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Quinoa - Information, Preparation, Tips, and Recipes

Updated on May 7, 2012
Quinoa seeds before harvest
Quinoa seeds before harvest

What is it?

Quinoa, pronounced keen-wah yup that's keen-wah is a grain like seed from a plant native to South America where it was domesticated for food production over 3,000 years ago. The plant is not a true grain as it is not a member of the grass family, but rather a type of shrub that produces a large amount of edible seeds. The plant itself is relatively small (1 to 2 meters high)and the seeds are harvested from large clusters. Once harvested, they are often processed to remove the bitter tasting saponins present in the outer coating. The by-product from washing the saponins from quinoa is often used in detergents. The leaves of quinoa are also edible as a salad green but are not usually available commercially. Most quinoa you buy will already be processed and free of saponins. If you are unsure, (it should say on the packaging) you can rinse it thoroughly or soak the quinoa for a few minutes in cold water before using. If the water looks 'sudsy' then the quinoa should be rinsed again in the future.

Quinoa is prepared much like rice or couscous, by boiling it in water or stock. Like rice or couscous, quinoa comes in several varieties most notably red and white available for sale in the grocery store. The flavor of quinoa is nutty but earthy, and unlike other grains great flavors can be enticed from it without over saturating it with spices.

Uncooked Quinoa
Uncooked Quinoa

Basic Preparation

One of the best ways to enhance quinoa's nutty flavor is to toast it. There are a few ways to toast quinoa. One is to simply put it on a sheet pan or cookie sheet and place it into the oven dry, and let it toast at about 350 degrees until it is a shade darker. Quinoa can also be tossed in oil or butter and roasted in the oven or in a pot before cooking. Quinoa does not have to be toasted, it can be cooked quite well without this step. However, the act of toasting truly brings out some great flavors in quinoa, and gives it a bit more texture. There are reasons not to toast it, if you were using it in a cake, or just want it really mushy, but for quinoa served traditionally, as a feature ingredient, its always best to take the time and toast it.

One of the best things about quinoa is that it is not nearly as finicky as rice to cook correctly. The process is simple. You start with your quinoa, toast or roast it, then dump it in water or stock. Bring the water and quinoa to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Start with a little more water than quinoa, about 1 1/4 cups of water to 1 cup of quinoa and add water as necessary until the quinoa is nearly cooked. The process should take no more than 15 minutes, and around 10 to 12 minutes I usually shut of the heat and cover the pot for a few minutes to allow the quinoa to absorb the excess water without burning to the bottom of the pan.

As you cook, the quinoa will begin to absorb water, you will see the opaque seeds turn translucent during the process. The center of the seed will be the last (obviously) to turn translucent. This makes quinao easy to cook for a desired texture. If you cook it all the way through untill is completely translucent and sticky, the the quinoa will be much like cous cous. Cooking so that the center is between the starting color and translucent and the quinoa is only slightly sticking together will make a firmer yet still tender quinoa. Cooking so that teh center retains some of its opqueness, will lend to a firm textured quinao, one that has a bit of a 'pop' in your mouth as you eat it.

When you finish cooking the quinoa that is going to be stored, spread it on a flat pan or cooking tray and cool immediately. Once cooled, it can be stored in an airtight container. Cooling on a flat surface helps the quinoa retain cool quicker by increasing surface area and it will retain its texture better over a few days.

Dishes and Quinoa Recipe Ideas

There are a few standard quinoa dishes I have seen in restaurants. The major one is a variation of a curried quinoa. You will have to adjust the spices to your taste, but here is a quick recipe for a vegan curried quinoa.

What you need:

  • 2 Cups quinoa
  • 3 Cups of vegetable stock (or water)
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 Red onion (medium dice)
  • 1 Cup fresh or frozen peas (sugarsnap whole peas chopped into 1/2 inch pieces work very well too)
  • 1 Chile (green or red, this amount is variable as it is the main source of heat in this dish)
  • 3 Teaspoon curry powder (vary for your taste)
  • 1 Teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 Teaspoon dry ginger or fresh ginger, grated
  • Coconut milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste - note like rice or cous cous, quinoa can take a good amount of salt to coax flavors out of it. Don't be shy with the salt when you make quinoa.

The process:

Roast the quinoa in a large pot with oil with the spices (not the coconut milk) and chiles, then add the onion and 2 cups of stock or water, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.

Cook until the quinoa is near the desired tenderness slowly adding water. Add the peas with about 2 minutes left, and use the coconut milk (about a 1/4cup) to finish the quinoa with one minute to cook. Don't add too much coconut milk as you don't want a soupy quinoa. If necessary, drain some liquid from the quinoa before you add the coconut milk.

A salad using red quinoa
A salad using red quinoa

Other Variations

Quinoa can also be cooked and served cold in a salad. The earthy flavors pair well with sweet and acidic, especially citrus combinations.

Try spicing quinoa with nutmeg and cinnamon, mixing in apples, dried cranberries, maple syrup and a bit of cider vinegar for a great fall side dish.

Adding black beans, corn, cilantro, red peppers lime, and spicing with chili powder, coriander and cayenne is a great traditional Mexican variation.

Mixing in grape tomatoes, mozarella cheese, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, and olives is a great summer dish.

Why use quinoa?

First, it is delicious. It is not like millet, flax or other grains that are not very tasty on their own. Quinoa is very tasty, and will please apprehensive American palates as it is not too foreign of a taste or texture. It is also gluten free, so if you are on a sensitive diet, it is a great choice.

Mot of all it is really, really good for you. It has a high (15-20%) protein content, eight essential amino acids, and is a good source of iron, magnesium and dietary fiber. This is a great recovery food for an athlete or active individual and is a better alternative for starch and protein than white rice, or mashed potatoes. Adding it to a salad makes for a healthy protein choice, and quinoa can be a staple food for a vegetarian diet. It is also so simple and easy to make there really is no reason to avoid it, so get some quinoa and start cooking!


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    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 5 years ago from Southwest England

      Some very useful tips on preparation here, thank you. I have only recently discovered quinoa, so grateful for some new ideas.

    • brianschwarz profile image

      Brian Schwarz 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      I love quinoa, and this article provided some good solid information for me to share with my friends who are always asking me why I eat it instead of rice. Thanks for sharing!

    • charlesspock profile image

      charlesspock 5 years ago from Vermont

      Thanks for the postive comments, I hope you enjoy the recipe ideas!

    • daisyjae profile image

      daisyjae 5 years ago from Canada

      I am going to have to try these recipes, they sound great.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      We live in the land of quinoa so I'm thrilled with any new recipes I can try. Thank you for an informative hub!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      What a great tutorial on Quinoa. I'm glad to learn so much more about this grain and feel more confident about cooking it and using it in recipes. We will definitely be enjoying it now--thanks!