Teff-lon grain excites the culinary world

Q: Dear Kitchen Shrink,

I have a non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, and am growing tired of the old stand bys--quinoa and buckwheat. Do you have any other grain suggestions for an interesting change up? —Debbie Roth, loyal reader from La Jolla

A: An ancient crop called teff that has been cultivated and harvested for roughly 4,000 years has now become an “overnight culinary success,” gradually replacing quinoa as the grain of choice for gluten-free preferences and dietary needs. Here’s a primer to help you get the best and most out of this old/modern wonder grain.

Give Wheat the Shaft

Teff’s origins trace back to the ancient civilizations of Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. The hearty, naturally gluten-free grain sustained these people for millennia, adapting well to their quasi-nomadic cultures with its short and prolific growing seasons, and quick cooking times requiring little fuel.

Teff evolved using an ancient method of photosynthesis called Carbon 4, allowing it to thrive in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, while wheat wimps out at temperatures over 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Its versatility also allows it to grow in diverse environments from low lying wetlands to high, dry mountainous regions, and the super grain has a strong immune system, resistant to most plant diseases.

It takes only one pound of teff grains to grow an acre (one ton) of the crop, compared to wheat, which takes 100 pounds to yield a single acre.

Teff as Medicine

This petite powerhouse surpasses all grains in its rich supply of calcium, has a surprise store of Vitamin C, atypical of grains, along with hemoglobin building iron. Also a good source energy-boosting vegetarian protein, a balance of essential amino acids and dietary fiber in the form of resistant starch, teff provides a triple boon for colon health, weight and blood sugar control.

Perhaps one of the reasons for its healthful profile is its diminutive size, too tiny to tinker with, whether strip, bleach or process, thereby leaving the nutrient dense bran and germ intact in its whole grain form.

Teff Trivia

Its Ethiopian name, “Eragrostis tef” originates from the Greek meaning, “grass of love.” Teff is a featherweight – 3,000 grains weigh in at roughly 1 gram (1/28 of an ounce). Each peewee grain measures less than 1 millimeter in diameter (poppy-seed-size).

This speedy sprouter beats the world grain growing record at 36 hours.

Teff Up!

Teff comes in designer shades of ivory, red and chocolate brown, the lighter colors more mildly flavored, the darker varieties having more earthy, nutty nuances. Teff is ground into a flour to make the spongy East African sourdough bread called injera. In Ethiopian cuisine injera is used as an edible platter with traditional foods piled on top. The flour can also be baked into other gluten-free goodies, such as, piecrusts, cakes, cookies, scones, waffles and quick breads. In its whole grain form teff is equally delicious as a warm breakfast cereal, or as the base for pilafs, polentas, stews, soups, crepes and veggie burgers incorporating an exciting blend of sweet and savory spices.

Cooking Tips

For a grainy, poppy-seed texture, use equal parts of teff and broth, stock or water. Sprinkle on salads, soups, roasted veggies or casseroles as a nutty topping or crust. Using proportions of 1 cup of teff to 3 cups of liquid will produce a soft, creamy texture for a luscious side or main dish.

Teff Veggie Burgers

For an exotic riff on quinoa or soy burgers try these savory teff patties along with a side order of nutritional oomph.


2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (plus 1 tablespoon for sautéing)

1/2 small red onion, chopped

1/2 sweet red pepper, diced

4 ounces of mushrooms (button, crimini, Portobello, your choice) chopped

1 cup of whole grain Teff

3 cups of water or broth

1/2 teaspoon of ground thyme

1/2 teaspoon of ground rosemary

Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Method: In a saucepan, add teff, water or broth, herbs, spices, and oil. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, until liquid is absorbed, stirring toward the end of cooking. Set aside.

In a skillet, sauté onions, peppers and mushrooms in the oil until tender. Blend with the cooked teff, and form into uniform-sized patties.

If necessary add more oil to the pan, and fry the burgers on each side until golden, flipping once. Serve with favorite toppings on a whole-wheat bun or brioche.

Sources of Teff include Bob’s Red Mill, Gold Mine Natural Food Company, Shiloh Farms and The Teff Company.