How to Make the Summer's Tastiest Grain Salads

Grain salads make ideal meals for hot summer days and nights. These tips from professional chefs will help you put together the best possible versions of this warm-weather staple.

Quinoa Summer Salad with Feta
Photo: France C

When outdoor temperatures rise, home cooks frequently seek out meals that prove both satisfying and refreshing. A dish that includes hearty grains, bright seasonal herbs, freshly-harvested fruits and veggies, and invigorating proteins fits the bill for a summertime repast, especially when it can be served either hot or cold. For all of these reasons, the grain salad deserves its reputation as a mealtime MVP between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Read on for a guide to some of the most popular salad grains out there, along with suggestions for how to use them to make a balanced and delicious meal.

A guide to grains for grain salads

We asked experts to share their tips for making the tastiest grain salads, including what grains to use and flavor combos they love.


Confetti Rice Salad
Confette Rice Salad.

Pictured above: Confetti Rice Salad

One of the most commonly consumed grains worldwide, rice comes in a wide array of types and styles, including white rice, jasmine rice, basmati rice, and wild rice. Each version features its own textures and flavors, and discovering the perfect vegetables, fruits, and herbs to complement different rice varieties is an engaging challenge for any cook.

More: How to Cook Rice

Recipe developer and food blogger Jessica Randhawa of The Forked Spoon loves to combine the nuttiness of wild rice, the peppery kick of arugula, and the lush sweetness of heirloom tomatoes. "Wild rice, flat parsley, and arugula go very well together as they complement each other's textures and flavors. When you add seasonal produce like perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes to the mix, it can create quite the dream salad," Randhawa tells us.

When we asked Canadian chef and cookbook author Jordan Wagman to suggest a great combination of ingredients for a grain salad, he recommended zesty radishes and vibrant dill. This vegetable and herb pairing delivers serious brightness and subtle citrus notes, and when you mix sliced radishes and dill into your rice of choice and dress the salad with a lemony vinaigrette, you end up with a light and flavorful meal for a hot summer night.


Pictured above: Fresh Tabbouleh

What is bulgur?

Bulgur is a cereal grain made from cracked wheat. It undergoes a parboiling process during production, which makes it longer-lasting and quicker-cooking than raw cracked wheat. Bulgur's texture is light and airy, but the grains feature a chewy bite that gives it plenty of personality.

Try combining bulgur with frisée greens, roasted grapes, and minced shallots. "The addition of roasted grapes is always a pleasant surprise for this dish. I love the savory and sweet combination. Bulgur has a nutty flavor that works so well here (I like to cook it in low sodium vegetable broth for even more flavor)," chef, recipe developer, and registered nutritionist Cindy Chou says of one of her preferred grain salads for summer.

When she wants to make a grain salad that truly maximizes seasonal summer produce, Chou opts for cherry tomatoes, charred corn, and fresh basil, telling us that "sweet summer tomatoes and corn" work wonderfully with bulgur's natural flavor. Adding fresh basil lends this recipe some crisp green freshness, which serves to reinforce the salad's summery vibes.


Quinoa Summer Salad with Feta
France C

Pictured above: Quinoa Summer Salad with Feta

What is quinoa?

Although it's considered an "ancient grain" and is frequently placed in the grain category, quinoa is actually a type of seed. Because it's gluten-free and packed with protein, quinoa regularly appears on "superfood" lists and is a favorite among health-conscious cooks. Luckily, it also provides a robust texture and a pleasantly nutty flavor that collaborates well with summer fruits and veggies.

More: How to Cook Quinoa

A grain salad of Lebanese origin that appears throughout Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, tabbouleh involves a blend of grains, tomatoes and cucumbers, herbs and seasonings. Traditionally, tabbouleh features bulgur, but executive chef Devin Walline of The Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tennessee likes to swap in quinoa, calling the resulting salad "one of my favorite grain salads [that's] easy for a home cook to make in the summer."

Fans of fresh fruit eagerly anticipate the summer for excellent reason; juicy cherries and peaches are at the peak of their ripeness during this time of year, and recipe developer and cookbook author Jessica Formicola views both fruits as indispensable ingredients in her favorite seasonal quinoa salad. "I've been tossing quinoa with either fresh cherries or sliced peaches, chopped fresh mint and a few dabs of balsamic vinegar and serving it cold. I also like to top it with something crunchy- walnuts or raw toasted quinoa are my go-tos," Formicola tells us.


Pictured above: Cherry Farro Salad with Sweet Vinaigrette

What is farro?

Farro is a nutritious ancient grain that's highly popular in Italian cooking. Its health-based credentials bear many similarities to quinoa, and its toothsome texture gives it enormous versatility in the kitchen (and makes it a fantastic base for grain salads).

More: All About Farro

With their delicate onion flavor and crunchy texture, scallions abundantly earn their status as a mega-popular summer vegetable. Cindy Chou likes to make a farro salad with scallions, summer squash (she particularly recommends pattypan squash), and "a simple lemon vinaigrette or any pesto. This combination is easy to make since the only ingredient you have to cook is the farro. The sliced summer squash provides a nice crunch and will soak up flavors from the lemon vinaigrette or pesto."

Chef and cookbook author Devin Alexander's farro salad thoroughly departs from the grain's Italian heritage by giving it the taco salad treatment, to delicious effect. "If you're craving Mexican food, add chopped tomatoes, avocado, black beans, onion, shredded Mexican cheese blend and/or sliced black olives and fresh cilantro to warm or cold farro. Squeeze fresh lime juice over top with some extra virgin olive oil or use your favorite Mexican salad dressing. Top it with Mexican seasoned (or just plain) grilled chicken, mahi, or shrimp…almost like a burrito bowl (less the tortilla and sour cream)," Alexander instructs.


Barley, Shrimp, and Corn Salad

Pictured above: Barley, Shrimp, and Corn Salad

What is barley?

Like bulgur, barley qualifies as a cereal grain, and it also shares bulgur's mild nuttiness and its firm, slightly-chewy texture. Barley comes in several variations of size and shape, so it's easy to customize your barley salads to suit your personal textural preferences.

More: How to Cook Barley

Chef and recipe writer Devan Cameron of Braised & Deglazed opts for barley when making this summer grain salad, as the flavor of barley provides an ideal contrast to the sweetness of summer peas and the cool herbaceousness of mint. With fava beans for substance and lemon juice for brightness, this salad practically screams "summer".

Hot summer days and nights call for produce with serious hydration potential, which is why chef and co-founder Andrew Riccatelli of Peppr includes both cucumber and watermelon in his "favorite summer grain-herb-vegetable combination of pearl barley with cucumber, watermelon, dill, and a simple vinaigrette of seasoned rice vinegar with honey, Dijon and olive oil."

How to add protein to grain salads

overhead view of Cold Chicken Quinoa Avocado Salad on a decorative platter
Buckwheat Queen

Pictured above: Cold Chicken Quinoa Avocado Salad

According to our sources, yes, you should absolutely add protein to your summer grain salad! Below, you'll find specific advice from the experts:

Protein takes a grain salad from a side dish to a meal.

"I think protein takes a salad from a 'side' to a meal. So I'm a big fan. Grilled proteins are [especially] amazing on salads because they provide nice hearty bites," Devin Alexander tells Allrecipes.

If you're adding meat, give serious thought to the flavor and texture of the grains.

"I like meat in grain salads as long as the flavors make sense," says Devan Cameron.

Chef Charlie Layton of Basic Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina also encourages discernment when adding meat and proteins to grain salads. "For me, it's all about pairing the protein with the grain by finding the balance and making sure the protein sits well with the grain so that neither outshines the other," Layton insists.

For best results, focus on lean proteins.

If you're trying out proteins in a grain salad for the first time, Devin Walline recommends erring on the side of caution. "Personally, I stick to lean proteins in grain salads and recommend chicken and turkey. However, I have used a variety of legumes and tofu as well. I try to avoid high fat proteins such as ground beef, anything fried, or pork," Walline says.

Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, a registered dietician and the founder of Hispanic Food Communications, fully cosigns this endorsement of lean proteins in grain salads, telling us that "grain salads with lean meat proteins are great because they avail themselves to being combined with so many additional great plant-based foods — you already get great plant protein from the grain and tons of nutrition from the veggies and fruits, but adding some lean meat make the perfect meal. Nutrients like to work in teams, so pairing these foods together is a great way to better absorb all of the beneficial nutrients in them."

Consider vegetarian proteins like beans and nuts.

If you abide by a plant-based diet or if you'd simply prefer to avoid adding meat to your salad, then beans and nuts make brilliant substitutes. Chef-instructor Ann Ziata of the Institute of Culinary Education calls out her favorite plant-based grain salad proteins like so: "Young edamame and fava beans are delicious, but even canned kidney beans and black-eyed peas will find a newfound freshness in a grain salad."

Feel free to use leftovers.

James Beard-nominated chef and cookbook author Abra Berens of Granor Farm in Michigan celebrates grain salads in all forms, stating that "they are complete meals without an additional animal protein." However, she also views grain salads as an ideal way to use up leftover meat from the previous night's dinner. "These bowls can absorb any random leftover meat from the night before. I particularly like to flake leftover fish into it or chop up hard-boiled egg. I try to avoid anything that I have to cut while eating, like pork chops or steak. Instead I try to use something like slow-cooked pork shoulder or pulled chicken so I can skip the knife and keep the grain bowl a fork-only affair," Berens says.

5 top tips to make the best grain salads

Healthy Warm Farro Salad on a white plate with lemon garnish
Kim's Cooking Now

Pictured above: Healthy Warm Farro Salad

1. Dress your salad while it's still hot.

To maximize your salad's flavor quotient, follow Ann Ziata's advice and "dress the salad while the grains are still warm so the dressing will be better absorbed, and then let the dish rest before serving so the flavors marry."

If you make your grain salad ahead of time and want to liven it up before serving, then Jessica Formicola urges you to "reserve some of the dressing or liquid being added, even if it is just olive oil. These [salads] will soak up every drop while sitting and need a light toss to refresh them before eating."

2. Be sure to thoroughly dry your grains and vegetables before mixing the salad.

According to Devin Alexander, a perfectly-textured grain salad relies on "drying your greens and veggies really well so you don't end up with a big soggy mess of wet lettuce and watery grains (I've seen many people make this mistake!)."

3. Experiment with seasonal ingredients.

The beauty of a grain salad rests in its flexibility; there's no limit to the number of potential vegetable, fruit, and herb combinations. Devin Wailline likes to go all-in on seasonality when designing his grain bowls: "Depending on the season, I surround the grains with whatever produce inspires me or is of the freshest quality. For example, in the summer, I will [use] some of my summer favorites: cherry tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumber and red onion."

Executive chef Matthew Mohler of 106 Jefferson Hotel in Huntsville, Alabama tells Allrecipes that "I would offer a home cook the same advice I would give to a first time cook in my kitchen. Experiment! All you have to do is experiment, since food is subjective. The more you learn about how specific foods react to different methods of cooking, the more you learn your own preferences. Failure in cooking is part of the process."

4. Season your grains while cooking.

While it's of course important to season your grains while assembling your salad, Devan Cameron also emphasizes the importance of "cooking the grains in plenty of salted, boiling water so that the grains are seasoned properly in the end."

To give your grains even more depth of flavor, try this hack from Jordan Wagman: "Toast your grains. I will toast my quinoa for ten minutes, until they change colour and become super aromatic. This creates another layer of flavor when cooking grains."

5. When in doubt, keep it simple.

"Flavorful" and "fussy" never need to be synonymous, and when it comes to grain salads, owner/founder Maya Kanarek of Grater Greens in San Diego, California believes that "simpler is always better and tastier! Don't overcomplicate the dish. Some grilled veggies, your favorite grains, and clean ingredients such as fresh cucumber, tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, and lemon are always a winner."


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