What is a gluten-free alternative to bulgur wheat?

Bulgur wheat is a staple ingredient in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. It’s made from cracked, parboiled wheat kernels that have been dried. The partial cooking allows the grains to be rehydrated and cooked quickly. This also gives bulgur a pleasant, chewy texture.

However, bulgur wheat contains gluten, so it’s not suitable for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Thankfully, there are several nutritious gluten-free grains that can be used instead of bulgur in recipes.

What is Bulgur Wheat?

Bulgur wheat is made from durum wheat, which is high in protein and gluten. The wheat kernels are parboiled, dried, and then cracked into smaller pieces. This process partially cooks the wheat, making it faster to prepare compared to other whole grains.

Bulgur has a tender, fluffy texture and nutty flavor. It’s commonly used in tabbouleh salad, pilafs, stuffed vegetables, and meatballs. It can also be enjoyed as a hot breakfast cereal or mixed into soups and stews.

However, the gluten content in bulgur wheat makes it unsuitable for people who must follow a gluten-free diet for medical reasons. Fortunately, there are several nutrient-rich gluten-free grains that can be substituted for bulgur wheat.

Why Follow a Gluten-Free Diet?

A gluten-free diet is essential for managing certain medical conditions:

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Even small amounts of gluten can trigger painful symptoms. A strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Some people test negative for celiac disease but still experience gastrointestinal upset, fatigue, headache, and other symptoms when they eat gluten. This condition is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Avoiding gluten improves symptoms for these individuals.

Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy triggers an immune response that can cause hives, difficulty breathing, and other signs of an allergic reaction after eating wheat. Following a gluten-free diet prevents allergic reactions in people with a wheat allergy.

Dermatitis Herpetiformis

Dermatitis herpetiformis causes an itchy, blistering rash when gluten is consumed. The rash usually occurs on the elbows, knees, and buttocks. A gluten-free diet helps clear up the painful rash.

7 Gluten-Free Grains to Use Instead of Bulgur Wheat

Here are some of the top gluten-free grains to use in place of bulgur wheat:

1. Quinoa

Quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse grain that originates from South America. It’s actually a seed rather than a true cereal grain. Quinoa is high in protein and provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source. It also contains more calcium, magnesium, iron, fiber, and antioxidants compared to true grains.

The texture of quinoa is light, fluffy, and slightly crunchy. It has a mild, nutty taste that works well in both sweet and savory recipes. You can use quinoa instead of bulgur to make tabbouleh salad, pilafs, stuffed peppers or zucchini boats, and meatballs. Quinoa also makes a satisfying gluten-free hot breakfast porridge.

2. Brown Rice

Brown rice is simply whole grain rice with the inedible outer hull removed. It retains the fiber-rich bran and nutrient-packed germ, giving it a chewier texture and more nutrients compared to processed white rice.

Try substituting cooked brown rice for bulgur wheat in recipes like stuffed grape leaves, meatballs, or cold salads. Allow the rice to cool completely before adding to salads so it doesn’t get mushy. For a toothsome pilaf or breakfast cereal, toast the dry brown rice in a skillet before cooking to bring out the nutty flavor.

3. Gluten-Free Oats

Plain rolled oats and steel-cut oats are naturally gluten-free grains, as long as they’re certified gluten-free. Opt for oat groats or steel-cut oats rather than instant oatmeal to get an intact kernel with more fiber and nutrients.

Cook oatmeal with water or non-dairy milk and top with fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut, or maple syrup for breakfast. For dinner, use cooked oats instead of bulgur wheat in recipes for meatballs, veggie burgers, or meatloaf. Steel-cut oats can also be used as a crunchy topping for casseroles or pasta dishes.

4. Buckwheat

Despite the name, buckwheat is gluten-free and unrelated to wheat. It’s actually the seed of a leafy plant related to rhubarb. Buckwheat has an earthy, robust flavor and soft texture.

Try roasted buckwheat, aka kasha, as a hot cereal or side dish instead of bulgur wheat. Or put raw buckwheat groats in cold salads like tabbouleh. For heartier recipes, use buckwheat flour to bind gluten-free veggie or turkey meatballs and burgers. Buckwheat noodles called soba noodles also make great swap for wheat noodles.

5. Wild Rice

Wild rice is a long, dark grass grain indigenous to North America. It has a distinct woodsy flavor and chewy bite. Use cooked wild rice in place of bulgur wheat in pilafs, soups, salads, and stuffing recipes. Combining wild rice with brown rice provides an interesting mix of textures.

6. Millet

Tiny, gluten-free millet grains have a mild corn-like flavor. Toasted millet makes a good stand-in for bulgur wheat in tabbouleh salad. Cooked millet can also be used in pilafs, porridges, soups, or casseroles. For a fluffier texture, try popping the millet kernels in a dry skillet before cooking.

7. Sorghum

Sorghum is one of the top five most produced cereal crops worldwide. But in the U.S., it remains an underutilized gluten-free whole grain. Sorghum has a slightly sweet flavor and chewy texture similar to bulgur wheat. Use it in pilafs, chilled salads, breakfast porridge, or mixed into burger and meatballs. Opt for whole grain sorghum rather than just sorghum flour when swapping for bulgur wheat.

Tips for Cooking with Gluten-Free Grains

Here are some helpful tips for preparing tasty gluten-free grains:

– Rinse grains before cooking to remove debris or dust. Drain well.

– Use a 2:1 liquid to grain ratio for the most tender results.

– Add grains to cold water or broth and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat, cover, and simmer.

– Stirring occasionally helps ensure even cooking.

– Simmering times vary based on the grain, from 10 minutes for quinoa up to 45 minutes for uncooked brown rice.

– Add a pinch of salt to the cooking liquid to enhance flavors.

– Fluff grains with a fork after cooking for light, separated grains.

– Allow cooked grains to cool fully before using in cold salads.

– Store cooked grains in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Gluten-Free Rice and Grain Blends

For convenience, look for premade gluten-free rice and grain medleys in the freezer or dry grains aisle. These provide interesting blended textures perfect for pilafs and other recipes calling for bulgur wheat. Some tasty flavor combinations to try include:

– Brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa

– Brown rice, millet, and flaxseed

– Brown rice, buckwheat, and corn

– Brown rice, red rice, black rice, and chickpeas

– Brown rice, sorghum, and almonds

Creatively Substitute Gluten-Free Grains in Recipes

Many traditional bulgur wheat recipes can be adapted to use gluten-free grains. Get creative with these substitutions:

– Use a blend of quinoa and rice in tabbouleh salad for texture and protein.

– Make stuffed grape leaves with a combination of brown rice and millet.

– Add cooked buckwheat groats, millet, or quinoa to homemade brothy soups.

– Use soaked and blended raw buckwheat instead of bulgur in veggie burgers or meatballs.

– Mix oats and sorghum for a hearty gluten-free breakfast porridge.

– Swap cooked wild rice, brown rice, or quinoa for bulgur wheat in pilaf recipes.

Try Gluten-Free Ancient Grains

Experiment with these trendy ancient gluten-free grains for a nutrient boost:

– Protein-packed amaranth and teff work well in pilafs, porridges, and baked goods.

– Nutty farro and earthy spelt are gluten-free varieties of wheat, so verify they are certified gluten-free.

– High antioxidant freekeh and kamut lend richness when cooked in soups or stews.

Shop the Gluten-Free Section

Many supermarkets now have designated gluten-free sections stocked with pasta, crackers, flour blends, and pre-cooked grains for quick meals. Use these to sample different gluten-free grains and products.

Some brands to look for include:

– Bob’s Red Mill for gluten-free oats, quinoa, teff, and flour mixes.

– Lundberg Family Farms for brown rice medleys and gluten-free rice flour.

– Banza for chickpea pasta.

– Tamari for gluten-free soy sauce.

– Udi’s and Schar for gluten-free bread, pizza crusts, and snacks.

Be Cautious with Processed Foods

Avoid consuming processed foods with long ingredient lists on a gluten-free diet, even if labeled gluten-free. Some additives like maltodextrin and natural flavors can contain traces of gluten. Stick to naturally gluten-free whole foods as much as possible.

Carefully read the labels of sauces, dressings, seasonings, broths, and other packaged products. Call manufacturers to inquire about shared equipment or facilities if concerned about cross-contamination.

When dining out, ask about gluten-free menu options and preparation methods. Avoid fried foods, which are often coated in batter containing gluten.

Include Plenty of Fruits, Vegetables, Lean Proteins and Healthy Fats

Eating well-balanced gluten-free meals provides nutrition and prevents feeling deprived. Fill your plate with:

– Fresh fruits and vegetables
– Lean proteins like fish, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds
– Low-fat dairy or non-dairy milk
– Healthy fats from olive oil, avocados, and nut butters

Consult a Registered Dietitian

Working with a knowledgeable registered dietitian can help ensure a balanced, nutritious gluten-free diet. A dietitian can provide meal planning guidance, suggest flavorful recipes, and recommend the best food alternatives to try. They can also monitor your nutritional intake to prevent potential deficiencies.


From quinoa pilafs to oatmeal breakfasts, there are all kinds of tasty ways to recreate bulgur wheat recipes using gluten-free grains. Brown rice, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, and gluten-free oats provide plenty of options for satisfying, nutritious meals. Flavorful additions like herbs, spices, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins help make gluten-free dishes delicious. With proper planning and care reading labels, it’s easy to follow a healthy gluten-free diet. By exploring different whole grain alternatives to bulgur wheat, you can enjoy your favorite Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes again.

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