A Beginner’s Guide to Quinoa

You know the saying “everything old is new again”? Well, quinoa would definitely fall in to that category. Quinoa is downright ancient, and it is receiving a heck of a lot of attention recently as a “new” super food.

I really don’t remember how I first discovered it. I think I just saw it in the bulk-bin at the Wedge Co-Op in Minneapolis and decided to give it a try, searching online for ideas once I got it home. But now, it’s something you will always find in my kitchen. I love it. It’s easy to cook. Tasty on it’s own. Works great along with so many other foods, is a complex carb and is one of the few plant based foods considered to be a “complete protein”.

But just what the heck is it?

Quinoa originated in Andes mountains of what is now Peru and while it’s technically a seed, it is often thought of  and treated as a grain along with other “cereals” like rice, wheat and oats. Botanically, they’re more like chick-peas or sunflower seeds and is related to swiss chard, beets and spinach, but honestly the difference really doesn’t matter. Oh, but if you ever run across them, the greens of the quinoa plant are also edible. And if you find them, let me know – I want to give them a try.

The Incans, who were probably the biggest proponents of quinoa in history called it the “mother grain”, so even they didn’t care about the whole seed vs. grain debate. It is thought the low infant mortality rate that the Incans had is in great part due to their abundant use of quinoa in their diets. When the Europeans came to South America in the 1500′s the thought it was a devils food, going as far as trying to eradicate the crops and later took maize and potatoes back to Europe instead of quinoa.

Most quinoa today is still grown the Andes Mountain of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, and while there are many types from red and black to white or golden. The one you’ll mostly find in US stores is the white variety. Bob’s Red Mill and Ancient Harvest are a couple of popular brands, and you can also find it at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods stores. Co-op’s and other natural foods stores will likely have it as well. You can also find Bob’s and other brands for sale online.

Expect to pay about $3-4 per pound for it on average – though the best price I’ve found on white quinoa is at Costco at about $2.25 a pound for a 4-pound bag. You will get about 2 cups of uncooked quinoa in a pound (compared to over 5 cups of rolled oats to a pound), and you’ll get about 4 cups of cooked quinoa per cup of uncooked. Getting in to the red’s and black’s though, and if you go for certified organic brands you can easily pay upwards of $6 to $7  (or more!) a pound.

Nutritionally, quinoa is touted as a “superfood”. It has twice the protein of most other grains, fewer carbs, and a dose of healthy fats. Plus, like I mentioned earlier, it’s considered a complete protein – which means it has enough of the essential acids needed for your body to use it in muscle building.

One cup of uncooked quinoa has 24g of protein, 10g of fat, 109g of carbs and 12g of dietary fiber. Divide that by eight for your typical 1/2 cup serving of cooked quinoa. It’s also high in manganese, magnesium, iron, tryptophan and copper. The calories are sort of typical compared to other carbs, about 80 in that 1/2 cup serving.

The easiest way to cook quinoa is pretty much the same way you cook rice. Take 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water (or broth or other flavored liquid), bring to a boil then simmer till all the liquid is absorbed. Me? I cook a batch up usually once a week in water using my rice cooker and keep the cooked quinoa in the fridge to use all sorts of different ways. The seeds can also be sprouted, though I haven’t tried that myself yet.

The Ancient Harvet brand makes other quinoa based products such as gluten free pasta using quinoa and corn as well as quinoa flakes and quinoa flour.

One thing you should do before cooking though is to rinse the quinoa. It has a natural coating on the seeds called saponins – It’s sort of bitter tasting and helps protect the plants in nature from birds and such. I have a wiremesh strainer I use and just run it under cold water for a minute before cooking. You can buy packaged quinoa that is pre-rinsed, but I’d skip it if possible. Rinsing it will shorten it’s shelf life.  Oh, store your quinoa in an airtight container. You can keep it in the fridge to extend it’s life even more, but I go through it fast enough I don’t bother.

After it’s cooked I’ve heated it up with some soy milk and fruit and eaten it for breakfast like oatmeal. I’ve made pilafs, stir fried “rice”, baked it in to protein bars, breads, meatballs and used it in salads.

Like I said, most places only carry the white quinoa, but some places will have red and sometimes even black. The white has a fairly mild buttery… almost bland flavor to it, but you can do all sorts of things with it to jazz it up just as you would rice. The red and black, they seem to have a bit of nutty flavor to them. My first impression was it reminded me of wild rice. Unless I am doing something that needs a specific color for a recipe I cook up a mix of the two. I think it’s a nice balance of both the color and the flavor.

So there you have it, a sort of primer to quinoa. The more I use it, the more uses I find for it, and the more I’m hearing about all sorts of recipes out there. So while you may have some troubles finding it… if you do, you’ll have no problems finding ideas for cooking with it… and if you’re running short, hit me up on Twitter or something, I’ll probably have something new for you to try out.

Quinoa: The Top Secret Superfood [Mens Health]
The Mother Lode of Whole Foods Comes to the Table [Columbia Tribune]
Quinoa [Wikipedia] (photos 2 & 3)
Quinoa [Whole Foods]
Quinoa, uncooked [nutritiondata.com]

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11 Responses

  1. Hi Rob,

    I love this post as an introduction for beginners; you cover all the important points. Quinoa is a super food I can’t remember how I lived without.

    Nice photos you have here. The quinoa plants look so beautiful.

  2. Rob Portinga says:

    Thanks! I took the first and last pics, but may update the first one with one of the batch I made the other day, mix of red, white and black quinoa.

  3. Katie Cannon says:

    Thanks Rob, this sure explains Quinoa to me. I was curious to learn more about this. Am going to be looking to buy it and try some soon.

  4. Michael says:

    Good artical and nice photos!

  5. VMcKelvey says:

    Thank you! Extremely helpful guide. I’ve never made quinoa before and been afraid to try it, but you make it sound very easy. 🙂

  6. anita says:

    Great article!!

    Would you happen to know the equation of one cup of quinoa to rice? If I cook 2 cups of rice per night for my family and I’m thinking of switching from white rice to quinoa, what would be the “equal” amount that I should make each night?

    • Rob Portinga says:

      It’s pretty close to a 1-1 switch. The grains are naturally smaller, so the overall volume may differ slightly. If it helps, when I cook 1 cup of quinoa, I generally get about 3-3.5 cups of quinoa.

      • nikki says:

        thank you for this post………… im almost 3 years post opt……..this post helps a lot. i feel like i am “healthy” when reading/eating things but this made me learn i need to read a little more on things! 🙂

  1. February 23, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by McNee, suzyqmacintosh. suzyqmacintosh said: A Beginner’s Guide to Quinoa http://lnkd.in/Sp2ruQ […]

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