Eat Good Food

Millet History

A healthful grain that can grow with little water and is a nutritious substitute for rice or quinoa, millet has a long history.

While found most often in the United States as food for birds and livestock, millet is a dietary staple and a main source of protein in most of the developing world. Globally, millet is the sixth most cultivated grain after corn, rice, wheat, barley, and sorghum.

Millet is very well suited to drought conditions and has great natural biodiversity, meaning that it can be cultivated in a variety of locations.

Quick-cooking millet can easily become the backbone of a weekday lunch or add some crunch to a weekend waffle. It can also be cooked into porridge or ground into flour for gluten-free baking.


  • The Chinese believe that millet was brought from the heavens by Houji, or “Lord Millet.” Millet was one of the five sacred grains in ancient China.
  • Millet has a long history of being fermented or distilled into alcohol. In Africa, malted millet is brewed into a beer known variously as kaffir beer or bantu beer. In Nepal and Tibet, raksi is a traditional liquor distilled from millet. In the U.S., Koval Distillery in Chicago has distilled a whiskey from millet.
  • Although known for its drought tolerance, as much as 80 percent of the 2012 millet crop was lost due to exceedingly hot and dry conditions.

Tidbits and Terminology

  • Millet is actually an umbrella term for around 20 species of cereal grass from the Poaceae family.
  • The hulls of millet seed can be used to make filling for pillows.
  • Most of the millet grown for the human consumption in the U.S. comes from Colorado. Other millet producing states include Nebraska and South Dakota. On a global scale, India produces the most millet, followed by Nigeria and Niger.

Cultivation and Harvest

  • The most commonly grown variety is pearl millet, whose seed grows in cattail-like stalks. Other species of the cereal include finger, foxtail, and barnyard millet.
  • Millet grows up to six feet in height and is ready to harvest in about two to three months. The hulls of its seeds need to be removed before consumption. While the majority of millet grown in the U.S. is for livestock and bird seed, some farms are experimenting with millet for consumers as the market seeks out alternatives to wheat.
  • In India, finger millet is known as ragi, which is milled into a flour used in dosa and roti flatbreads.

Nutritional Information

Millet is a low glycemic, gluten-free, nutrient-dense alternative to rice and is packed with B vitamins like niacin and thiamine. One cup of cooked millet contains 12 percent of the recommended daily allowance of protein and is loaded with minerals manganese and phosphorous.

Buying Guide

Millet, known for its small round seeds, comes in white, yellow, and red varieties.


At room temperature, millet will keep in a sealed, dry container for a year or so.

At a Glance: Cooking Tips

  • To get more flavor out of millet, toast the seeds lightly in a skillet for 4-5 minutes until golden brown, then cook as desired.
  • A 2:1 water to millet ratio will get you a quinoa-like consistency. For porridge, use a 3:1 ratio and stir often. Season as needed.

Want to learn more? Check out our recipe for SHED co-owners Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniel’s favorite millet muffins.


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