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Focus on Millet

In the UK millet is more commonly associated with budgie seed than as a culinary ingredient, however, it is probably the first grain that was domesticated and farmed by humans and today is the staple grain for one third of the world’s population.  It is mentioned in the Bible and has been cultivated in Africa and India for thousands of years; its use in China was recorded in 2700 BC where it was the dominant cereal until rice became the staple.

Today, millet is the sixth most important world grain and may soon become significantly more important because, unlike wheat and rice, it is tolerant of hot dry climates and also thrives in the cool, dry short summers of northern latitudes.  It is tolerant of poorly fertilised, dry soils which widens its potential as a commercial crop.  From planting to harvest can take as little as 65 days.

Millet is a tall erect annual grass similar in appearance to maize. It is a member of the Poaceae, or true grasses, and is closely related to bamboo. It can grow up to 5 metres tall with a spike like panicle 150 to 350mm long containing the seeds, hence its similarity in appearance to maize.  The small yellow seeds are contained in a hard indigestible hull which must be removed before the seed can be milled into flour.  There are four species of millet: pearl millet has the largest seeds and is the most important cultivated variety. 

Millet is widely used as flour and is the basic ingredient in the chapatti, a dense whole grain bread produced by the Hunzas of northern India; further south it is used to make roti a small flat cake.  In Africa, it is widely used to make bread and as uji, a thin gruel used as breakfast porridge.  In Eastern Europe and Asia it is used to make porridge or kasha.  The Hausa of Nigeria ferment it with milk into a potent and popular alcoholic beverage. 

Despite its wide use in the rest of the world millet has received little interest in the west and was largely considered as an animal or bird food.  However, it hardiness, ease of cultivation and the growing awareness of its versatility are encouraging more research, both into its cultivation and its dietary use.  Millet has a significant advantage over wheat in that it is gluten free, gluten being considered a major cause of intolerance to wheat.  Like buckwheat and quinoa it is not acid forming so is soothing and easy to digest and is one of the most easily digested and least allergenic of grains.

Millet has a slightly sweet, nutty flavour and contains 15% protein, (compared to 23% in wheat), high levels of fibre; B-complex vitamins including niacin, thiamine and riboflavin; the essential amino acid, methionine; lecithin and some vitamin E.  It is contains particularly high levels of the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.  As with a number of other foods, such as brassicas and soya, it contains goitrogenic substances that can inhibit iodine uptake by the thyroid.  Although cooking is said to destroy these substances, others believe that there may be a significant increase in goitrogens in cooked millet stored in the fridge over a week, the overall message  here being to cook and eat your millet immediately and not store leftovers.

Millet flour does not keep well and rapidly becomes rancid; it is best purchased in small quantities and used promptly.  However, millet grains are highly versatile and store well.

Millet can be given a mild nutty flavour by lightly roasting the grains for three minutes, or until a mild, nutty aroma is detected, in a dry pan.  Millet is delicious as a cooked cereal and in casseroles, breads, soups, stews, soufflés, pilaf, and stuffing. It can be used as a side dish or served under sautéed vegetables or with beans and can be popped like corn for use as a snack or breakfast cereal. The grain mixes well with any seasoning or herbs that are commonly used in rice dishes and for interesting taste and texture variations, it may be combined with quinoa and brown or basmati rice.  Millet seeds can also be sprouted and used as an interesting alternative to bean sprouts in salads or sandwiches. Another use for millet seeds is to mix them into a bread mix to add a cereal crunch, or with other seeds and grains to produce a multi-grain loaf.  Note that care should always be taken using raw sprouted seeds because of possible E Coli contamination.

As a pastry mix millet flour will produce a light, thin crust that is buttery smooth.  Because millet flour lacks gluten, this limits its use as a replacement for wheat flour, however, 30% mixed with wheat can be used to produce leavened breads and cakes. 

Why not try out the recipe below, and if you have a favourite millet recipe, please send it to me so that I can share it with others.

Millet and Black Bean Stuffed Peppers


200g (7 oz) millet
3 organic vegetable stock cubes
3 green peppers
2 red peppers
3 tomatoes, chopped
1 (400g) tin black beans, drained and washed
Leaves from a few sprigs of oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


  1. Dissolve the vegetable stock in 1 litre of water in a large saucepan and bring to the boil, add the millet, bring back to the boil again and then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the water is absorbed.  When complete, stir in the chopped tomatoes, the black beans and the oregano leaves.

  2. Whilst the millet is cooking, slice the tops off of the peppers, and remove the seeds and cores and set aside.

  3. Take the deseeded peppers and spoon in the millet mix until they are filled. Place the peppers in a baking dish and cover. Cook in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the peppers are tender.
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