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Ingredient Spotlight: Chia Seeds

What are chia seeds and where do they come from?

Chia seeds are the edible seeds of Salvia hispanica (related to mint) and Salvia columbariae plants, which are native to Mexico, Guatemala, and the southwestern United States. It’s only in the last forty years or so that chia seeds have become popular in North American homes. First as the quick-sprouting hair of novelty Chia Pets, and more recently, they’ve been recognized as a superfood kitchen staple. But what many people don’t know is that chia has been cultivated in Mexico and Guatemala since Aztec and Mayan times.

Chia seeds are tiny, only about two millimetres in diameter, but they can absorb up to twelve times their weight in liquid when soaked. They can be eaten raw or toasted, soaked or unsoaked, ground or unground, making them a versatile and fun ingredient to work with.

Health benefits of chia seeds.

Chia seeds are an amazing vegan source of protein, fibre, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin B1, and vitamin B3. They’re also full of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can be great for the health of your skin and hair. Chia seeds are even a decent source of folate, which is especially important in pregnancy. 

Chia seeds may be tiny, but they are mighty; adding them to your food and drink is an easy way to up the nutrient content and antioxidant power of whatever you’re making.

Buying and storing chia seeds.

Chia seeds are widely available, and you can find them in most grocery stores. Even better: check out your local bulk food store and bring your own container with a tight-fitting lid to stock up—you’ll want to have some around, always. You can find black or white chia seeds—they have a very similar nutritional content, but it can be fun to mix up which type you buy or have some of both on hand. You can also buy organic chia seeds if you prefer, in either whole or ground up form. 

Like any kind of seed, store your chia seeds in the refrigerator to prevent the oils from going rancid. Keeping them in a cooler environment will also make them stay fresh longer. Now that you’re stocked up, you can get chia seed benefits in so many different ways:

Ways to incorporate chia seeds into your foods and drinks.

Egg substitute.

Chia seeds make a simple and effective substitute for eggs. When it comes to vegan baking, you’ll use this one a lot. You can easily convert your non-vegan recipes using this trick as well: if the recipe calls for an egg, just replace it with either a chia “egg”:

1 Tbsp chia seed + 2.5 Tbsp water = 1 chicken egg

Mix them together and let them sit for a few minutes. The mixture will thicken and gel, and it acts just like a real egg in baking recipes, like cookies, cakes, muffins, and quickbreads. 

Smoothies.

You might not notice that there are chia seeds in your smoothie, but your body will appreciate the nutritional goodness. You can soak them ahead of time to make a gel beforehand or throw them right in as-is.

Chia pudding.

Chia pudding is perhaps one of the most popular uses for chia seeds, and it’s no surprise why: the result is thick, creamy, and whatever delicious flavour you want it to be. You can make chia pudding with different liquid bases to get different results; try it with coconut cream to be extra indulgent. You can add chia pudding as a topping to other bases, like oatmeal, or use it as its own base and add extra toppings to it.

Sprouts.

You can quickly sprout your own chia seeds at home and have fresh, tender tiny greens to add to things like sandwiches or salads. It’ll take less than a week and doesn’t require much effort at all.

Sprinkles.

You can sprinkle chia seeds on or in pretty much anything. Put some on the table and let kids sprinkle them onto whatever they’re eating, whether it’s dessert or dinner.

Baking.

Beyond using chia seeds as an egg substitute, you can add them to any sort of batter or dough. Try adding some to your favourite go-to muffin and cookie recipes. You can make chia pizza crust, add them to a crumble topping, or use chia jam in thumbprint cookies and oatmeal bars.

Thickener or binder.

When you soak chia seeds, a thick gel develops, and you can use that to thicken things like salad dressings, gravies, and stews. They also help with binding and come in handy when you’re making things like homemade veggie burgers, falafel, or faux meatballs.

Granola or bars.

Tiny and inconspicuous, you can add chia seeds to any sort of granola or nut bar that you’re making. If you add chia seeds to homemade granola bars or protein bars, they’re perfect for hunger pick-me-ups; they will help you feel full longer and boost your waning energy.

Breadcrumbs.

Chia seeds can be used for so many healthy hacks, adding impact to aspects of recipes that don’t usually beneficially contribute to your nutrient intake. Breadcrumbs are one of those uses. Grind chia seeds into a powder and use them to replace breadcrumbs or add them to a breadcrumb mixture to up the nutrient content of your meal.

Popsicles.

Simply add some seeds to any popsicle mix before freezing for some visually fun speckles and a boost of nutrition. You can also blend up your homemade chia pudding or smoothies in fun flavours and then freeze.

Chia jam.

Because chia seeds are such an excellent thickener, you can use them to make jam without adding tons of sugar. You can use fresh or frozen fruit and have delicious jam made from scratch in about ten minutes. All it takes is cooking together a couple of cups of fruit, a couple of tablespoons of chia seeds, and a squeeze of lemon. You can use a bit of sweetener if you want, but the fruit is usually sweet enough on its own. It’s fun to experiment with fruit combinations that you can’t find on grocery store shelves, and because you know all of the ingredients are good for you, you can feel good about adding some on to everything. 

Chia drinks.

If you like juice with pulp, bubble tea, or aloe drinks—any kind of drink with texture to it—you have got to add chia drinks to your repertoire. It’s satisfying, fun to drink, and it turns any drink into an energy drink. You don’t have to be too exact, and you can adjust the ratio to your liking, but about 2 cups of liquid to 1.5 Tbsp of chia seeds is an excellent place to start. Just let the mixture sit for about half an hour and then enjoy.

Chia seeds in water? Yes! You can keep it this simple if you want to, but it really is fun to experiment.

Chia Fresca has been a popular drink in Mexico and South America for a long time; it’s a version that uses lemon or lime, water or coconut water, and the sweetener of your choice—so, basically lemonade with a fun and healthy twist. You can experiment with any kind of flavour or sweetener. It’s hard to go wrong here.

Mix them into anything.

Chia seeds don’t really have a flavour, so you can mix them into anything to get a nutritional boost. Try adding them into dips or pancakes or putting some into your cup of herbal tea.

Nutritious chia seeds are versatile and truly a gift to any kitchen—especially a vegan kitchen. You can browse the internet for new recipes and ideas or do your own experimentation. It’s hard to go wrong with these powerful tiny seeds, and the nutritional benefits are so worth it.

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