Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to cook quinoa

The "how to ruin your meal" instructions written on every package of beef are understandable.  Say you give a medium-rare burger to your immunocompromised 90 year old grandfather and he dies.  If you ask me, a medium-rare burger with aged cheddar and caramelized onions is as good as it gets for the last meal, but the meat industry doesn't want to be sued over it.  So they instruct you to cook ground beef to 160F.  But I've never heard of anyone being harmed by undercooked quinoa (or any other grain for that matter), so I am puzzled as to why every package of quinoa that I've ever come across gives you "how to end up with complete mush" instructions.

I am currently testing recipes for my Beans and Grains class.  In the last week, I've cooked more quinoa than I had cooked in my entire life.  The problem was that I was starting with a perfect recipe.  I heard about it from one of my students (Liza, in case you are reading this -- a huge thank you!).  She told me about a method of steaming quinoa that makes it fluffy.  After a little googling, I found it on epicurious and gave it a try.  The results were indeed lovely.  The grains held their shape, separated nicely, were perfectly tender, but not at all mushy.  The texture reminded me of good couscous -- not the instant stuff, but the real couscous you get in good Moroccan restaurants.  I believe it's also steamed.  

There was one little problem.  This recipe required very particular equipment and a good bit of hassle.  First you boil quinoa in a lot of water (like pasta).  Then you drain it into a fine sieve and rinse.  Then you bring 1 inch of water back to a boil in the pot, set the sieve with quinoa over it, cover with a towel and a lid and steam.  Luckily my 4 quart pot did fit my fine mesh sieve nicely and was deep enough to hold 1 inch of water without having the sieve touch it.  If your pots are shorter and wider, this might not work.  Another problem was that my fine mesh sieve can only hold 1 cup of uncooked quinoa (it swells up to 3 cups when cooked).  This means that I can't easily double or triple this recipe.

My goal was to produce quinoa that was just as good (or close) without this much hassle.  After trying every grain method I could think of (pasta, absorption, and risotto), the absorption method produced the best results (that's just like cooking rice).  The quinoa wasn't quite as fluffy, but still had a very pleasant texture.  First trick was to reduce the amount of water.  The most common ration recommended for quinoa is 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water.  I found that 1:1 is a much better ratio.  The second trick was to let quinoa rest after cooking covered with a towel (paper towel is fine) to absorb excess moisture.  This makes it fluffier.  I prefer to cook my rice and quinoa in the 375F oven as a replacement for the rice cooker that I don't own.  The indirect heat cooks the grains evenly and  prevents the bottom from burning.  The stove top also works if you can maintain very low heat.

Here are some other interesting things I've learned while cooking 7 batches of quinoa.

Difference between red quinoa and white quinoa 
The red quinoa is chewier and cooks 7-10 minutes longer than white.  I prefer white for hot dishes and red for salads, but they are interchangeable.  

To rinse or not to rinse
There seems to be no consensus on whether or not to rinse quinoa.  Some sources indicate that quinoa is naturally coated with a bitter-tasting substance called saponin and it needs to be rinsed off.  Others say that it depends on which brand of quinoa you buy.  Some of it is already pre-rinsed and can be cooked as is.

I am in the rinse camp and not just because of saponin.  In fact, I think saponin is the least of your problems.  I've never encountered a really bitter batch of quinoa, but I have definitely encountered a really gritty batch.  In fact, I think you should rinse all your beans and grains because you never know how dusty or even gritty they are.  The problem is that beans and grains sink, so getting the grit out of them is tricky business.  Here is a method that works well.

How to rinse quinoa and other grains
Place quinoa in a fine mesh sieve and place the sieve in a bowl of water.  Quinoa should be completely submerged in water.  Stir it around with your hand and wait 30 seconds for it to settle. Lift the sieve and pour out the water.  Repeat until the water you pour out is completely clean.  Drain well, shaking the sieve to remove access moisture.  Set the sieve over an empty bowl and let sit for a couple of minutes to make sure all the water is drained.

If your quinoa is pre-rinsed, rinsing doesn't cause any harm.  If you work with the same brand of quinoa many times and find that it's particularly clean, you can try cooking it without rinsing as an experiment (that bitter taste everyone talks about might not be there after all).  Keep in mind that if you don't rinse you'll need to increase the amount of water.  After rinsing and draining (thoroughly), quinoa absorbs about 50g (slightly less than 1/4 cup) water.  

What to pair with quinoa
Quinoa is all about texture.  It doesn't have much flavor of it's own, which makes it a blank canvas for anything you want to put on it.  The key to success is a generous amount of salt, acidity, and fat.  My favorite combinations are lemon juice and butter for hot quinoa; soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and olive oil for either hot or cold quinoa.  

Basic quinoa recipe

Makes 3 cups 

1 cup white or red quinoa, rinsed and drained according to the above instructions
1 cup water 
1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp table salt)  

Oven method (most even cooking without sticking on the bottom)

  1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375F.
  2. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil.
  3. Place rinsed and drained quinoa in a baking dish (8x8x2 for 1-2 cups of quinoa, 13x9x2 for 3-4 cups).  Have 2 sheets of foil ready.  
  4. Sprinkle quinoa with salt, cover with boiling water, and immediately cover tightly with 2 layers of foil.  
  5. Place in the oven for 20 minutes for white quinoa, 30 minutes for red, or until all the water is absorbed. Remove foil.  
  6. Place a dish or paper towel over the quinoa and replace 1 layer of foil.  Let rest 10 minutes.  Fluff with a fork and serve with desired accompaniments.  
Stove top method
  1. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  
  2. Add quinoa and salt.  Cover tightly with foil and a tight fitting lid.  
  3. Cook over very low heat for 20 minutes for white quinoa, 30 minutes for red, or until all the water is absorbed. Remove lid.
  4. Place a dish or paper towel over the quinoa and replace the lid.  Let rest 10 minutes.  Fluff with a fork and serve with desired accompaniments.  
Cooling note
Quinoa can be made in advance, chilled, and served cold in a salad or reheated.  To cool quinoa without drying, cover it with a layer of damp paper towels and cool to room temperature.  Then move to an airtight container and refrigerate.  

Quinoa Pilaf with Lemon and Pistachio Butter
This dish works best with white quinoa

1 Tbsp olive oil or butter
1/4 cup finely minced shallot, white part of scallion, or yellow onion
1/3 cup golden raisins or chopped dried apricots
3 cups cooked quinoa (from 1 cup dry)
1/3 cup finely ground pistachios (use a food processor for this)
3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp honey or maple syrup
2 Tbsp butter, cut into 4 pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Set a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Add 1 Tbsp olive oil or butter, minced shallot, and a pinch of salt.  Cook until translucent, tender, and golden, 5-10 minutes.
  2. Cover raisins or apricots with boiling water to plump them up.  Let sit for 5 minutes and drain.
  3. Add cooked quinoa and 1 Tbsp water to the skillet with shallot.  Cover, and cook stirring occasionally until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Uncover as soon as quinoa is hot so that it doesn't turn mushy.
  4. Add the raisins, pistachios, lemon juice, honey, and the remaining 2 Tbsp butter.  Stir well, taste, and season with salt and pepper as desired.
Balsamic Soy Quinoa
2 Tbsp Tamari (Japanese style soy sauce)
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp honey or maple syrup
3 cups cooked quinoa (from 1 cup dry)
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions, green parts only
2 Tbsp olive oil for cold quinoa or 2 Tbsp butter for hot quinoa

Cold Version
Mix all ingredients together and taste.  Add more soy sauce, vinegar, honey, and oil as desired.

Hot Version
Set a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and honey.  Bring to a simmer.  Add cooked quinoa and scallions.  Cover, and cook stirring occasionally until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Uncover as soon as quinoa is hot so that it doesn't turn mushy.  Stir in the butter and serve.


tinyskillet said...

Thanks for all the quinoa tips. I never liked it when it would fall apart. I will try your way of cooking quinoa and let you know!

debbie T said...

I always bake my grains too...but I'm going to try your way next time, with less water and a higher temp.

I love the recipes you included. I'm always trying to find more fun quinoa recipes because it's not my DH's fave.

Olga said...

My favorite way to make quinoa is with sweet onions and carrots. First I sweat some sweet onions, add carrots, sweat those and allow them to caramelize a bit, then add the rinsed quinoa to the pan, shake it around a bit and then add chicken stock - my liquid of choice when cooking quinoa.

Liz (Simple Italian Cooking) said...

I'm glad I read this post. I'm printing it out for reference. I use quinoa because it is so healthy but run out of idea for how to use it.

Unknown said...

So glad you tried and liked the steaming! I agree, huge hassle though. Funnily enough, I have also arrived at baking in the oven with less liquid as the best alternative (used as a substitute for this spanish baked rice dish and really liked the results, then played around with it some). But, when I really want perfect and fluffy, I still go for the steam.


P.S. - Hope you're well! I miss your cooking classes. Took a few at the restaurant school here, but I think I'm spoiled forever now. I have some new amazing restaurant recommendations for you in Philly, if you're ever making a trip back out here. We're moving to NY in two months, so I'm trying to get through my bucket list of restaurants ASAP - really enjoying it!

Nicole said...

I really want to thank you for sharing your method of cooking quinoa. For the first time ever I was able to cook quinoa perfectly. Thank You!

Stacy G said...

OH BOY, what have I got myself into??? So glad I found you on pininterest

Ginni said...

Do you think that the oven baking method would works well when cooking in quantity for a community dinner?

Helen said...

I've only tried it up to 4 cups in a 13x9 pyrex dish. I don't see why larger quantities wouldn't work, but I suggest increasing the cooking time from 20 to 30 minutes.