The Millet Project Looks at the Nutritious, Drought Tolerant, Gluten-Free Grains Called Millet

Millet plants at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract
Millet plants at UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract

This is the first of two posts about millet, a class of grains that doesn’t get much attention.  The second post has information about millet production and use around the world (with charts and maps!)

I can get quite nerdy about ingredients, so when one of my newsletters told me about an upcoming event called The Millet Project at the nearby Gill Tract, I knew I did not want to miss it.

When I think of millet, I think about the pale yellow spherical grains I see at the health food store or in bird feed. But when an agricultural specialists think about millet, they think about a group of plant.  This was the first thing I learned at the event: millet describes a bunch of different plants, and it isn’t a botanical term, but an agricultural one. Millets are annual grasses with small seeds, generally including the grain labelled millet in the U.S. and Europe (the proso variety, Panicum miliaceum), its close relatives (like Enchinocloa frumentacea,called shanwa in Japan), teff (Eragrostis tef, also spelled tef and t’ef,the staple grain in Ethiopia and Eritrea), and sorghum (great for making alcoholic beverages). The Millet Project has a page on millet taxonomy that includes photos of some varieties.

Although millet doesn’t cross my mind often, if asked to stir up memories of millet, I actually have a few pretty strong ones: fun dinners with my graduate school housemates eating piles of injera and spicy stews at Ethiopia Restaurant on Telegraph in Berkeley, a delicious sorghum molasses gifted by a fellow food blogger, or a delicious millet-fortified bread baked by a housemate.

Thrills at the Millet Project

The Millet Project is an interdisciplinary research project at UC Berkeley that hopes to “establish a knowledge base about the feasibility of growing millets in Northern California, the drought tolerance of millet, and best-practice protocols for farmers on how to grow different types of millet.”  The team is running experiments in Berkeley and working with farms across the state to get practical experience in California fields. Their 2015 research work is described in a post by undergraduate researcher Ramji K. Pasricha (super-short summary: at the Gill Tract in coastal Alameda County, pearl millet was more resilient to water stress than Japanese or foxtail millet).

Millet and Teff
Ripening teff grains

The exhibits at the event included basic information about millet, research on soil microbiology around millets, one of the farmers to tell about her millet growing experiences, two gluten-free beers brewed with millet instead of barley, and some millet-based foods to taste. One of the students led a tour turned of the current field research in the neighboring field: several rows of millets subjected to three watering regimes (light, medium, and heavy). To be honest, I was so excited to see the plants — I was standing next to a real teff plant! — that I missed the key points about their research results.

Millet and Teff
Millet varieties and teff at UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract

Millets have many of features that are attractive to eaters, farmers and water policy experts:

  • Nutritious: compared to wheat, corn and rice, they are high in protein, minerals vitamins and fiber
  • Drought tolerant:  the can be grown with little water, so a great option for drought stricken California
  • Not picky about soil: They are tolerant of skeletal soils (also great for some of California’s depleted farming areas)
  • Quick growing: 90-110 days from planting to grain
  • Not fertilizer dependent: in areas where it is traditionally grown, yields are good without use of synthetic fertilizers
  • Biodiverse: the species have significant biodiversity, so an ideal variety can be found for most growing conditions
  • Gluten-free

(I wonder if there has ever been a “Millet Project” focused on the French Painter Jean-François Millet, who coincidentally made many paintings about farms and farmers, like the Sower and the Gleaners.)

How do people eat millet?

Humans have been growing and eating millet for a long, long time. The Oxford Companion to Food says that millet was cultivated in prehistoric times. A few millennia ago, it was one of the sacred ‘five grains’ of China and part of a ceremony led by the emperor and his family. The grain arrived in Europe before 2000 BCE and was part of the diet in ancient Greece and Rome, so perhaps Socrates ate porridge at the Parthenon, and Caesar and his legions ate unleavened millet bread while campaigning in Gaul.

Top left, teff;  top right, short grain rice; lower left, amaranth; lower right, millet (proso var.)
Top left, teff;  top right, short grain rice; lower left, amaranth; lower right, millet (proso var.)

In parts of West Africa (especially Niger, Mail, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Chad), millet is the staple grain, typically eaten as a porridge with most meals. In northern China, it is also made into porridge. In Japan, it is added to rice. In India, millet flour is used in flat breads and dosa. In Ethiopia, teff is the main ingredient of their naturally leavened, spongy pancake/crepe called injera. The Oxford Companion to Food notes a millet hot-spot in the Vendée (Pays de la Loire) region of France, where millet semolina is made into porridge (meuille), cooled, cut into slices and fried, or sprinkled with sugar (gâteau de mil).

Sorghum, on the other hand, is most often used to make alcoholic beverages, mainly in Africa and China (though there is a tradition of using sorghum to make moonshine in the American South).  In The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart even suggests that sorghum may be the most used ingredient in alcoholic beverages around the world. In Africa, sorghum is used to make beer.  In China, sorghum has a two-thousand-year history as an ingredient in baijiu, a class of high-proof clear distilled liquors.  Notably, a type of baijiu called mao-tai was served at a ceremonial banquet during President Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China (i.e., the “only Nixon could go to China” visit). This spirit was over 100 proof  — to Dan Rather, it was like drinking “liquid razor blades” — so presidential advisors warned the president not to imbibe; he ignored their advice, joined the banquet toasts, and fortunately did not incite any international incidents while under the influence of the potent spirit.

A future post will explore where millet is grown and eaten (with interactive maps and charts!).

Try Teff Triangles

If you want to try whole-grain teff, it can be cooked like polenta, an idea first revealed to me in an interesting cookbook called Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson (the author of the 101 Cookbooks blog; see also my review of Super Natural Cooking at the Ethicurean). In her recipe, the tiny teff grains are treated like polenta: cooked in water, poured out into a pan to set, and cut into triangles to serve. When I make the teff this way, I use it as a base for a spicy vegetable stew, like the ones in the Africa section of Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. I could also imagine it baked into a casserole like the polenta, tomato and cheese combination in The Greens Cookbook.

Whole teff is available from Bob’s Red Mill (an employee-owned company) and other vendors.

Teff Triangles

The tiny teff grains are treated like polenta: cooked in water, poured out into a pan to set, and cut into triangles to serve. When I make teff this way, I use it as a base for a spicy vegetable stew.

The teff porridge needs time to set (30 minutes or more), so you'll want to prepare it long before you want to eat it.


  • 6 cups water (1.5 L)
  • 2 cups whole-grain teff (0.5 L)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (5 mL)


  1. Place a glass or ceramic baking dish on a counter near the stove. The cooked teff will be poured into this dish to set, so choose a dish that will give you the desired thickness. I find that a 9 x 13 (23 cm x 33 cbaking dish gives a good thickness.
  2. Place the water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the salt.
  3. Slowly pour in the teff, whisking as you pour to prevent clumping. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring now and then, for about 30 minutes, until it has thickened significantly (like a batch of oatmeal or polenta). Pour into the baking dish.
  4. Let set at room temperature for up to 1 hour, or cover and place in the refrigerator for quicker setting or longer storage.
  5. To serve, cut into triangles or other shapes, reheat (in the microwave, on a grill, or in a lightly oiled skillet), and serve topped with a savory stew.

Recipe Notes

Adapted from Super Natural Cooking, by Heidi Swanson.

The teff porridge needs time to set (30 minutes or more), so you'll want to prepare it long before you want to eat it.

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