Why Does My Quinoa Taste Bitter and How Do I Fix It?

Fields of quinoa
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Quinoa has become popular food item and for good reason. Quinoa has a high protein content, sweet and nutty flavor, and distinct texture. It is also a healthful substitute for starchier pasta and rice in many dishes. A common problem when cooking quinoa is that it can result in a very bitter taste after cooking. However, there is a simple solution to prevent the bitter taste. 

Why Quinoa Can Taste Bitter

Quinoa might be prepared like a grain, but it's actually a seed. And guess who likes seeds? Birds. So as an evolutionary defense against being eaten by birds, quinoa grows with a natural coating of a substance called saponin. Saponin has a bitter flavor which discourages birds from eating it. Unfortunately, it will also discourage you from eating it, unless you do something about it.

Growing and Harvesting Quinoa

Quinoa is a tall grass that flowers, goes to seed, and then, once the leaves turn from green to yellow, it is harvested. A combine thresher harvests the quinoa by chopping off the tops of the plant, loosening, and then separating the seeds from the chaff, or husk.

Whole quinoa seeds are still enclosed in a husk or shell. The exterior of these husks is where the saponin is located. (Technically this husk is actually the dried flesh of the fruit that produces the seed.) This husk is removed before the quinoa is packaged and sold. Given this process, commercially packaged quinoa shouldn't have any remaining husk on it.

If your quinoa still tastes bitter, there is likely still some saponin left on the quinoa. A small amount of saponin will produce enough bitterness to affect a whole bag.

How to Prevent Bitter Quinoa

Happily, the solution to preventing bitter quinoa is very simple. All you need to do is rinse your uncooked quinoa in cold running water for a minute or so until the water runs clear. Given the small size of the quinoa, a mesh strainer works much better than a colander, because the quinoa will not get rinsed out of the holes.

While rinsing the quinoa, you can sort of sift the quinoa around with your fingers to make sure it is all fully rinsed. Once the water runs clear, you can shake out the excess water and then prepare it as usual.
Most quinoa manufacturers rinse the quinoa before they package it, but if your quinoa is tasting bitter, they either didn't do a very good job of it or for some reason, it wasn't done at all. Either way, a quick rinse is all it takes to ensure your quinoa won't taste bitter.

Note too that in recent years, new strains of quinoa containing lower amounts of saponin are being developed through selective breeding, given the grain's popularity. Which means bitter quinoa may one day be a thing of the past. Until then, use this simple tip to avoid any bitterness in your quinoa and enjoy the health and nutritional benefits of this food.