The Storage Life of Grains - Major and Minor

Sharon July 17th, 2008

I’ve had a number of participants in both my classes with food issues that meant that some grains weren’t an option for them.  A fairly large percentage of the population has sensitivities to wheat or corn (there’s some argument in the medical literature whether it is actually biologically possible to be allergic to rice - at a minimum, true rice allergies are extremely uncommon).  Another portion may not be aware that they cannot tolerate large quantities of wheat or corn until they try - I know at least two people with much stored wheat who have discovered they can’t eat it. 

So it behooves all of us to have some familiarity with, and perhaps some storage of, a range of grains beyond the big three - wheat, rice and corn.  Moreover, often minor grains haven’t had the major price rises that major ones have - as far as I know, as yet, no one is making ethanol with amaranth (I’m sure someone is or will be, though). 

Generally speaking, whole grains store for quite a while.  Bleached white grains, with all their nutritional goodness taken off also store a long while but are bad for you.  What stores very badly are any cracked, crushed, ground or processed grains the germ attached - whole grain flours, cracked grains or brown rice (more on this below) have a storage life measured in months, not years.  This is no problem if you don’t buy more than you eat in six months, and you rotate well - but just in case you might not be as careful as you should be on this one, generally speaking, you want to store whole grains - or the processed alternatives, which generally have inferior nutritional value, but some people might want to store them anyway.

The other issue that applies is whether a grain has a hard outer coating or a soft one.  If the grain has a hard one, it stores longer than the softer ones.  The hard grains (which include “soft” wheat - a designation that refers to its baking qualities, not its structure)  generally store for at least a decade, often 20+ years.  The soft grains store, in a cool, oxygen free environment for 6-9 years, depending on which reference you look at.

Because you are storing whole grains, many people will want a grain grinder. I did a post on this subject last time I did the class, and I won’t repeat myself.  A grain grinder is very nice, particularly if you would like to eat foods in familiar forms - ie, bready or pasty kinds of things.  But you can get along without one - for much of human history, grains were pounded or ground by hand or eaten whole.  You could just not eat breads or other ground foods and mostly eat bulghur, hominy and whole rice, quinoa, amaranth, etc…  A grain grinder is a nicety - a very, very useful nicety - but not necessary to life, and you can store grains without one. 

Wheat is a great storage food - but most of us probably shouldn’t eat just wheat.   Any food storage should include a balance of grains - especially if you have young kids.  No more than 50% of your food storage should be wheat based with children unless your family comes universally from genetic “wheat people” and daily eat huge quantities of wheat.  It should be noted that wheat is a wonderful food - and for those who can tolerate it, a great base for a diet, particularly if you are “from” bread.  Just don’t make it the only thing.  The good thing about wheat is that, properly packed into buckets with oxygen absorbers, dry ice, etc…  it will keep for decades.  If kept at temps below 70 degrees, it stays good for 20-30 years.  I am not recommending that you keep it that long - better to eat and enjoy it.  But it will last. 

Corn is also an allergenic food, although also a good one.  For corn, the major issue is that lacks  protein unless it is nixtamelized - that is, unless an alkaline substance is added to it.  The native peoples of the Americas routinely added wood ashes to their food, which resolved the issue.  European colonists in the new world adopted corn, but not the technique of making its full nutritional value accessible, and thus suffered from pellagra.  Kwashiorkor is a related disease, caused by weaning children from breastmilk to non-nixtamelized corn. 

So if corn is one of your primary staple foods, you should learn to make hominy, which is hulled (nixtamelized) corn.  Or you can simply grind or cook corn and add 2 tablespoons of clean (ie, you haven’t burned anything else with it) hardwood ash to each cup of  your corn. 

Take 3 cups of dried corn and 10 cups of water.  Soak the corn overnight in a bowl of teh water.  The next day, put the corn and water (use an enameled or ceramic pot if using the ash - unenameled metal will react with the ash) in a pot.  Cover and bring to a rapid boil.  When the corn comes to a boil, add either 1 cup of culinary ash or 2 tablespoons of baking soda.  You’ll see a dramatic color change in the kernels - they will get brighter looking.

Lower the heat and cover.  Simmer over low for 5 1/2 hours (the corn can be brought to a boil on the stove and then simmered in a sun oven) until the hulls start to com loose and the corn changes back to its original color.  stir occasionally, and add water if necessary.  When all the corn is softened, put the corn under cold water, and rubt it to remove the hulls.  Discard th hulls (compost, give to chickens), and drain the hulled corn.  You can serve the hominy with butter, or with milk straight, or you can dry it in the sun or a dehydrator (to check if it is dry enough, use a fingernail to break open a kernel - if there’s any moisture, keep drying).  It will keep 1-2 years in dry form. 

Dried hominy can be reconstituted, and is delicious in posole, a stew of dried chiles, meat (usually pork) and dried hominy.  Recipes here:

Or you can make masa, which is ground hulled corn.  For dry masa meal, you can dry the hominy and grind it, but traditional masa is ground in a metate from freshly hulled corn.  It is delicious, but a good bit of work, since most grinders can’t easily handle something that wet.  We’ve pulled off a rough parallel with a stick blender, though.

In _Little House in the Big Woods_ Laura Ingalls Wilder described her mother making hominy with lye but this is rough on the skin - I think baking soda or ash is easier (ashes contain lye, but the unprocessed substance is much easier to deal with).  The instructions there are pretty clear, though, if you really want to try it.  Be CAREFUL if you do - lye is very caustic.  Laura talks about eating hulled corn fried in pork fat, with maple syrip or like cereal, in milk.

 BTW, if you want to store whole grains but can’t convince family or friends you will eat this stuff, you might try storing lots of popcorn.  Now popcorn has the same issues as un-nixtamelized dry corn (nixtamelization is not necessary if you are only eating corn occasionally or as part of a wide range of grains - but because corn grows so well, so widely, I suspect some of us may come to rely on it more than we do now), and is not good for grinding into meal (too hard), but it is such an accessible food that occasionally food storage opponents will be ok with a 25 lb bucket of popcorn, and the mental image of endless movie nights that suggests.

Ok, on to Rice.  Here we come to one of the most common confusions in food storage.  Most of the foods we recommend storing are whole grains, which generally store better than grains that have been hulled or ground.  Brown rice looks, to most people, like a whole grain.  The problem is that it isn’t - rice actually has a hull on it, and once the hull is removed, the oils in rice go rancid very, very quickly.  Many people cannot taste rancid grains - they can’t tell if the oils have spoiled - and rancid grains are not good for you.  You shouldn’t eat them.  Brown rice oxidizes and spoils very quickly - the maximum storage life for brown rice out of a freezer is 6-12 months - and that’s a maximum - I’ve had it spoil faster.  Which is why most storage programs recommend white rice.  I’m actually going to do a post next week on finding *whole* unhulled rice and the possibilities of hulling it in the US - Kerri from AK who comments here kindly did a whole lot of research on this subject, and I want to pass it on, but it deserves its own post.  For most people, who do not want to build a rice huller, white rice, which is far less nutritious than brown, is the right choice for long term storage - generally speaking, you don’t want to buy more brown rice than you will use in 6-12 months, and less if you can’t taste (or aren’t sure if you can taste) rancid grains. 

Now 80% of the world’s population mostly eats these three grains.  This can be an advantage if you prefer to buy from smaller producers.  But there are a lot of other great grains out there.

Most of us know Rye best from bread - the big advantage of rye is that it will tolerate colder climates than wheat, and added to wheat flour, it makes delicious bread.  Rye grains, sprouted, also make a delicious porridge.  Rye is a soft grain, and keeps properly stored, for 5-6 years.

Amaranth is wonderful - it is also tremendously easy to grow in many climates, including mine. It can be popped like popcorn and it has a terrific flavor - we love it, and it is also one of the most beautiful and useful plants I grow.  It is great in flatbreads or granola.  I’ve seen several reliable sources with wildly differing estimates of how long amaranth keeps - from 3 years to 10 years and beyond.  I’m going to say we should treat it like a soft grain (with a soft hull) and call it 5 years, but if someone has a better figure, let me know.

Quinoa is hugely popular among people who can’t eat wheat, people keeping kosher for passover (it isn’t a true grain so we can eat it) and a host of new converts.  It is often used like rice or couscous, with food served over it.  It is a soft grain and keeps 6-9 years.  Quinoa has a coating that contains saponins, that are very bitter and soapy - you must rinse it until the water stops soaping before eating it.  The rinse water supposedly can be used to do laundry, though.

Barley is one of the oldest grains - one of the best things about barley is the sweetness it develops when sprouted - malted or sprouted barley adds a light, sweet flavor to breads.  Pearled barley is essentially the white rice of barley, and keeps forever - whole barley keeps forever, but has hulls which are not the sort of thing you want to eat - whole barley at the home level, without some way to hull it, is mostly good for beer making.  There are hulless barleys, but there’s no clear answer on how long they store - at a minimum, I would recommend treating them as a soft grain.  Hulled barley keeps 5-7 years.

Buckwheat is essential in pancakes at our house, and in soba noodles - easily grown, easily ground, it makes a crop quite quickly in late summer.  The greens are nutritious (as are amaranth’s) and a good salad green in hot climates where lettuce bolts, or anywhere you are using it as a cover crop.  It is a hard grain, and lasts for decades.

Millet is a hard grain as well - most of us know it as birdseed, but it is a common food grain in India and much of Northern Asia, and has a delicate taste - it is quite delicious.  We use it like rice or couscous - it is also very digestible.  It stores for decades.

Spelt, Kamut and Emmer I’ll deal with together, because they are all forms of wheat with special qualities.  All keep like wheat - more or less forever.  Emmer is a very old form of wheat that some people with wheat sensitivities can tolerate (although it is not good for celiacs) - it has a heavy hull.  It is also a good variety for those growing wheat on extremely poor soils.  Kamut is a commercial variety that some people with wheat allergies seem to be able to tolerate - those who produce it claim it is a very old variety, but there’s limited evidence on this.  The same is true of spelt, which is either a wheat or a close relative, depending on how you interpret the genetic evidence.  Again, it is not suitable for people with celiac.  All keep very well, all are lower gluten than conventional wheat and make a heavier bread, but all taste good.

Not a true grain (neither is amaranth or quinoa), Flaxseed in its whole form also keeps nearly forever - for a decade or more.  Given the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and the pleasant taste of flaxseed, this is an excellent thing to keep in storage - we love it.

 All of these are worth eating and experimenting with - and storing.  But please don’t just store them - eat them. 

A few recipe links:

More recipes in future posts!

32 Responses to “The Storage Life of Grains - Major and Minor”

  1. Sarah says:

    In the bulk bins at the co-op, there is barley, which is brown and slightly pointy and looks like wheat. It does not look white and rounded like pearled barley. Does this have an inedible hull? Is it just slightly-less-pearled barley? I suppose I should just ask the nice people at the co-op…

  2. Fern says:

    How did a nice Druish (Druid from Jewish family) woman like me, with strong family history of Kasha use, end up with a buckwheat hating husband?

    But since he loves hominey, I store corn. Instead of wood ash or baking soda or lye, at least for now I’m using calcium chloride to remove hulls, the same thing I use to coagulate soy milk into tofu. Hadn’t yet figured what I’d do without the CAL.

  3. Sharon says:

    It is probably hulled barley, or hulless barley, Sarah. The reason it is unlikely to be unhulled barley is that those hulls often have “beards” or “awns” on them, which are pointy and not too pleasant for people to eat. So it is probably either a hulless variety of barley, or hulled (but not pearled) barley.


  4. FW says:

    We’ve been growing a bit of field corn as an experiment to see if we could grind cornmeal but we still aren’t sure how to dry it. Do we need to do this baking soda process too?

  5. ToilingAnt says:

    I have a 5-gal bucket of soft white wheat that was bought in prep for Y2K (I’m thinking probably 1999, but it could have been 1998, making it around ten years old now). It’s organic wheat, stored in a dry, cool storeroom inside a food-grade bucket with an oxygen absorbent pack inside and topped with a Gamma Seal lid. My parents gave it to me recently because I couldn’t find bulk grains in my area.

    After using freshly-ground flour for three or four batches of *horrible* bread, I began to fear that I’d lost my touch for baking (I hesitate to call myself expert, but I did bake whole grain bread for profit for several years). I mentioned it to my mom, who suggested I try sprouting the wheat to see if it was still “alive” at all. Well, after several days I ended up throwing out a few cups of slimy grain that never did sprout.

    I always thought that wheat had a nearly indefinite shelf life, but now I am wondering about that, since my wheat is obviously dead even though stored so carefully. On the other hand, I am using kamut and spelt that are about the same age and still make good bread.

  6. ToilingAnt says:

    Sarah, pearled barley is not the same as whole grain. It’s roughly the equivalent of white rice vs. brown.

  7. Rosa says:

    is it called Pot Barley, Sarah? That’s hulled barley.

    I bought some on a whim and then had to figure out what it was. It cooks like brown rice in our rice cooker, and makes a good cold salad w/oil, dressing & veggies.

    I *just* got my order in to seedsofchange for buckwheat seeds, mostly to try to cover the sad sight of our giant south facing flower garden overrun with weeds, but also because I gave up and stuck tomatos in there a while ago and I’ve been feeling like, if I am going to water it, it might as well be something besides echinacea. And now I discover I could grow barley there in early spring…hmn.

  8. Sharon says:

    FW, usually corn can be simply dried on the stalk, but if you planted it late, it may need to be left somewhere reasonably airy to dry a little more after it gets cold. And you don’t have to do the baking soda process - it is only really necessary if you are eating corn as your primary grain - then you do have to do it. It is worth knowing how to do, and hulled corn is delicious, but it isn’t necessary otherwise.


  9. Becky says:

    ToilingAnt, I thought any of the *life* kernels stored in buckets with oxygen packets do need to be aired out at least once or twice a year simply by opening the bucket and pouring content slowly into a new bucket, add new oxygen absorber and seal.
    Could be an old wife’s tale.
    Makes sense to me to check occasionally.

  10. Olga says:

    I love barley! I would recommend people to soak it overnight so it would cook faster.

  11. Lisa Z says:

    Can anyone even get US grown quinoa? Our co-op just got a notice from one of our bulk grain distributors (Bergin Nut Co.) that something big has happened in Bolivia and there will be no quinoa available for the foreseeable future, and that what the distributor could send us would cost 60% more. A 60% price rise and extremely low supplies! This may be a grain many of us will have to give up, unless more farmers start growing it in the US (or other countries local to others here-don’t mean to be US-centric).

    Oh, I just read online that there was a crop failure and Europe outbid the US for the available crop so it’s all going to Europe. Except the boxed stuff, which is all we’re now getting at our store…And the price is $3.99 per pound!
    I guess quinoa can be grown in the US in high altitude areas but is so far hard to match the quality of that grown in S. America. Here’s one link:

  12. e4 says:

    How about oats?

    Any experience with hulless oats?

  13. Cyndy says:

    Eating buckwheat greens may cause toxic reactions in fair-skinned people due to fagopyrin. If you notice photosensitivity it could be related.

  14. olympia says:

    Sharon- is all quinona created equal? I’ve eaten a fair amount of quinona in recent years, all bought from the bulk bin at the co-op, and it’s all tasted fine to me without being rinsed. Would it taste even better without rinsing, or am I eating a different kind of quinona than what you’re talking about?

  15. Sarah says:

    Rosa — it’s just labeled as “barley”. I’m guessing it is hulled barley. At some point I will add some to my grain collection :-)

    ToilingAnt — sure; I meant “whole grain” as in “not flour”. I’m not sure there’s a good word for that that’s different from “not polished”.

  16. mims says:


    commercial variety quinoa has been rinsed prior to purchase. If you grow your own, then it must have the saponins washed off prior to cooking.

  17. Sharon says:

    Hi Edson - I’ve grown hulless oats, but they didn’t last long in the quantities I grew them in ;-) . I’ve not tried storing them - I think the issue is that no one is sure whether hulless oats or hulless barley store more like a hard or soft grain - I couldn’t find any research on the subject, and Alan Hagan, who is *the* authority doesn’t seem to have found it either.

    So I just don’t know - they’d be good for a while, though - presumably at least 5 years.


  18. WNC Observer says:

    Sharon: WRT rye, one has to be extremely careful to start with good grain that is fungus free and very dry, and to make sure that it is kept in very dry storage conditions. Otherwise, you run the risk of developing the fungus infestation ergot, to which rye is highly susceptable and which can be very harmful if consumed. Do exercise much caution with this one.

  19. valereee says:

    Sharon, how long does the dried corn last in storage? I think you were saying it was the dried hominy that lasted a year or so?

  20. Nature Deva says:

    I’ve been really keen on storing grains this year that are both non-allergenic and are able to be sprouted. So far I’ve got buckwheat groats, millet and quinoa stored in that dept.

    I’ve sprouted all 3 and either dehydrated them at low temps or used them fresh in salads - I made a very tasty sprouted quinoa tabouleh recently, did a sprouted millet veggie salad and also put some into my granola that I then dehydrate the whole lot for “living granola”.

    And sprouted buckwheat I just go crazy for - it’s a fast sprouter (so is quinoa) versatile and when dehydrated, it’s like rice crispies and useful in many recipes as well as eaten with milk or milk alternatives as a cold cereal ( it’s also good in the granola).

    This is important to me for real food storage because I eat this way for one but also because with living foods, you get vastly more nutrition out of it (enzymes, vitamins and minerals) than if you cook it at high heat. If there are food scarcity problems in the future, how often will we be getting our vitamins? Also these vitamins are 100% bioavailable so the body can absorb all of it.

    And, if any family needs to come live with me for any reason, they can eat most that I’ve stored since it’s non-allergenic (and very inexpensive and versatile) grains.

    We have also stored some wheat and corn, too since my husband can tolerate them just fine.

  21. Sharon says:

    WNC - good point about argot. Still, if you store them in normal storage conditions - dry, cool, careful, you should be fine.

    Valeree - Dry corn is a hard grain and stores 10-20 years.


  22. villabolo says:

    Sharon, thank you very, very much for the brown rice advise. I have 85lbs for one person and was planning on purchasing up to 6 months worth (1lb a day) with the understanding that this time period was at room temperature not frozen. I then proceeded to vacuum pack it in a food saver (It’s supposed to extend shelf life of grains by 50 to 100% then and only then did I put it in the fridge where info on food storage in general led me to believe that it’s shelf life would be extended another 3 fold.
    Later I placed the vacuum packed bags of brown rice in the freezer where similar info allowed a calculation of 8 fold increase over room temperature storage life. I thus thought, with trepidation, that I had a long time to worry about it.
    I also feared that humidity in the freezer would allow mold to grow which is why I considered the vacuum packing crucial since the regular packaging it comes in is not air tight. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking about freezers and mold but I have personally witnessed mold grow in a freezer so darn slowly that it took me several eyeballings throughout the months to make sure that it was mold. I thought it was corrosion till I decided to clean the fridge.
    Anyway, please let us know if you have any experience with ‘Food Savers’ or vacuum packing in general.

  23. Pat Meadows says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I’ve had both millet and flaxseed go rancid. They were not stored in ideal conditions, they were in a fairly warm garage. But they sure went rancid, and within less than two years.


  24. villabolo says:

    Pat, in my experience no one should ever store anything whatsoever, whether it be food or chemicals of any kind anywhere the temperature exceeds room temperature. I had 500 lbs of wheat packed in nitrogen sealed cans with 20 year shelf lives and honey with a supposedly indefinite shelf life. Everything was fine until five years before expiry when I decided ‘temporarily’ to transfer it to the garage. I live in Southern California where it was getting to 100 often time (We’ve had 110-120 in recent years).
    To make a long story short by the time I needed it it should still have been good but the honey had turned from light creamy brown to something resembling asphalt and the wheat-well let me say this. No job, no welfare or unemployment, easy to feed and beginning to look like something out of Dachau. Could not eat it.
    I highly recommend you bury your food 10 feet underground were the temp is stable (In case of prolonged electric outage) and discovery by thiefs minimized.
    Taking the trouble of packing them in ‘Food Saver’ bags could also extend their shelf life at small cost.

  25. HFE says:

    I’m sorry, I can’t help it, but as a nursing mama, I can’t help but think that lactofermentation is what happens after a 10 hour workday when I’ve left my breastpump at home!

    Um yeah…

    I love that you are offering all of this food preservation info on your website. I’m learning a lot, and I enjoy your writing style. This may be the summer I learn to can!

  26. Tovah says:

    Olympia - Not all quinoa is created equal. Quinoa from Trader Joe’s or Ancient Harvest brands that is bought in a box does NOT need to be rinsed - it is pre-rinsed. Bulk quinoa usually does need to be rinsed, but not always. Eden quinoa specifically says it is to be rinsed. So it varies, but it’s always better to rinse than not, if it’s not from one of the boxed brands I mentioned.

  27. mulewagon says:

    I’ve ground a lot of popcorn in my electric grinder - it makes great cornmeal! My grinder (a Nutrimill) can’t handle the large corn kernels, but takes popcorn just fine.

  28. vikas says:

    theres a kind of millet called ragi in india n africa.this can store upto 50 years.check it out.

  29. Chris Apple says:

    I am confused about hulling buckwheat. I love kasha and I have easily grown buckwheat in my NY state garden as a cover crop. But I always thought that buckwheat is very difficult to hull and requires specialized hulling equipment. Can you just put the unhulled grain through a grain grinder for flour?
    Also, does anyone have a source of home-size grain dehullers? I would like to grown wheat, rye, oats, etc. on my land.
    Lastly, hulless oat groats can easily be made into delicious hot cereal by placing 1 cup of oats with 4.5 cups of water in a crockpot (low) overnight.

  30. anne fallas says:

    What brilliant info. Anne

  31. penny says:

    Hi, I am going through my grains and updating, and found some random things I placed in a bucket…in 1999….before we began using grains etc., every day as a usual ingredient…what can I do with old dry beans, small and large. Also some dry split peas… Should I sprout some to see if they are fine, using a percentage as a guide, or can I process as for us and give them in small doses to my chickens?? They were stored the same way I do all my food, dark, cool, constantly dry basement….or should I just compost the lot? Love the site! Thanks for the information…by the way, we switched to grains other than wheat because of allergies, and wished we’d know long ago about wheat and corn being so allergic!!

  32. Alba Ebeid says:

    Good thorough ideas here.I’d like to suggest taking a look at things like graphic bomb. What exactly are you looking for though?

Leave a Reply