People in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru grew amaranth thousands of years ago and utilized it as a staple grain, much like a oats and wheat. It may have been just as popular as corn. It’s technically not a cereal grain but it acts like one. The leaves are also edible and highly nutritious.
Amaranth became part of religious Aztec ceremonies. However, during the 16th century, Spaniards discovered the “New World” and tried to eliminate amaranth because it was used along with human blood to honor the gods. These rituals were not consistent with Christian beliefs and harsh punishment was handed out to anyone growing amaranth.
Amaranth, an important, protein-rich, dietary staple was forbidden.
Luckily for us, and despite harsh attempts to eradicate the plant, the seed found its way around the world and now many cultures use amaranth’s leaves and grain. In native areas of Central and South America, amaranth is making a comeback.
There are more than 60 species of amaranth (amaranthus).
Most varieties have bushy flower heads and the color can range from golden yellow to the richest reds and brightest purples. Amaranth grows like a sunflower. It is related to pigweed. It sways in the breeze and its rich-colored flower heads make any garden area magical. Hummingbirds dart in and out of it freely attracted by the colorful blooms. Butterflies will be more abundant. Amaranth makes a beautiful backdrop or natural fence around the garden.
How to Eat Amaranth
We use amaranth leaves in salads. Most amaranth varieties you find at the specialty market in the grains section will have beige colored seed. It is marketed in the United States as a gluten-free and nutrient-rich health food containing plenty pf protein. Once the seeds are cooked, they can be added to cereals and salads or eaten with fresh fruit.
How to Cook Amaranth
For every 1/2 cup of amaranth, add 3 times as much liquid – so 1 1/2 cups of water, chicken broth, apple juice or coconut water. Use a saucepan. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer. Keep uncovered until the liquid you added is absorbed, about 15-20 minutes. Cover until you serve it or incorporate into a recipe. Amaranth alone is kind of bland. You can use it like rice or quinoa, maybe mix in some cooked onion and garlic along with chopped parsley and a squirt of fresh lemon juice.
Because amaranth contains no gluten, the flour will not work well for foods like bread that need to rise. If you plan to substitute amaranth in your recipes calling for glutinous flours you should only replace 30% of the base flour with amaranth.
Use amaranth flour for making biscuits, pancakes, pastas or flat breads! Muffins might work too. So much to try. Last I checked (2014), the cost of organic amaranth seed at Whole Foods was $2.99 per pound. If you want to grow some yourself, save out a small handful and plant in your garden.
I have popped amaranth and it was fun but a little tricky. USE NO OIL, just a really hot, deep pot. Add a tablespoon or two of amaranth seed at a time. Cover and immediately move the pan back and forth vigorously. It will burn if you take too long to cover or if you stop moving. Take it off the heat when 3/4 of the seed look popped. I went through about 3 tablespoons before I got it right – my house smelled a little charred during testing :). It tastes like a cross between popcorn and puffed rice. I added chopped green apple and liked the crunch. Great with yogurt! Work it into homemade protein bars. Recipe coming soon!
I’m a fan of sprouting and amaranth sprouts are a favorite with my kids because they aren’t too spicy and have a tang to them that is pleasing to their fun palettes. Rinse seed and place one tablespoon in a canning jar with a perforated lid. Rinse every 8 hours and replace lid. Eat sprouts when they have just sprouted. Use in sandwiches and salads or as a snack.
Nutritional Value of Amaranth
According to the Whole Grains Council amaranth leaves offer a protein comparable to animal protein. You can get more beta-carotene, lutein (antioxidant) and amino acids from amaranth than almost any other vegetable including spinach, kale and chicory.
One cup of cooked amaranth seed provides about 250 calories, 46 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fiber, 4 grams of unsaturated fat and 9 grams of protein. It is considered a complete protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids. Although it may seem like just another trendy grain on the shelf of Whole Foods, it is gaining popularity with folks with Celiac Disease and is being used in struggling areas of Mexico to fight childhood malnutrition.
How to Grow Amaranth
The amaranth plant you see in my picture is commonly called Prince’s Feather. It’s considered more of an ornamental plant. I still use the leaves in recipes. The seeds are black, not cream colored like the kind you find at the store in the grains section. Many varieties can be grown as a vegetable. Central, South America and some Asian countries primarily grow it for grain, not the leaves. I just purchased amaranth seed and all plants will be used for greens. I’ll make sure to collect seed for future plantings although they’re sure to reseed easily.
- Miriah Amaranth: I’ll use the green leaves on this one as a substitute for spinach. I heard the leaves are great pickled so I’ll try that too. Miriahs grow about as tall as me, almost 6 feet.
- Molten Fire Amaranth: This one grows lower to the ground, only about 10″ tall. It’s mostly all leaf – bright crimson leaves! I’ll try it in my giant clay pots and as an edible border in my garden.
- Congo Amaranth: Another tall variety, the leaves are known for their exceptional taste. The flower heads are brright green so it will be a wonderrful contrast up against gold and cranberry colored bursts from my current crop.
Amaranth is easy to grow. You do need fairly warm weather. Plant after all danger of frost is passed. The seed will germinate in soil temps between 60F-90F. For the best results, direct seed in full sun. I have started seed inside but have better results seeding them directly in the ground when things start to warm up. The more fertile your soil, the taller they will get, maybe eight feet tall! Mine got between 4-6 feet because my ground was very clay heavy but drained OK. You don’t need to be perfect in your spacing. Thin plants to one every 12″ after the seedlings emerge.
Amaranth is fairly drought tolerant. You can get by with watering 1-2x week at first and maybe one deep watering per week after that. Go away for a couple of weeks and the plants probably won’t die. I have never fertilized my amaranth but you could once or twice each season from the middle to the end of summer. Once frost hits, amaranth will die back. Before they do, collect your seed for next season.