Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) may be the most widely recognizable of the so-called "ancient grains." It has been a staple in the diet of people in the Andes for thousands of years; the Incas called it “the mother of all grains.” Long before Europeans colonized South America, quinoa was being cultivated and eaten throughout much of the continent.
Now touted as a modern-day “superfood,” quinoa has gained a worldwide reputation as a healthier substitute for white rice and pasta and a rare plant source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans.
What Is Quinoa?
Culinarily, quinoa acts like a whole grain, but it is actually a seed from a weed-like plant called goosefoot, which is closely related to beets and spinach. Whole grain quinoa can be prepared like brown rice or barley, and you can also purchase quinoa flour and quinoa flakes. In any form, it's among the more expensive of the whole grains.
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How to Cook Quinoa
To prepare quinoa, cover it with seasoned water, stock, or vegetable broth, bring it to a boil, then put a tight-fitting lid on the pot, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer it until it softens, about 15 minutes; look for the tiny spirals of the germ to appear, a sign that it's done. Drain it with a fine mesh sieve, return it to the warm pot to rest for about 10 minutes, and then fluff it with a fork to separate the grains. Or use your rice cooker, with a 1:2 ratio of quinoa to water.
You should rinse quinoa before cooking it to remove the outer coating, called saponin, which can leave a bitter and soapy taste. Some brands do this before packaging their quinoa, but it's a good idea to do it again at home just to make sure you've washed it all away. You'll need a fine mesh sieve so you don't lose the tiny seeds down the drain.
Use quinoa in just about any recipe calling for rice or another whole grain, such as rice salads, couscous recipes, or pilafs. If you keep some cooked quinoa on hand in either the fridge or freezer, you are always ready to toss it into any dish for added texture, body, and nutrition.
What Does It Taste Like?
This small seed has a nutty flavor and fluffy texture that manages to be creamy and slightly chewy at the same time. To take advantage of this, prepare it simply with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a splash of lemon juice; add a bit of garlic, nutritional yeast or Parmesan cheese for a satisfying side dish. Like rice and other mild grains, quinoa absorbs the flavor of whatever sauce or dressing you choose to serve with it.
Add some vegetables and a dressing to make an easy quinoa salad, or swap out white rice for quinoa with any kind of stir-fry or fried rice dish. Try different ways to eat quinoa for breakfast or start with one of these curated recipes:
Where to Buy Quinoa
Look for quinoa near the rice or pasta or in the ethnic foods aisle of your grocery store. It's also readily available in the bulk bins or the baking aisle of natural foods stores and online. You may find it boxed with seasoning packets near the couscous mixes or in a medley of all three colors. Quinoa flour may be stocked with the other flours, with gluten-free products, or in the ethnic or natural foods aisle; look for quinoa flakes near the breakfast oats.
Similar to other dry grains, quinoa should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place to prevent moisture and insects from getting into it. Once it is cooked, it will stay fresh in the refrigerator for five to seven days. You can also batch cook it and store it in the freezer in serving-size portions.
Store quinoa flour in the freezer to slow oxidation and extend its shelf life. Quinoa flakes last in the refrigerator for up to a year.
Nutrition and Benefits
Quinoa delivers complete protein, providing all nine essential amino acids, something rare to find in a plant product. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 222 calories and 4 grams of fat; there are 39 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fiber, and 8 grams of protein. It has 15 percent of the daily value for iron and is also a good source of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin E.
Quinoa is also a gluten-free and cholesterol-free whole food, naturally kosher, and often effortlessly organic. The natural saponin coating repels bugs and birds, so growers rarely need to depend on chemical pesticides.
Quinoa grows in many different colors but white, red, and black seeds are the ones most commonly harvested for consumption, and they each have their own culinary nuances. White, the most common variety, takes the shortest amount of time to cook. Of the three it has the least crunchy texture and mildest flavor. Red comes on a bit stronger in both the flavor and crunch factors while also taking a little longer to cook; black, the most flavorful and crunchiest, requires the longest cooking time.