Sorghum: The grain you may not have heard of

Two-grain, two-bean salad (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

You may not know what it is, but sorghum, drizzled on buttermilk biscuits, is as popular in the South as maple syrup is in the Northeast.

Milled sorghum flour is rapidly becoming a go-to for gluten-free baking. As a grain, sorghum can be a delicious part of salads, soups or breakfast porridge. It can also be popped like popcorn or brewed to make beer. Bob’s Red Mill suggests cooking the grain like quinoa or barley. Available in red and white varieties, grain sorghum is naturally gluten-free and mildly sweet.

Sorghum is in the grass family, like wheat, barley, oats, rice, corn and other grains. Different species of sorghum grass are used for animal feed, sweet syrup and grain. From South Dakota to Texas, more than 8 million acres of this subtropical grass cover arid parts of the American Midwest. In the U.S., it’s the third most important cereal crop (after wheat and corn); worldwide, it is fifth. In 2010, Nigeria was the world’s largest producer of grain sorghum, followed by the United States and India. In many countries it is used as fodder for cattle and poultry.

Like millet and cassava, it thrives in harsh, arid conditions where other crops do not grow well. Unlike wheat, it does not require application of fertilizers, so it is popular among small farmers in many poor countries.

Sorghum has been around for thousands of years. The ancient grain was first cultivated in Sudan and Ethiopia, where the North African staple has been cultivated since 8000 BC. From there, it traveled the Silk Road through the Middle East to China. Today it is a staple food crop, feeding millions of people in Africa, Asia and Australia.

A pot of sorghum (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

“Sorghum is a key staple crop for over 500 million people on the African continent,” said Haidee Swanby of the African Center for Biosafety. In many countries it is used to make flat breads: roti in India, tortillas in central America and injera in Ethiopia. Sorghum is also known by its Spanish name milo. In India it is called jowar or jwari; in China, Kaolian.

This nutritional powerhouse is a rich source of iron and B-complex vitamins (niacin, riboflavin and thiamin). It has high levels of the minerals magnesium, copper, calcium, phosphorous and potassium. Sorghum has more protein and less fat than corn. A half-cup serving of the grain contains more than a third of the recommended daily allowance for dietary fiber and more than 10 grams of protein. The specific amino acids may vary depending on the soil it is grown but usually contain lysine and tryptophan. It may also contain vitamins D, E and K, as well as beta-carotene (vitamin A). The sweet syrup also contains a little protein and the minerals iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium.

In addition to grain, syrup, beer, livestock feed and pet food, sorghum is grown today for ethanol. Sorghum stems are used to make brooms as well as for building materials.

Sorghum does take an hour to cook, and the couscous-sized grains remain separate, making it a great choice for salads. Substitute it for rice, couscous or quinoa. Try it as a side in place of rice or quinoa, as a breakfast porridge, popped for a snack like popcorn, in grain salads and in soups.

Two Grain, Two Bean Salad


1/3 cup black beans

1 cup sorghum

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups water

1 1/2 cup (12 oz.) corn, frozen (thawed) or canned

1 1/2 cup (12 oz.) green beans, fresh or frozen

1/2 sweet onion or 1 cup sliced scallions

1 cup sliced or diced sweet bell peppers, red, orange, yellow

Dressing ingredients:

3 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon Dijon style mustard

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 – 1 cup fresh mined parsley

1/2 – 1 cup fresh small leaves of arugula

1/2 – 1 cup celery leaves, chopped


Soak beans overnight in water, or for several hours. Or bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let stand one hour. Drain.

Place sorghum in quart saucepan. Add salt and water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer. Cook until liquid is absorbed, about 1 hour.

In another saucepan, cook the soaked beans about 30 minutes, or until soft.

In salad bowl, combine corn, green beans, onion and peppers. In small bowl or cup, combine dressing ingredients. Pour over veggies in salad bowl; stir in cooked, cooled sorghum and black beans. Add the chopped fresh greens at the end, and stir in.

Makes a large bowl of salad, good to bring to a picnic or potluck gathering.

Sorghum and Roasted Beet Risotto


1 cup sorghum grain

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large beets

2 Tablespoons fresh, minced dill weed

1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (1/2 lemon)

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (from same 1/2 lemon)

1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream

1 teaspoon (or more, depending on taste) prepared horseradish, optional

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Place sorghum and salt in saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer and cook until liquid is absorbed, about 1 hour. This can be done earlier in the day or the night before.

Roast or boil beet roots (keep skins on) until they are tender, about an hour (depending on size; check with a fork for doneness once in a while). To roast beets, do not peel. Coat lightly with oil or wrap in foil and bake in 375-degree F oven until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.

When cooked, it is easy to slip off the skins. Cool. This can be done earlier in the day or the night before.

To assemble:

Dice beets fine or grate on the large holes of a box grater. Stir into the cooked sorghum.

Stir in dill and lemon. Taste and adjust seasonings. Fold in yogurt or sour cream.

You may need to warm this in a microwave or a hot oven.

Makes 4 to 6 side-dish servings.

Asian Style Sorghum Pilaf


1 pound beef, pork, or lamb stew meat

Salt, freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup sorghum grain

3 cups broth

1 pound carrots, sliced

1/4 cup golden raisins

1 – 2 cups peas (fresh or frozen), optional

1/2 cup fresh minced parsley


Season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add meat; brown on all sides for about 10 minutes. Remove, and set aside.

Add onion to the Dutch oven. Cook, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, spices and sorghum; add broth, scraping bottom of pan to dislodge anything sticking to it. Return meat to pan. Bring to a boil; lower to simmer and cook 30 minutes. Stir in carrots and raisins. And continue cooking 20 more minutes. Add peas, if using and cook 10 minutes longer, or until sorghum, meat and veggies are all tender and liquid is absorbed. Stir in parsley, and serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at