A Beginner’s Guide to Chia
If you’re anything like I used to be, if you were to play some word association and be given the word chia, you would immediately follow it up with pet. It’s kind weird though, for as widespread that chia pets have been for the last 30 or so years, it’s only in the last few years that using chia seeds as part of a healthy diet has been rediscovered.
I say re-discovered, because like quinoa, the Aztecs and Mayans of ancient Central America knew how to take advantage of the unique properties of chia seeds as part of their diets (and more)… Chia, (botanical name: salvia hispanica) is a member of the mint family, and the edible seeds are small, about the size of sesame seeds. The word chia, by the way, comes from the Mayan word for “strength”.
One of the more interesting qualities of chia that the Aztecs really knew how to take advantage of is that they are hydrophilic – which means they absorb (up to 30 times their weight) and really hold on to water. The Aztecs would use this quality to help them keep hydrated on long marches and such… a quality many endurance runners today are taking advantage of.
Aside from that, chia seeds pack a lot of other great nutrition in a tiny package. A single ounce (about 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds packs a whopping 11g of fiber (the average person needs 25-30g a day), are about 30% protein and about the best plant based source of omega 3 fatty-acids you can get… even beating out the more widely known flax seed. And unlike flax seed, you don’t need to grind chia seeds up for your body to digest them.
The omega-3s help fight inflammation, and getting enough fiber in your diet has been shown to help your cholesterol levels. On top of that, chia seeds are good sources of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin, and zinc. And for those looking for help in controlling hunger, between the fiber and being hydrophilic, chia seeds can help you feel full longer, helping keep you from over-eating.
Chia seeds are pretty much flavorless… though some people say they have a sort of nutty flavor. I wonder if in part it’s because of the crunch they have? Personally, I’ve never thought they really have any sort of taste… but I guess your mileage may vary. In any case, it’s not the sort of flavor that’s going to overpower anything you add them to.
You can find chia seeds from various places online, but more and more retailers are starting to carry them as well, but you’ll likely have to hit up places like Whole Foods or your local co-op. You may have a bit of sticker shock when you first go to buy some. A pound of chia seeds can $10-12 or so, but a little bit of chia seeds go a long ways.
So once you have some, what can you do with them? Well… what can’t you do with them? First off, you need to remember “1 to 4”. This is the ratio of chia seeds to water to make your basic… well… the culinary term for it is “bloom”, where the chia seeds are suspended in a liquid (usually water, but can be juice or other liquids), but I tend to just call it “goop”. Basically for most uses you’ll want to add 1 tablespoon of chia to 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) liquid. If you use it frequently, you can make a small batch up ahead of time by adding 1/4 cup chia to 1 cup of liquid and store up to two weeks in a covered container in the fridge, then measure it out as you need it. The longer it sits though, the more liquid it’s able to absorb… so in some cases you may need to thin it out a bit when you go to use it.
When these bloomed whole chia seeds are ingested, they are like a time release capsule of super nutrition. When the seeds enter the digestive system they are slowly broken down allowing for the nutrients to be completely absorbed in to the body and also are very helpful in reducing glycemic peaks and falls as well as helping you feel full longer after eating. The moisture they’ve absorbed is also slowly released, helping maintain hydration. Just a warning though… while you can eat them without first blooming them, do so sparingly, because they will absorb water from your body and eating too much un-bloomed chia could potentially end up dehydrating you from the inside out.
- Chia seeds are gluten free and can be ground in to a flour for use in baking and other similar uses. Typically you can substitute up to 1/4 of the usual flour with chia flour.
- Speaking of baking: want a vegan egg substitute when baking? Use 1/4 cup of the goop for each egg called for in a recipe. If mixing up on the fly, use 1 tablespoon chia and 3 tablespoons water and let stand for at least 15 minutes to get that 1/4 cup per egg.
- Because of their ability to retain moisture, you can also substitute the chia goop for up to half the oil/fat/butter in a baking recipe.
- Add to beverages: Either stir in a tablespoon or two of your prepared goop or add about a teaspoon per 8oz of beverage to make just about any drink a “bubble tea” sort of drink. Try adding them to your smoothies too.
- An alternative liquid thickener – now this one has so many possibilities. I use chia seeds instead of pectin to make my own fruit spreads. You could add some to soups, stews and gravies in order to thicken them up, or make a very tasty pudding (see recipe below).
- Stir in to yogurt, baby food, or your favorite pasta sauces.
- Add to your oatmeal or other breakfast cereals (hot or cold) or stir in to pancake/waffle batters.
- Sprinkle the dry seeds on a salad for a crunch similar to sesame or poppy seeds or sprout them and add to sandwiches or salads.
Chia puddings are some of the first recipes people seem to make when they first try chia. They’re supper easy, and really tasty… and who doesn’t like pudding?
When you use chia seeds to make a pudding, no matter what the flavor you make you are going to get a bit of a tapioca sort of feel to it… There are lots of variations of chia puddings out there, but this is one of my favorites that I make once in a while for an easy to make snack. This is for a single serving, and the recipe easily scales up for how many servings you want to make.
- 1/2 cup milk – I use soy milk, but use what ever sort of milk you have/prefer
- 1/2 banana, frozen
- dash vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon brown rice syrup (or honey or your favorite natural sweetener) or to taste
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
In a blender or food processor, blend the milk, frozen banana, vanilla and sweetener until the banana is fully pureed. Pour in to a bowl, stir in the chia seeds and let sit in the fridge for 15-60 minutes, stirring two or three more times during the first 15 minutes to make sure to break up any clumps of seeds.
The longer you let this sit, the thicker it will get, try to let it thicken for at least 30 minutes… if you can wait that long. For a chocolate pudding, you can add about 1 teaspoon of cocoa powder. For other flavors, sub in other frozen fruit (about 1/4 cup) for the banana.