Originating from the Mediterranean, bulgur is a popular type of wheat that has been around for centuries. In fact, some experts believe it to be the oldest convenience food used for at least 4,000 years.
Bulgur is often found in Middle Eastern dishes, and no grain salad, including tabbouleh, can go without it. It is easy to prepare, versatile, and has numerous uses both in modern and traditional cooking.
If you don’t have any bulgur at the moment, or you just don’t feel like it pairs well with other ingredients, there are many bulgur substitutes you can use instead.
The best substitutes for bulgur
Bulgur is actually made from whole-grain kernels of wheat that have been cracked to reveal this beautiful grain. It is then parboiled and dried to be prepared for packaging. This process makes the preparation of bulgur much easier and quicker.
There are also other wheat varieties that come from kernels, including wheat berries (which are raw) and freekeh (made from cracked kernels that haven’t been cooked prior to packaging). However, these varieties tend to be a bit more expensive than bulgur.
When it comes to flavor, you’ll find that bulgur also has that distinctive grain taste and chewy texture. It is slightly nutty, a bit toasty, but still neutral enough to be paired with many other ingredients – hence the versatility.
When cooking bulgur, it is important to note that it is pre-cooked so you don’t want to cook it for too long and end up with overcooked, rubbery grain. However, depending on the type you get, the cooking time may vary, but it is usually cooked within 15 minutes.
While you always want to check the packaging for instructions, the rule of thumb is to add 2 cups of liquid for every cup of bulgur. The process itself doesn’t differ much from cooking other wheat products, as you want to bring the mixture to a boil and then let it simmer ‘till cooked.
Bulgur is a must-have ingredient when it comes to preparing a tabbouleh salad, but it is also an amazing choice for your vegetable stir-fries, curries, as well as vegetarian burger patties, but also as a binding agent in meatballs.
When it comes to the actual bulgur varieties, the main difference is in the shape and size of the actual grain. Bulgur can be fine, medium, coarse, and very coarse – depending on the way it is graded. Keep in mind that the coarse and very coarse take longer to cook.
For instance, you could use fine and medium bulgur in your salads, while dishes such as pilaf and stuffings usually require coarse varieties. Let’s see which options could work as a substitute for bulgur in your recipe!
While we all use quinoa as a grain, it is actually a seed from the quinoa plant. However, since it is a whole-grain carbohydrate, many people get confused about its origin. It is also an amazing gluten-free bulgur substitute, packed with numerous health benefits.
Since it looks and acts like a grain, but it is technically a seed, in nutrition, it belongs to the category of pseudo-cereals. Quinoa can replace any grain, especially since it has a rather neutral flavor profile.
It is amazing with seafood and all kinds of fish; it can also be tossed into a salad with some smoked tofu, fried with a veggie mix, or used in stuffing for stuffed peppers. When baked, it gets a crunchy texture, while it is incredibly creamy in cooked dishes.
There is often confusion surrounding the origin of couscous, as well. It does resemble a whole grain, especially rice, but in reality, couscous is a type of pasta made of wheat flour and semolina.
Couscous is native to North Africa, and it has many applications in the kitchen – both as a main and side dish. What contributes to its versatility and convenience is the fact that it takes only a few minutes to cook.
This bulgur replacement is has a rather neutral, mild flavor with a hint of nuttiness. It can be used in risotto instead of rice, it tastes amazing in stuffed peppers, but you can also toss it on some olive oil with onions and get a delicious side dish or main course.
Rice is probably one of the most popular grains all over the world, and its popularity is well-deserved considering its level of versatility. It is safe to say that there are thousands of delicious rice recipes and combinations for you to try.
Rice comes in many shapes and forms, but the most common type is white rice which is basically milled rice without the bran, husk, and germ. Other popular varieties include brown rice, converted rice, long-grain, medium and short-grain, and wild rice.
Rice is also a great bulgur substitute in chili, as it is neutral enough to be mixed with other ingredients, and it tends to pick up all the flavors and aromas just like bulgur.
Just like bulgur, farro has been around since ancient times, and its nutritional value and health benefits are long known. Similar to barley, this whole-grain wheat has a chewy, tougher texture, and it is usually sold pearled.
As opposed to most of the bulgur alternatives we’ve mentioned, farro isn’t as neutral, and it does have a more complex flavor profile. The flavor could be described as slightly nutty, with a hint of cinnamon aroma.
Farro can be used in place of bulgur in all of your recipes, as it is doesn’t get mushy when cooked longer, but it is also a great option for quick meals such as salads. It is delicious in greek salad, risotto, and slow cooker chicken.
Just like couscous, orzo is often mistaken for a grain, while it is in fact a small-shaped pasta, and it belongs to a pasta category known as pastina. While it is commonly used in soups, orzo offers many possibilities, including pasta dishes, stews, and casseroles.
Depending on whether there’s an addition of vegetables in it or not, orzo comes in many colors, including yellow, red, and green. There’s also an alternative for those with gluten sensitivity, made with corn and rice.
If you’re adding orzo to your salads or cold dishes, you want to cook it as you would any other pasta. However, orzo can also be added to dishes such as beef stew to be cooked in them.
This bulgur alternative resembles quinoa, and it also belongs to the category of pseudo-cereals that are actually seeds. As such, it can be used whole or ground into gluten-free flour you can use for baking, or as a thickening agent.
Amaranth is also a great choice if you’re looking for an ingredient that isn’t completely neutral but delivers a kick of peppery, nutty, herbal flavor. If you go for toasted amaranth, the toastiness and nuttiness will be even more pronounced.
If you’re trying to eat gluten-free or simply make better choices, amaranth flour is a great choice for baked goods including pizza and all kinds of bread.
Buckwheat is yet another pseudo-cereal that many consider a type of wheat grain. It is, in fact, a gluten-free seed and it is a high-quality source of protein. When cooking buckwheat, use a 1:2 ratio of water.
Just like amaranth, buckwheat can be ground into gluten-free flour and used for pizza and bread dough, as well as noodles and crepes. Buckwheat is a great choice in salads since it adds texture and a nutty bite.
Buckwheat is nutty, slightly bitter, but when roasted, the flavor becomes even more enhanced.
8. Wheat berries
Wheat berries are edible parts of the wheat kernel, with all its parts, including the endosperm, the bran, and the germ. They’re practically unprocessed wheat parts, and they have a high fiber content as they’re whole-grain.
This bulgur substitute combines a sweet flavor with a dose of nuttiness, which makes it suitable for both savory and sweet dishes. Wheat berries also have a slightly toasty aroma.
Wheat berries can add some crunch to your salads, but you can also make some wheat pudding, or use them as a source of grains in your vegetarian chili.
Barley cannot be considered a whole grain, as it doesn’t contain the outer bran layer. This bulgur substitute is easy to use, it doesn’t take a lot of time to cook, and you can combine it with many types of meat and vegetables.
Barley is a bit chewy and has a tougher texture that adds bite to any dish. It has a slightly nutty flavor that develops beautifully in dishes such as stir-fries, casseroles, and pilaf. You can also add barley to soups and salads to replace pasta.
How to choose a bulgur substitute
If a recipe calls for bulgur, but you’re not exactly thrilled about its taste, or if for some reason you simply need to replace it, any of the mentioned substitutes for bulgur can do the trick. What matters the most is what kind of flavor and texture you want.
In case you don’t want to experiment too much and you prefer to stay in the grain category, you can go with rice, farro, wheat berries, or barley. All of these ingredients offer great versatility, and they can be used in a variety of recipes.
On the other hand, pseudo-cereals such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat offer all the benefits of grains, with higher protein content, and without gluten. These alternatives can be used whole or ground – as a gluten-free flour replacement.
There are also miniature pasta options, including couscous and orzo, that can easily replace barley in all soups, pasta dishes, stews, salads, and sides.