What is quinoa? Plus the best ways to cook it

Here’s everything you need to know about using the ancient grain quinoa in modern cuisine, from different varieties to the best ways to prepare it.

In this article you will find:

What is quinoa?

Quinoa (pronounced sharp wow) is a healthy whole grain food that is quick to prepare, extremely versatile and incredibly tasty. It is sometimes called a pseudo-grain because the gluten-free seed comes from a flowering plant that is more closely related to spinach, Swiss chard and beets than to other grains.

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Quinoa is also known as one of the ancient grains, thanks to its long history as a staple food in South America. (Fun fact: Quinoa is also native to North America—seeds have been found in archaeological digs from Mississippi to Ontario—but the North American varieties went extinct thousands of years ago.)

The quinoa we enjoy today remained relatively unknown outside of South America until the 21st century, when the nutritious seed’s popularity exploded worldwide. Peru, Chile and Ecuador remain the world’s top quinoa producers, but nowadays most of their production – which has more than doubled in the past 10 years – is exported to the US, Canada and Europe. This global demand for quinoa has fundamentally changed the agricultural landscape of the South American countries that produce it.

Taste and nutritional value of quinoa

One big reason quinoa’s popularity has skyrocketed is its impressive nutritional profile. With 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per cup of cooked grains, quinoa ranks near the top of the list of whole grains in terms of nutrients. Quinoa also boasts all nine essential amino acids and high levels of trace nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and folate.

But let’s face it: quinoa wouldn’t be much of a “superfood” (another label it often gets) if it didn’t taste good! Quinoa’s flavor is slightly nutty or grassy, ​​depending on the type you use, and less pronounced than other highly nutritious whole grains like buckwheat, amaranth, and teff.

Types of quinoa

There are over 120 known varieties of quinoa, but the most readily available to consumers are white, red, and black. Here’s a quick rundown of the four different types you’ll find in the store.

White

White quinoa is the most common and the most versatile. The largest of the quinoa varieties, it has a mild, grassy flavor and a creamy texture.

red

Red quinoa is chewier and smaller than white, with a nutty flavor.

black

Black quinoa has the most pronounced flavor and remains firmest when cooked.

Tricolor

Tricolor quinoa is simply a combination of white, red, and black quinoa types.

How to cook perfect quinoa every time

Follow these three steps for hassle-free quinoa cooking.

1. Rinse to remove bitterness.

Quinoa seeds produce saponins, bitter compounds that act as a natural defense against predators. A quick rinse removes the saponins, so no trace of bitterness remains. Even quinoa labeled “prewashed” should be rinsed to be safe.

2. Choose the right cooking method.

Fluffy, creamy or firm? Each of the following techniques gives a different texture.

  • fluffy: Bring the liquid (stock or water) and quinoa to a boil in a 2:1 ratio in a small saucepan. Cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes or until the quinoa is tender and all the liquid has been absorbed. Let stand in a covered pan for 5 minutes to allow the seeds to swell, then fluff with a fork.
  • creamy: Increase the liquid to quinoa ratio to 2½:1. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the quinoa is very soft and all the liquid has been absorbed. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
  • Hard: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the quinoa and cook for 12 to 15 minutes or until tender. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer. If desired, rinse to cool for salads.

3. Search the queues.

When quinoa is fully cooked, the seed sprouts look like little sprouts or tails. The appearance of the tails is the best way to check doneness.

Quinoa vs. Brown Rice (and Other Whole Grains)

Quinoa can be a great alternative to brown rice in many recipes because it cooks faster and has higher amounts of fiber and other nutrients. In fact, quinoa can replace almost any small whole grain, although you may need to adjust the cooking time accordingly when added to a soup or stew.

The only downside to using quinoa in whole grain recipes is that it won’t soak up sauces or thicken stews as well as starchier options like rice or barley. One way to enjoy the best of both worlds is to combine quinoa with other cooked whole grains for a delicious, textured mix.

Quinoa vs. couscous

Quinoa’s shape, texture, flavor and nutritional profile make it an excellent substitute in any recipe that calls for couscous.

Things to try with quinoa

Quinoa isn’t just for grain bowls and side dishes. Here are a few other ways to enjoy the grain gluten-free.

flour

Quinoa flour is a nutty, high-protein, gluten-free option for baked goods. You can even grind your own by whizzing rinsed, drained and dried quinoa seeds in a high-speed blender.

Flakes

Use quinoa flakes (usually found in the hot cereal section along with oats) the same way you would use rolled oats in breakfast cereals and baked goods.

Baking ingredient

Add cooked or raw quinoa to bread and cookie dough. Use leftover cooked quinoa to add texture to stir-fries and pancakes.

Our favorite quinoa recipes

Platter of vegan sushi rolls filled with quinoa, carrots and cucumber, drizzled with Thai peanut sauce, with extra sauce in a bowl on the side

To help you get started, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite quinoa recipes—from baked goods to salads, soups, sushi, and more—that will make you fall in love with the grain.

For more healthy cooking tips, see Forks Meal Planner, FOK’s easy weekly meal planning tool to keep you plant-based. To learn more about a whole plant-based diet, visit our Plant-based primer.

Mixed quinoa spoons Top view on wooden kitchen table

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