What to Cook: Couscous Versus Quinoa?

Other than their round shape and small size, there aren’t too many other similarities between quinoa and couscous. Yet they are often mistaken for one another. How do they really compare? Let’s take a look.

What to Cook: Couscous Versus Quinoa?

Couscous Versus Quinoa

Couscous is actually a tiny pasta, made out of the same durum semolina wheat that’s used to make spaghetti and macaroni. That’s right, couscous is not a unique whole grain. Still, it can be made from either refined white flour or whole grain wheat flour. Traditional Moroccan couscous, the type that’s readily available at grocery stores is about 1 mm in size. It cooks quickly after being soaked in boiling water for a few minutes. Larger Israeli couscous is the size and shape of a peppercorn, and is often called pearl couscous or ptitim. It takes a little longer to cook, about 10 minutes in boiling water.

Quinoa is not a pasta and is not made from wheat. It’s a seed from the quinoa plant, and a close relative to beets and spinach. Though it’s technically a seed, it’s classified as a whole grain in the culinary world. You can find red, tan and black quinoa varieties in most grocery stores. How long you cook quinoa for depends on the variety you choose. Tan quinoa cooks in boiling water for about 15 minutes, while the black and red varieties require about 20-25 minutes.

Another difference is that unlike quinoa couscous doesn’t need to be rinsed before it’s cooked. Quinoa is covered in a bitter seed coat called saponin. It’s a natural pesticide that keeps bugs away and it has a bitter flavor. If you detect it, rinse quinoa in a sieve under cool running water before you boil it.

Couscous and Quinoa Nutrition Facts

1. Quinoa is more nutrient dense than couscous.

As a seed-based whole grain, quinoa contains more vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and good-for-you monounsaturated fats than couscous.

2. Quinoa’s has a lower glycemic index.

Glycemic index is a value assigned to foods based on how quickly they raise blood glucose levels. If you have diabetes, eating foods with a low glycemic index may help you control your blood sugar levels. Quinoa has a glycemic index of 53, which is considered low. Couscous, on the other hand, has a slightly higher glycemic index of 65, which is considered medium.

3. Quinoa is a complete protein.

Quinoa is one of the few grains that contains all nine essential amino acids that make up a complete protein. Couscous, by contrast, is not a complete protein.

4. Quinoa is gluten-free.

If you have celiac disease or follow a gluten-free diet, quinoa is a great option. Couscous, because it’s made from wheat, contains gluten.

Couscous vs Quinoa

How to Cook With Couscous and Quinoa

After reading about quinoa’s long list of health benefits, you may be wondering if couscous is good for you. It’s actually similar to eating a bowl of pasta; it has a few vitamins and minerals, but it’s mostly carbs. To increase the nutritional value of couscous, look for options made from whole grain flour.

Despite their differences, both couscous and quinoa make a great base for delicious salads and side dishes. They can be used interchangeably, depending on which you prefer. Once prepared, either can be mixed with a variety of vegetables, nuts, beans, herbs and spices and your favorite dressing.

Some combinations that pair well with couscous or quinoa are:

  • Pine nuts, golden raisins, cumin and lemon vinaigrette
  • Tomato, cucumber, feta cheese and Kalamata olives
  • Black beans, corn, red pepper, cilantro and lime vinaigrette
  • Orange, pistachios, chickpeas and pomegranate seeds
  • Kale, butternut squash, dried cranberries and mustard dressing

Couscous and quinoa can also be used to prepare breakfast cereals that are similar to oatmeal. Simmer the grains in milk rather than water, and add cinnamon, cloves, apple slices, raisins and enjoy.

About the Writer

Cara Rosenbloom

Cara is a Toronto-based registered dietitian, writer and recipe developer. She’s the co-author of the best-selling cookbook Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans (Whitecap, 2016) and writes a health column for the the Washington Post.

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