We love quinoa for its nutty, earthy flavor and fluffy, slightly crunchy, somewhat chewy texture.
Of course, we also love quinoa because it’s so quick and easy to cook; and once it’s cooked, it’s so versatile: Turn it into side dishes and salads, soups, pilafs, stews, grain bowls, or cakes. Okay, yes, we’re smitten!
So what is quinoa? It’s a seed, not a grain. You cook it like a grain, though, and “grain” is typically how folks refer to it. Quinoa (say KEEN-wah) is kind of like buckwheat, sort of like amaranth, which it’s related to. Quinoa is also closely related to spinach, chard, beets…and, uh, the tumbleweed.
Quinoa may be new to your local market. But it’s been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, first in the basin of Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains. Quinoa was sacred to the Incas, who called it the “mother of all grains.” It’s one of the original crops of the Americas. In fact, very likely it was eaten well before domestication, by herders taking advantage of wild stands of quinoa.
How Healthy Is Quinoa?
Nutritionally, this little seed is a big deal. Quinoa is a healthy, highly nutritious whole grain, a “wonder food,” or “superfood” if you prefer. Quinoa earns such high praise because it’s a complete protein, (or “whole protein,” which means quinoa includes all nine essential amino acids). It boasts more protein than brown rice, barley, millet, or potatoes. But quality protein isn’t quinoa’s only claim to nutritional fame; it’s also a good source of fiber, as well as B vitamins, vitamin E, and potassium; it’s a rich source of iron, phosphorous, magnesium, and zinc; and it brings some calcium, too. Quinoa can also brag about what it does not have. Quinoa is gluten-free. It stands in deliciously for pasta and white rice.
Plus, according to a recent study, eating quinoa every day could significantly lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and respiratory illness.
Let’s look at the quinoa basics. First, which quinoa should you buy?
Types of Quinoa
There are many, many varieties of quinoa, and lots of colors. But what you’ll typically find in the markets are white, red, and occasionally black varieties.
White quinoa cooks up fluffy and has a nice neutral essence and mild, nutty flavor. It’s often the easiest quinoa to find.
You’ll get an earthy flavor from red quinoa and chewier texture. Red quinoa will also add a little burst of color to dishes.
This is perhaps the more exotic of the three. It can have a crunchier texture than white. As with red quinoa, black quinoa is maybe a little bolder, earthier than white. And it may take a few minutes longer to cook.
How To Store Your Quinoa
Dry quinoa has a nice long shelf life. Store uncooked quinoa in an air-tight container in your pantry. It stays fresh for months. You can also refrigerate dry quinoa or freeze it; and it will stay fresh even longer. Store cooked quinoa in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for a month.
But no matter which type of quinoa you choose, you can cook it the same way.
How to Cook Quinoa
Quinoa doubles down on its wonder-food status by also being quick cooking and wildly versatile. You cook it essentially like rice, only it’s more forgiving. Honestly, it’s tough to mess up quinoa.
But before cooking, give your quinoa a quick rinse in a mesh strainer. You want to wash away a bitter, soapy-flavored coating that naturally forms on quinoa. It’s called saponin, and it’s easy to rinse away. Incidentally, the saponin helps quinoa thrive at high altitudes — the coating protects it against the strong rays of the sun and the bitter flavor keeps the birds away.
Quinoa Quick Cooking Stats
- You’ll Need: Strainer + saucepan + quinoa + salt.
- 1 cup of dry quinoa produces 3 cups of fluffy cooked quinoa.
- To cook 1 cup of dry quinoa, add 2 cups of water or broth and ¼ teaspoon of salt.
- Bring it to boil, and simmer for about 15 minutes.
- You can also cook quinoa in a rice cooker. Use the same ratio of quinoa to liquid.
Pro Tip: Make a big batch of quinoa on the weekend, and you’ll have a terrific base for a week’s worth of tantalizing meals. This is an often overlooked benefit of quinoa: unlike some grains that get sticky and mushy after cooking and refrigerating, quinoa stays its plump, fluffy self with the same slightly chewy texture, even after time in the fridge.
Quinoa Side Dishes
Quinoa Main Dishes
Some Quick Quinoa Variations
With Black Beans
Quinoa and Black Beans
Add toasted pine nuts or almonds before you fluff. (See Quinoa Almond Pilaf.)