Tips for Buying, Varieties, and Cooking Couscous

Couscous in a wooden scoop

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Although some think of it as a grain, couscous is actually a form of pasta made of small, steamed balls of wheat semolina. It originated in the North African region of the Sahara desert and is a staple food in many of that region's countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Algeria. It is often served as a side dish alongside a stew, sauce, or meat. In some cultures, it can be served for breakfast or cooked with juice and fruit for a sweeter dish.

Traditionally, fresh couscous is made by hand and it takes a bit of time. Coarse semolina flour is mixed with water; then, by moving the hand in a circular motion over a sieve, the movement creates small beads. When the balls get pushed through the sieve it helps to standardize their size. The fresh couscous is then steamed and ready to eat. Most couscous in grocery stores, however, is actually instant couscous and has been made by a machine. It simply needs to be mixed with water, stock, or other liquids to steam cook it.

Where to Buy Couscous

Couscous has grown in popularity over the past few years, so you should not have too much trouble finding it in most major supermarkets. The first stop in a grocery store should be in the rice and/or grains aisle—that's where couscous is usually stocked.

If you can't find couscous there, next try the international food section. Some stores group foods from all different world cuisines in the same aisle; sometimes couscous is integrated within other aisles, such as the rice or pasta aisle. It's also available online.

Types of Couscous

Since couscous is a popular food in a number of cultures, there are many varieties. The three most common types of couscous include Moroccan, Israeli, and Lebanese, although Moroccan and Israeli styles are the ones most commonly found in United States supermarkets.

  • Moroccan couscous: This is the smallest couscous; each grain is only a little larger than semolina. It cooks in just a few minutes.
  • Israeli couscous: Also called pearl couscous, this type is much larger than Moroccan couscous and closely resembles little orbs of pasta. It takes about 10 minutes to cook.
  • Lebanese couscous: You may also see this referred to as Moghrabieh couscous. It is the largest of the three types and takes the longest to cook.

How to Cook Couscous

While couscous is often thought of as a side dish or an accompaniment to thick, hearty meat stews, there are other ways to use couscous in the kitchen. You can use it as a filler in meat patties, a base for salads, an alternative to pasta, or a replacement for rice in recipes like stuffed peppers. Like rice or pasta, couscous will absorb the flavors of the liquid and spices you are cooking with. Couscous is a great pantry staple to have on hand because it stores well, is inexpensive and versatile, and cooks in a matter of minutes.

To cook a basic Israeli (pearled) style couscous, bring 1 1/3 cups of water or stock to a boil. Stir in 1 cup of the couscous, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes. Then turn off the heat but leave the couscous covered for an additional 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and stir in some olive oil and herbs, plus whatever else you want to add such as vegetables, dried fruit, and nuts.