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Quinoa

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Quinoa salad

Quinoa makes a great ingredient for salads.

Photo © Danilo Alfaro

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a grain-like food that's noteworthy because it provides a complete protein. What this means is that it's a source of all nine essential amino acids, in the right proportions, to support a person's nutritional needs.

This is not the case for most plant-based foods. Usually you would need to combine two foods (rice and beans, for instance) in order to make up a complete protein, but quinoa does this on its own. This means you could live off nothing but quinoa if you wanted to.

Animal-based foods like meat, dairy products and eggs generally provide a complete protein, but obviously these are not an option for vegans and vegetarians. Also, in terms of the resources needed to produce the protein, it's much easier and cheaper to grow a pound of quinoa than a pound of beef.

Is Quinoa a Grain?

While quinoa resembles a grain and it is cooked pretty much the same way we cook rice, it's not actually a cereal grain. Rather, quinoa is a seed and it's related to spinach, Swiss chard and beets.

Quinoa originates from the Andes mountain region of South America, where it was cultivated as long as 5,000 years ago. To this day, most of the quinoa in the world comes from the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia.

There are a few different varieties of quinoa, but the most common type is white quinoa, which has a light, fluffy texture and a slightly nutty flavor. Red quinoa has a more pronounced nutty flavor, and black quinoa is a little more crunchy. There are other varieties, but they're pretty rare. White, red and black are the most common. Sometimes you'll see them sold as a blend, described as rainbow quinoa or tri-color quinoa.

Cooking Quinoa

Cooking quinoa is really no different than cooking rice. In fact, quinoa can be cooked using the standard absorption method or the pilaf method. In the standard method, you'd simply simmer one cup of quinoa in 1½ cups of liquid (water or stock), covered, for about 20 minutes or until the water is all absorbed. Boom, done.

In the pilaf method, you'd sauté one cup of uncooked quinoa in a little bit of oil, along with some finely chopped onion. Then add 1½ cups of hot stock or water, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. I prefer the pilaf method because sautéeing the quinoa beforehand brings out more toasty flavor, and the grains seem to be fluffier and less likely to clump together. But either method will work fine.

Two quick notes about cooking quinoa. One: Quinoa needs to be rinsed thoroughly before you cook it, because the grains are naturally coated with a bitter substance which is thought to exist to discourage birds from eating it. Most commercially packaged quinoa has already been rinsed, but you should rinse it yourself just to be sure.

And two: For some reason, packages of quinoa I've bought tend to suggest cooking a cup of quinoa in two cups of water. I have no idea why, because quinoa cooked this way turns out soggy and dreadful. The right ratio is 1½ cups of liquid per cup of uncooked quinoa. One cup of uncooked quinoa is enough to make four servings.

Also see: Quinoa Salad Recipe and Easy Quinoa Recipe
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