What Is a Couscoussier and How Do You Use It?

By Touzrimounir (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A couscoussier is a piece of traditional North African cookware most often associated with Moroccan cuisine. The double-chamber pot allows you to steam couscous while simultaneously preparing a stew to serve on top of the couscous. You can use the steamer for other foods, including vegetables, and the base as a stockpot for soups or pasta. A versatile stovetop cooking vessel, a few tips will help you get the best meals out of your couscoussier.

What Is a Couscoussier?

Similar in appearance to an oversized double boiler, couscoussiers are often made of metal. Stainless steel or aluminum versions tend to be the most affordable, copper couscoussiers can be quite pricey, and clay couscoussiers are also available. No matter the material, the couscoussier has three parts: stockpot, steaming basket, and lid. The steaming basket has holes that allow the liquid in the bottom chamber to cook the food above it.

The Stockpot Bottom

Called a barma, the bottom or base of the couscoussier is essentially a large stockpot, often with a slight contour at the rim. When making couscous, it is filled with water or stew ingredients. As it heats, the steam reaches the couscous in the upper basket. You can also use the barma alone to make soups, broths, and stews, and it works well when you need to boil pasta.

The Steaming Basket

The steaming basket, called a kesskess, sits atop the base. The holes are larger than those in a typical colander, though the fine grains of couscous do not fall through. The kesskess does not nestle deep inside the pot like some styles of steaming baskets but instead fits snugly just inside the rim, allowing ample space in the pot below for cooking voluminous quantities.

In addition to couscous, you can use the basket to steam other foods, including broken vermicelli (chaariya) when making seffa, shredded msemen for rfissa, and spinach or mallow leaves for cooked salads. It also works as a steamer for poultry, meats, rice, and vegetables.

The Lid

Couscoussiers include a lid that covers the steaming basket. Cooks have varying opinions on whether or not it should be used when steaming couscous. Some feel that uncovered couscous absorbs more broth and flavor, while others believe that covering the steaming couscous makes it more tender and plump. It's really up to you; try it both ways and see which you prefer. Even if you don't use it for couscous, the lid is useful when steaming other foods.

3 Tips for Using a Couscoussier

The couscoussier is designed to steam traditional couscous, not the instant variety prevalent in the United States, which simply requires a few minutes in boiling water. In the traditional Moroccan process, steaming transforms little flour balls into light and fluffy couscous, and the aromatic broth or stew underneath gives it flavor. While there are several steps involved in steaming couscous, some tips will help you use the couscoussier itself:

  • Steam should only rise from the top of the basket. If you see steam escaping from the joint between the basket and base, you'll need to seal it. One easy solution is to use a very long length of plastic wrap (foil may also work) to cover the entire circumference. Fold it in half lengthwise once or twice, drape and fit it around the rim of the stockpot, then nestle the steamer basket on top (the plastic wrap should stay in place when you lift the basket). Tying a long piece of folded cheesecloth around the assembled couscoussier is another option, though you will have to remove it before lifting the steamer basket.
  • Don't let the liquid touch the steamer basket. The stockpot base can fill up quickly when making a couscous recipe with lots of veggies, but you don't want the broth to reach the steaming basket when it comes to a boil. If necessary, cook half of the stew in the couscoussier base and the other half in a separate pot. This is particularly useful when feeding a large crowd or you want to ensure that there is ample sauce to offer on the side.
  • Avoid overpacking the steamer basket. You can fill the kesskess to the brim with couscous. However, you don't want to compress it by adding the entire batch at once, especially during the third and final steaming when the couscous is plump and voluminous. At this stage, add the couscous in several increments; wait for steam to rise after each addition before filling the basket a little bit more.