designated 2023 as the International Year of Millets to highlight the importance of this food crop for humans, not birds. There are many varieties of millet, grown primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Millet has been part of the diet in these areas for centuries. In India, in the mid-20th century, the government encouraged farmers to grow more rice and wheat, to appeal to the export market. Millet fell out of favor, as it was considered to be a food for rural people. Food snobbism at work?
Now a sort of reverse snobbism is taking over. Traditional foods and ancient grains are fasionable. And millets appeal to the climate change and humanitarian aid organizations, because these grains can be grown in arid conditions, need little fertilizer and have a short growing season. Added bonus, millet adds diversity to the local cuisine. It can be cooked like a grain, or ground into flour for use in flat breads or other baked or fried foods.
Another good reason to encourage millet agriculture: nutriiton. Millet is a good souce of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals, an important consideration for at-risk populations farming marginal land. Here’s a comparison of a few nutrients in millet compared to other grains.
|100 grams dry grain||protein||calories||iron||calcium||magnesium||fiber|
|millet||11 grams||378||3 mg||8 mg||114 mg||8.5 grams|
|rice, white||6.6 grams||360||0.8 mg||9 mg||35 mg||1.7 grams|
|rice, brown||7.5 grams||362||1.8 mg||33 mg||143 mg||3.4 grams|
|oats (rolled)||13.2 grams||379||4.25 mg||52 mg||138 mg||10.1 grams|
Cooking with Millet
All this traditional and sustainable stuff is fine, but how does millet taste? What can you do with it?
Millet is a grain and needs to be cooked before use. Cooked millet can substitute easily in recipes that call for couscous; the drawback is that millet takes longer to cook. It also works well as a hot breakfast cereal. The flavor is mild, maybe a bit nutty, so you can add dried fruit, sweetener or chopped nuts, as you would with oatmeal. This recipe suggests that, if you’re preparing millet as a breakfast cereal, you use more water for a creamier result.
Cooking millet in the 2-cups-water-to-1-cup-dry-millet ratio yields a chewier millet, better for grain salads, grain bowls or a side dish. I sometimes put millet in bread, but uncooked millet is hard and crunchy and sticks in your teeth. I always soak the grains in boiling water to cover, for 10-15 minutes, then drain excess water before adding to the dough. You can also add cooked millet to muffins, quick breads or pancakes.
Millet is also ground into flour, which is used to make traditional flat breads. The flour could be added to quick bread recipes, to create a nutty flavor. This website suggests substituting millet flour for 1/4 to 1/2 the regular wheat flour in muffins, pancakes or scones.
Millet bread? Millet is gluten-free, so the unique properties of gluten that create texture in bread would be absent. You could substitute some of the wheat flour in a bread recipe, keeping in mind the bread would not rise as much and be more dense and possibly crumbly. Flatbreads work better, and this recipe for millet flatbread sounds really flavorful and delicious.
This recipe combines water-smart millet with water-smart peanuts for a vegan dish that combines 3 complementary plant protein foods.
Millet with Roasted Vegetables and Peanuts
This dish can be served hot as a vegetarian or vegan main dish. It makes great leftovers.
- 1-1/2 cups raw millet
- 3 cups water or vegetable stock or a combination
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 head cauliflower, cut into bite sized florets
- 2 cups Brussels sprouts, stem ends cut off, cut in half lengthwise
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 can garbanzo beans, drained
- 1 cup dry roasted unsalted peanuts
- olive oil
- salt to taste
- juice of one lemon
- Step 1 Bring the stock/water to a boil in a sauce pan. Add the millet, bay leaf and salt. Cover and cook on low simmer until millet is done, 20-30 minutes. Add more water if necessary.
- Step 2 When millet is done, remove the bay leaf and set aside.
- Step 3 Heat 2-3 TB olive oil in a large sauté pan. Brown the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower pieces over moderate heat, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Cook until browned but still crunchy. Add the minced garlic at the end of cooking, and stir to combine.
- Step 4 Mix the millet, sautéed vegetables, garbanzo beans, peanuts, lemon juice and salt to taste in a large pot. Toss to combine. Add more olive oil if desired. Re-heat gently over low heat before serving.
For More Information
The U.N. FAO International Year of Millets website has information about the importance of millets in agriculture
BBC article on millets, focusing on India
The Millet Project has more information about millet agricultural, as well as a variety of recipes.
*Eventually they had to stop using that name, as I believe it was trademarked, thanks to the movie.