What Is Sorghum Grain

Meet sorghum, your new favorite ancient grain

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Every few years or so, a hot "new" grain comes along and captures our imagination (and pantries) for a hot minute or two. "New" gets quotation marks, since most of these grains aren't new at all. They're nutrition- and flavor-packed powerhouses that have been kicking around fields for thousands of years, like quinoa, freekeh, amaranth or other so-called "ancient grains."

Sorghum is an ancient grain, too, but it's never taken off in quite the same way. A few years back, syrup made from sweet sorghum had a bit of a revival in the States, thanks largely to Southern chefs who liked playing around with old-fashioned ingredients. But the idea of eating sorghum as a grain itself, or in flour form, is still a foreign concept to most Americans, despite the fact that we actually produce the most sorghum in the world (most of it ends up as fuel or animal feed).

That may be changing, though, as grain sorghum finally catches on, like the pockmarked nerd who blossoms long after high school. Domestic farmers, chefs and consumers have recently started realizing what African and Indian audiences have known for years: that grain sorghum is not only "ridiculously easy to grow," says Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts, who's developing a line of African Red sorghum berries and flour to distribute to chefs, but also healthy (high fiber! no gluten!) and straight-up delicious, with a nutty, complex flavor and dozens of culinary possibilities.

"Sorghum used to be a major player in ancient trade routes like the Silk Road, but in modern times, it's sadly been relegated pauper's food," Matthew Cox of Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon, says. For decades, Bob's has sold domestically grown white sorghum flour as part of gluten-free baking mixes, but a few years ago, it started carrying whole-grain sorghum as a standalone product. "We've been really trying to push it into the spotlight," Cox says, and it seems to be working.

In restaurant kitchens, the grain is getting the royal treatment: Evan Rich of RICH TABLE in San Francisco pops tiny, globular grains of white sorghum to make a kind of miniature popcorn (or pophum, if you will) that he scatters atop chicken liver mousse on a warm brioche. Travis Milton, chef de cuisine at Comfort in Richmond, Virginia, goes a step farther, cooking popped sorghum with butter and cream then straining them to make grits. Sam Kincaid, pastry chef at Fork in Philadelphia, makes a gluten-free granola featuring cracked sorghum, sorghum flour and sorghum syrup (get the recipe).

Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Linton Hopkins of Holeman and Finch are among the first chefs to receive Anson Mills's brand-new sorghum, and last fall, dessert guru Alice Medrich released Flavor Flours, a cookbook of alternative-flour sweets that features an entire chapter dedicated to "mild, decidedly sweet" milled sorghum. Even hooch makers are getting in on the act: South Carolina's High Wire Distilling recently rolled out a deep amber sorghum whiskey using grains from a Mennonite farm in Central Tennessee.

It's high time you start experimenting with it at home, too. Hearty, slightly chewy simmered sorghum makes a fine substitute for farro or brown rice in a grain salad or pilaf, while the fine-milled flour can be used in lieu of traditional wheat for pancakes, waffles or muffins. Medrich recommends pairing sorghum with complementary flavors of warm spices (ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg) and ingredients like berries, butter, or nuts. Apart from Bob's Red Mill (Anson Mills isn't selling its sorghum retail just yet), sorghum grains and flours are available at Nuts.com and Idaho-based Purcell Mountain Farms.

"It's one of my all-time favorite grains in the world," Milton says. "It's incredibly versatile, but at the same time, totally unique." So go ahead—grab yourself a front-row ticket to the sorghum show.