Quinoa: What It Is and How to Cook It

You can put this little grain in just about anything

Cooking with Quinoa

Whether quinoa is old news to you or not, it’s hard to deny its health benefits and the wide-ranging cooking possibilities available to this grain. Quinoa is incredibly easy to use and quickly absorbs a variety of flavors. In fact, there’s so much that can be done with it that it warranted its own cookbook.

Rena Patten, cooking instructor and recipe developer, recently published a cookbook titled Cooking with Quinoa: The Supergrain that covers a range of cooking techniques, from salads and soups to easy-to-put together desserts, all featuring this healthy ingredient.

Below, she provides some tips and advice for using quinoa, along with some unusual ideas and recipes to get you started.

Check out these Quirky Quinoa Recipes.

The Health Benefits

Quinoa is almost a complete food — it's very high in protein (great for vegetarians and vegans), is gluten-, wheat-, and cholesterol-free, contains all nine essential amino acids (in particular a high content of the amino acid lysine, which is essential for tissue repair and growth), has more calcium than cow's milk, and is full of vitamins, rich in dietary fiber, high in iron, and very delicious to eat. I must also point out that quinoa is actually a seed but is commonly referred to as I grain, which is what I usually do.


How to Add Flavor to Quinoa

Quinoa itself is very bland-tasting when cooked. However, it has this wonderful ability to absorb lots of flavor from the other ingredients it is either mixed in with or cooked with such as dressings in salads or if it is cooked in a stock, milk, coconut milk, or a sauce. Try the Mediterranean Vegetable Salad pictured at left. 




How to Know When It’s Done Cooking

The cooking time varies between different colored grains. I find the darker ones such as red and black take longer to cook and tend to retain a bit more of a crunch, whereas the white ones are quite soft when cooked. The grain (seed) is tiny with a fine band around it known as the germ. It ends in what looks like a minute "tail." As it cooks, this "tail" spirals out and almost detaches itself and becomes clearly visible. You know it’s cooked usually because it has expanded to almost four times its original volume, and the center is soft and the "tail" is distinctly visible.

Quinoa is very simple to cook and doesn’t take long at all. You can cook quinoa in just about any liquid. You just have to bear in mind that the denser the liquid, such as a thick stock, milk, or a sauce for example the longer the quinoa will take to cook. Quinoa cooked in water is usually done in about 10 minutes.


When to Add It to Soups

I love quinoa in soups as it adds so much body and turns a soup into a meal on its own. I usually like to add the quinoa in the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time depending on which color grain I use.

If a soup needs to be puréed I usually cook it to that stage, purée it, then add the quinoa and cook until the quinoa is cooked. Also bear in mind that the quinoa will continue to expand after the soup is cooked.

One of my favorites is the Roasted Tomato and Fennel Soup with Basil and Garlic Pesto.


Unusual Uses for Quinoa

Quinoa comes in grain, flake, and flour form. You can use it for just about anything. Use the flakes as a stuffing or for crumbing meat, etc. Use the flour to make sweets or as a thickening agent. And of course the grain on its own is great as a replacement for rice or pasta, as a salad, in soups, and in one-pot meals.