Quinoa (KEEN-wah) is treated like a grain such as barley, oats and wheat, but isn’t really a cereal grass, but rather a member of the family that contains spinach, Swiss chard, and beets. Many researchers refer to quinoa as a pseudo-cereal. This term is often used to describe foods that are not grasses but can still be easily ground into flour or used as a cereal.
Quinoa is native to the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where it was successfully domesticated 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Quinoa was of great importance in the diet of pre-Columbian/Andean civilizations because it was able to survive high altitudes, thin and cold air, hot sun, salty or sandy soil, little rainfall, and sub-freezing temperatures. In importance it was third after the potato and maize.
In addition, all parts of the plant can be eaten, including the seeds (what we buy in the store), but also the leaves and stems. Quinoa leaves taste similar in flavor to spinach and chard; though its commercial availability is limited. Cooked quinoa seeds are fluffy and creamy, yet also slightly crunchy. The flavor of the cooked seeds is delicate and somewhat nutty and makes it a good alternative to rice.
Nutritionally quinoa contains essential amino acids like lysine and has a very high protein content making it a source of almost complete protein. It also has good quantities of calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Furthermore, it is a good source of dietary fiber and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest.
2013 was declared International Year of Quinoa by the United Nations.
How to Select and Store
Today, an amazing range of products are made with quinoa, from breakfast cereals to beverages. Quinoa pasta is popular for individuals eating gluten-free and the grain is a favorite ingredient in granolas, breads, and crackers. In the restaurant world, the National Restaurant Association named quinoa as the hottest trend in side dishes in its 2010 “what’s hot” survey of chefs.
Quinoa is generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Most packaged quinoa has already been rinsed for convenience (the seeds exterior is bitter and acts as a laxative). It is also sold as a dry product, much like corn flakes or as flour which can be used in wheat-free and gluten-free baking.
Store in an airtight container and it will keep for a longer period of time. Stored in the refrigerator it will stay fresh for three to six months.
Tips for Preparing Quinoa
Some people chose to rinse and rub the seeds after purchase to remove any bitter taste that may remain in the seeds. The easiest way to do so is to place the quinoa seeds in a fine-meshed strainer and run cold water over the quinoa while gently rubbing the seeds together in your hands. After completing this process, you can taste a few seeds to determine if a bitter taste remains. If it does, simply continue this rinsing and rubbing process until you no longer taste a bitter residue.
Quinoa can serve as a high-protein breakfast food when mixed with, for example, honey, almonds, or berries or vegetables and seasonings can also be added to make a wide range of dishes. Chicken or vegetable stock can be substituted for water during cooking, adding flavor.
It cooks just like rice (one part of the grain to two parts liquid in a saucepan) bring to a boil and simmer until done. After the mixture is brought to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover cooking until the grains have become translucent, and a small white-spiraled tail appears (don’t worry it’s the germ of the seed). For a nuttier flavor, you can dry roast it before cooking by placing it in a skillet over medium-low heat and stirring continually for five minutes.
Easy ways to enjoy
- Add nuts and fruits to cooked quinoa and serve as breakfast porridge.
- For a twist on your favorite pasta recipe, use noodles made from quinoa.
- Add quinoa to your favorite vegetable soups.
- Ground quinoa flour can be added to cookie or muffin recipes.
Here are some of our favorite quinoa recipes from the Whole Grains Council website:
Bonus! Quinoa in its raw form can be germinated to sprout so you can add quinoa to salads or sandwiches. Quinoa has a short germination period: Only 2–4 hours resting in a glass of clean water as opposed to, e.g., 12 hours with wheat.
Fun Facts about Quinoa
- Inca warriors ate balls of quinoa and fat to keep them going on long marches and in battle.
- NASA has proposed quinoa as an ideal food for long-duration space flights.
- The Natchez Indians, on the lower Mississippi River, may have cultivated a variety of quinoa.
- Chicha is a traditional beer made from fermented quinoa.
- In times of drought, when other crops in quinoa-growing areas fail, quinoa can actually increase its yields. The crop can thrive on as little as three to four inches of annual rainfall.
Whole Grains Council