Quinoa is a nutty member of the grain family that gets a bad rap, and it’s time to fix that. Pronounced keen-wah, it’s actually a seed that originates from South America and was a staple in the diet of the Inca people, who often referred to it as “mother grain.” It’s gluten-free, high in fiber and a rare complete protein (meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids), making it a great plant-based protein source for vegetarians and vegans.
So why do its haters refer to it as tasteless, sad, soggy mess? Probably because they’re cooking it wrong. Here are a few tips to turn you into a quinoa enthusiast.
Toast it to release more flavor.
The first step to perfect quinoa is toasting it. Just like nuts and grains, quinoa tastes better when it has been roasted. Toast it in a dry skillet over medium-low heat for 5 to 7 minutes until it turns a light golden color and smells nutty.
Rinse it before you cook it.
After it’s nice and toasty, it’s time to rinse it. Quinoa has a natural coating of saponins that leaves a bitter, soapy taste in your mouth if it’s not washed away, which is a huge reason a lot of people think they don’t like quinoa. Place the quinoa in fine mesh strainer and run it under cold water for a minute or two to remove the coating.
Try cooking it like pasta.
There are so many theories on how to cook quinoa ― use a 2:1 ratio of water to grains, cover it, don’t cover it, steam it, boil it, simmer it, use a rice cooker ― the list goes on. Throw all that nonsense away. The key to fluffy, tender quinoa is about not following the rules.
Perhaps the easiest way is to cook it just like pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, dump in your quinoa and cook it, uncovered, at a low boil for about 12 minutes. Before you drain it, taste the quinoa to see if it’s done ― it should be tender but still have a bite. It should also have a little white ring around the outside to indicate it’s ready.
Drain the cooked quinoa back into the fine mesh strainer and let sit for at least 15 minutes to release any excess water or moisture. Then fluff it with a fork, just like couscous.
While you’re bringing the water to a boil, throw in some aromatics to bump up the flavor. Onions, garlic, bay leaves and a few thyme sprigs are always a good place to start, but feel free to adjust based on the flavor profile you’re looking for in your finished dish. If you’re using the quinoa in a Mexican dish, throw in some toasted cumin. If you’re using it in an Indian dish, throw in some turmeric, or some fresh ginger for a Thai dish. You get the idea.
Use it in more than salads.
Now that you know how to cook quinoa, let’s talk about different ways you can use it. It’s so much more versatile than you may think and goes way beyond a simple quinoa salad.
Stir cooked quinoa into soup or stews to add body, mix it with breadcrumbs to create a healthier alternative to baked chicken or fish, use it as a gluten-free binder in veggie burgers, or crisp it up to use as a crunchy salad topping. When in doubt, you can always add cheese and turn it into a cheese casserole situation. No one will say no to that.
Think outside the box and use quinoa in sweet dishes, too. Stir it into your morning oatmeal, add it to granola bars, use it to replace traditional flour in cakes, bake it into breakfast cookies, mix it into your Sunday pancake batter or even turn it into chocolate bark.
The next time you seed this tiny but mighty seed at the grocery store, give it another chance. You’ll thank yourself later.