Like their sweet sisters, smoothie bowls, grain bowls are all the rage right now. Grain bowls are a complete meal composed of a grain base, some time of protein, a sauce, and vegetables and toppings, all arranged together in a thematic way that’s visually appealing. For instance, the toppings in a grain bowl might be centered around a particular cuisine (such as Korean) or another culinary theme (like seafood). The meal-in-one bowls are easy to make ahead and easy to transport—two characteristics that make them especially appealing for busy, work-week lunches.
We asked Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen cooks Emily McFarren and Isabelle English, authors of The One-Bowl Meals Cookbook, to walk us through how they create one, and share their wisdom for building the very best grain bowls.
Start with a base.
The base, while traditionally a carbohydrate like rice, could really be any type of grain or fiber-rich food. Choose one of the following:
- White rice
- Brown rice
- Soba or rice noodles
- Cauliflower rice
Choose a protein.
Protein is arguably the star of a grain bowl, so use top-quality ingredients. Choose one of the following:
- Seared steak
- Grilled chicken breast
- Steamed Shrimp
- Flaked fish
- Smoked duck
- Glazed salmon
- Lox or gravlax
- Roast pork belly
- Marinated tofu
- Sliced Tempeh
- Fried, poached or soft-boiled eggs
Next, make a sauce.
Sauce is key to a grain bowl, since it adds a blast of flavor and helps tie all the ingredients together. For instance, you might use a soy-based sauce to build an Asian-inspired bowl, or a pesto if the meal is based on Italian ingredients. Choose one of the following, or create your own sauce!
- Green Goddess dressing
- Yogurt sauce
- Homemade or store-bought spicy peanut sauce
- Emily’s go-to combination: fish sauce, brown sugar and lime juice
Don’t forget the vegetables.
Grain bowls are a definite part of the current wellness trend, so to stay along those healthy lines, be sure to fill up on vegetables. The test kitchen even likes to add spiralized vegetables, which are a pretty way to add extra servings of veg with minimal prep time. Pick as many of the following as you’d like:
- Sliced avocado
- Halved cherry tomatoes
- Roasted, steamed or sautéed kale
- Cooked spinach
- Charred eggplant
- Grilled corn
- Blanched green beans
- Diced red onions
- Roasted chicories or root vegetables
- Shredded carrots, cabbage or broccoli
- Pickled cucumbers, onions or cauliflower
- Pico de Gallo
- Cabbage or daikon kimchi
- Spiralized carrots, beets or zucchini
Top it all off!
Toppings serve multiple purposes: In many cases, they add a punch of flavor or texture (or both), plus they make for an aesthetically pleasing garnish. When selecting your toppings, aim for a balance of crunchy toppings and soft toppings. Choose a couple of the following:
- Black or white sesame seeds
- Thinly-sliced scallions
- Chopped fresh herbs like mint or cilantro
- Fried shallots
- Crumbled feta, shaved parmesan, or goat cheese chunks
- Chopped pistachios or walnuts
- Shredded nori (dried seaweed)
- Crispy chickpeas
- Hot sauce
Before you get started, here are two more things to keep in mind:
Prepping ahead will make your life so much easier. One-bowl meals are meal prep-friendly options. At the beginning of the week, make a big batch of grains to use all week, grill meat, and make sauces, mixing them separately so they’re easily packable and portable for lunch. Many of these can be used for a variety of dishes (and also happen to last as long as up to a week in the fridge.)
Remember that you eat with your eyes first. Grain bowls, above all else, are visually appealing; take the time to arrange your selection artfully. Color is key; don’t be shy about adding lots of colorful fruits and vegetables when they are fresh and in season. (It also happens to be an easy way to make sure you eat the rainbow.)
For even more on building your own bowls, pick up a copy of The One-Bowl Meals Cookbook, which features 27 different recipes for grain bowls that work any time of day.