This post and my quest for perfect quinoa are dedicated to my cousin Michelle, who changed my life – at least as far as quinoa is concerned, and to my son Liam, who reminds me – by example as well as in conversation, that the best teachers are people who never stop learning.
I have been trying to like quinoa for years. I even started a Pinterest board with that name to collect delicious-looking recipes, in the hopes that using them would bring me to appreciate this supposed super grain. But no such luck.
My negative feeling about quinoa was stronger than dislike, and that’s an unusual way for me to feel about food. I’ve hardly ever met an ingredient I absolutely detest. And I’m not inclined to keep my feelings to myself. Usually that gets me into trouble, but recently, when venting on Facebook about how much I don’t like this grain, my straightforward talk steered me toward an amazing revelation. I have been cooking quinoa wrong! Michelle responded to my comment about quinoa with the suggestion that I try toasting the quinoa before cooking it.
My son Liam figured out long ago that foods you hate deserve a do-over with a whole different approach to cooking them. So I took a page from his playbook and the hint from Michelle on in an effort to open a new chapter in my relationship with this mighty popular and nutritious grain. I don’t seek perfection in children or spouses, but perfect quinoa seemed like a goal worth aiming for.
First I checked several of my go-to sources for cooking advice. I read up on what The Kitchn, America’s Test Kitchen, and Eating Well had to say about quinoa. They all agreed that toasting was the way to go. But they disagreed on whether to toast in oil or dry and how much liquid to use. With their advice as a starting point, I set to work. A couple of hours later, my kitchen was a mess, with quinoa in various stages spread everywhere, and I had answers to all of life’s persistent questions, at least about quinoa.
5 Tips for Perfect Quinoa
- Rinse quinoa well. Everyone agrees that quinoa is bitter unless you rinse it, preferably several times. Use a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and when you’re done, dry the strained quinoa by patting it with a towel before toasting. Yes, the raw quinoa sticks to the towel and that’s a pain, but it does help in the toasting process. I used paper toweling.
- Toast it, and how to do that. I tried dry toasting (The Kitchn’s method) and toasting with 1 teaspoon of flavorless oil (canola, safflower or similar – not olive) per ½ cup of quinoa (the EatingWell route.) To get the quinoa thoroughly toasted under medium-high heat took about 10 minutes in a pre-heated cast iron pan without oil and about 8 minutes with pre-heated oil. The quinoa darkens as it toasts (darker if you use oil than if you toast it dry) and begins to have a pleasant, nutty aroma. Continue toasting, stirring frequently with a spatula or spoon, until the quinoa is continuously popping – almost like popcorn but it doesn’t jump. I preferred the dry toasted version, but that’s personal. Both methods work and yield a far better result than simply rinsing the quinoa and cooking it in liquid.
- How to cook quinoa after toasting. Once the quinoa is toasted, put it in a pot with liquid and bring it to a rolling boil, then cover and simmer it for 12-15 minutes. I tried The Kitchn’s 1-to-1 ratio of quinoa to liquid and the more common 1-to-2 ratio advised by the other 2 sources and many others. In my humble opinion, the Kitchn’s ratio results in quinoa that is too crunchy and the 2-to-1 ratio yields quinoa that is too soft. On my third try, with a 1-to-1½ (quinoa to liquid) ratio, the quinoa was perfect; the grains separated and retained a slight crunch, but yet expanded enough to seem fully cooked. The photo on the left below shows the dry toasted quinoa too crunchy (on top) and too soft (below), while the photo on the left shows the dry and oil-toasted versions perfectly cooked with the 1-to-1½ ratio.
- Dress it up. On its own, quinoa is pretty tasteless. Consider it a flavor delivery vehicle. For example, instead of using water for the liquid, consider chicken, turkey, or vegetable stock. Add salt and pepper, herbs and spices. Perfect quinoa is not plain.
- Get creative with quinoa. On its own, quinoa still strikes me as boring. But now I can imagine using it as a perfectly wonderful base for salads, pilafs, and stuffed vegetables.
I may go back and look at the pins on my quinoa Pinterest board with new eyes, now that quinoa and I are on such good terms. Maybe I’ll even change the name of the board. It just goes to show what can happen when you do a food-I-hate do-over. Thanks Michelle and Liam.