Ultimate Guide to Quinoa: How to Cook It, Health Benefits, and Recipes

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The Ultimate Guide to Quinoa includes everything you have ever wanted to know about this superfood. Learn five different ways to prepare it, discover all its health benefits, and find delicious recipes for side dishes, salads, soups, main courses, and even breakfast.

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Every time I think about quinoa, I think about that Bud Light commercial from a few years back and I laugh. I don't laugh because of how they portray quinoa like it's a bad food. I laugh because of how the actor pronounces the word (for anyone still wondering it's pronounced "keen-wah") and also because I think some people think the grain is a bad thing. It's different than your typical rice or wheat, sure, but in my world, different is good!

When you eat quinoa, what you're actually eating are the seeds. The plant belongs to the amaranth family and is an annual crop grown specifically for their grains. It's been cultivated for nearly 4,000 years and originated in South America. Its relatives include spinach and beets. It is not considered a grain because it's not a member of the grass family (like wheat or rice), however the preparation for quinoa is nearly the same as that of other grains. (In fact, it's almost exactly the same as preparing rice.)

The flavor of quinoa is nutty and the texture is sort of crunchy. The hull of the seed can be super bitter so make sure you purchase quinoa pre-soaked or soak it yourself to remove this bitterness before cooking with it. Otherwise, you might not enjoy eating it at all.

I like to keep a glass storage container of the nutty seeds in my pantry to add to just about anything — salads, soups, stuffed peppers, or as a side dish all on its own. Jazzed up with all kinds of spices or down with simple salt and pepper, I think you'll agree that this "kwine-own" is the healthy grain you need to get into your diet, pronto.

Is Quinoa Good for You?

With an abundance of protein, fiber, minerals, B vitamins, and other necessary nutrients, quinoa is another superfood that's super good for you! It's also gluten-free, so it's a great grain to get into your diet if you need a wheat substitute or a plant protein source. Plus quinoa added to your diet can help you lose weight because it's high in protein and fiber (both of which can decrease your appetite and fill you up).

The Nutritional Makeup of Quinoa

One cup of cooked quinoa contains 222 calories, 8 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of sugar. It also contains other awesome stuff like calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus, plus folate and vitamin E.

Health benefits of quinoa with picture of a salad with quinoa, black beans, and corn.

The Health Benefits of Eating Quinoa

If I haven't convinced you yet that quinoa is a health food, then check out the reasons why you should add this seed to your diet asap.

1. Quinoa can be good for your blood sugar.

Quinoa has a glycemic index number of 53, which is on the low end of the scale. When a food has a low GI number, that means it doesn't stimulate hunger or contribute to obesity like a food with a higher GI number might. Low GI foods are also better for your blood sugar. However, it's important to note that quinoa is still fairly high in carbs so if you are following a low-carb diet, quinoa is not a good choice.

2. It can lower your blood pressure.

Because quinoa contains higher amounts of potassium and magnesium, it is considered heart healthy. Magnesium helps prevent hypertension by relaxing the small muscles that surround the blood vessels. Potassium helps lower your blood pressure by balancing out any negative effects of salt.

3. Quinoa contains lots of fiber.

Though maybe not as much fiber as other grains, it's nothing to turn your nose at. One cup of this nutty cooked grain gives you five grams of fiber, which is 21% of the recommended amount you eat for the entire day. Not bad, not bad.

4. Quinoa delivers lots of protein.

For those of you who are vegetarian, vegan, or just want more plant-based protein sources in your life, then turning to quinoa is a great choice. One cup contains 8 grams of protein — that's about a sixth of the recommended intake for the day. While you probably don't want to eat six cups of quinoa, remember, quinoa is often mixed into other dishes. So think of it like adding a little extra protein dust to your salads, side dishes, or soups.

5. It has all the good amino acids.

Amino acids are the little things that protein is made of. If you didn't have them, your body couldn't function properly. Your body uses amino acids to make hormones, neurotransmitters, and other biochemicals. Of all the amino acids you need in your diet, nine of them you have to get from food. (Ahem, quinoa.)

6. Quinoa is gluten-free.

If you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, you know what a pain it can be to find gluten-free foods to add to your diet. Not only is quinoa gluten-free, but it has so many other great nutrients that it can round out just about any kind of diet nicely.

7. Quinoa is high in antioxidants.

Antioxidants zap all the naughty little free radicals that our body collects from places like the sun, cigarettes, x-ray machines, pesticides, and other pollutants. Our body also makes its own free radicals by doing things such as breathing. Bummer, I know. However, quinoa to the rescue! The grain is very high in antioxidants which will combat the free radicals.

Types of quinoa in wooden spoons including white, red, black, and tricolor.jpg

Types of Quinoa

So, it turns out there are about 120 kinds of quinoa. Thankfully, I'm not going to go into all of them here. (Or probably anywhere for that matter. Nobody got time for that.) But there are several varieties that you'll commonly come across that I should go over, so you know what to do with what.

White quinoa is the one you'll find the most. Technically it's off white but you get the gist. It's great for your all-around quinoa needs.

I like to think of black quinoa kind of like black rice. It is Earthier and more sweet to the taste and it keeps its color after you cook it. So, it looks kind of cool in a dish mixed with other grains or if you're feeling like you want to impress some dinner guests.

Red quinoa is easier to find than black (though not as common as white) and tastes about the same as white and black. It appears in a lot of salads and dishes where a grain holding its shape is important, since it tends to not get as mushy after cooking.

Tricolor quinoa is another option, which is essentially just a combination of all three types of quinoa above - red, white, and black.

Quinoa flour is commonly used instead of white flour when people are looking for a gluten-free alternative. This kind of flour makes baked goods more tender and moist. However, note that you can't simply substitute flour for flour. If you want to use quinoa flour instead of white flour, you should measure your flour by weight not volume (use a kitchen scale).

And, if you're looking for a gluten-free pasta alternative, you can try quinoa pasta, too! It's not as hard to find as you might think and I've heard it tastes more like actual pasta than other not-actually-pasta alternatives.

How to Buy and Store Quinoa

If you think buying quinoa is as easy as picking a box off the supermarket shelf, then you'd be...right. Unlike produce buying grains is fairly straightforward. Pick any color you want (they're all about the same nutritionally) and follow the back of the box for cooking instructions. Do make sure your quinoa is pre-rinsed (if you want to save yourself that step). Also you might want to double check that your box says "gluten-free" if you follow a gluten-free diet. (You never know what might sneak into pre-packaged products these days.)

Storing quinoa is also really easy! I like to take my grains out of their boxes and store them in plastic or glass containers in my pantry. To me, grains and cereals stay fresher this way, than when left in a box or bag that's been opened and could get stale. Dry quinoa that's in an unopened package will stay fresh for three to four years in your pantry. If it's opened but in an air-tight container in your pantry, it will keep for a year. If you want to refrigerate your opened quinoa, then it will keep longer (2-3 years). Or you can freeze it and keep it indefinitely. If you're storing cooked quinoa, you need to refrigerate your leftovers and eat within 5-7 days.

How to cook quinoa including this breakfast quinoa bowl made in the microwave.

How to Cook Quinoa

And now, the best part — the ways in which we get to cook with these nutty, protein- and fiber-filled little seeds of goodness.

Option 1: On the stovetop.

Cooking quinoa on the stovetop is a lot like cooking rice — add double the amount of water as grain (i.e. a two-to-one ratio) and a little bit of salt. Let it boil, then simmer and add a lid to your pot for 15 minutes or until all the water is absorbed.

Option 2: In the microwave.

Use the same measurements and ingredients as though you're going to cook it on the stovetop, only put it in a microwave-safe dish and cover loosely. Cook on high for six minutes, stir, and cook again for another two minutes. Let it rest up to 10 minutes, then check for doneness and give it a fluff. Then serve.

Option 3: In the rice cooker.

Same ingredients and measurements as the first two — really! From there, follow your rice cooker's instructions for cooking white rice.

Option 4: Using your Instant Pot.

Rinse one cup of quinoa in cold water, and shake to get out excess water. Put the rinsed grains into your pot along with two cups of water. Close the cover, lock it, and turn the valve to "seal." Cook the quinoa on high pressure for five minutes. When the timer goes off, vent for a quick release and once the steam is done coming out, you can open up the pot and enjoy!

Option 5: Puffing it up.

Yes, you can puff up quinoa. But it's not going to look like popcorn. It will just look like a slightly puffier version of itself. Like your fingers when you've eaten too much salt the day before. Puffed quinoa works well if you want to use it as a dry grain — like in a cereal or granola.

To make puffed quinoa, first you need to rinse off your desired amount, then dry it flat on a piece of parchment paper overnight. It needs to be totally dry again before you pop it (so make sure to move it around once in a while so both sides dry). Then, add the quinoa to a skillet or Dutch oven with a heavy bottom. You'll need a lid too. Heat the pot to medium-high then add half of the quinoa. You can pop it dry or add a little bit of oil. Cover the pot and shake it around for about one to five minutes, or until the quinoa seems to be all popped out. Then, lay it out flat on a sheet pan to cool before eating or baking with it.

Quinoa recipe featuring a salad with eggplant and feta.

The Best Quinoa Recipes

No matter how you decide to cook it up, I think we can now all agree quinoa is a grain worth getting into your rotation. I love to be inventive with the grain and have had the most success when I just let the quinoa shine.

On Ultimate Guide to Quinoa: How to Cook It, Health Benefits, and Recipes
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