Whole grains are an excellent source of dietary fiber and essential nutrients. Unfortunately, many grains contain gluten which is a no-go for people with celiac disease and other followers of the gluten free diet.
Just because you can’t enjoy grains like wheat, barley, and rye doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t still enjoy grains! Quinoa is a trendy superfood that is prepared much like a grain, though it is technically a seed. It is loaded with protein and fiber, not to mention an assortment of healthy nutrients.
But what exactly is quinoa, and how do you cook with it? Keep reading to find out!
What is Quinoa, Anyway?
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is not actually a grain – it is technically the seed of the Chenopodium quinoa plant. The quinoa plant belongs to the same family as amaranth and it comes from the Andean region of South America. Easily one of the oldest crop plants, quinoa was domesticated between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago and, for another 2,000 to 4,000 years, it was used to feed livestock.
Because quinoa is indigenous to northern South America, it was largely unknown in other parts of the world until somewhat recently. A staple in traditional Andean cuisine, quinoa has become a trendy “superfood” in the Western world due to its impressive nutrient profile. Though it is a seed, quinoa can be prepared in much the same way as whole grains and cereal grains.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 1-cup serving of cooked quinoa contains about 222 calories with 39 grams of carbohydrate, 8 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat. This serving contains 5 grams of dietary fiber and just 1 gram of natural sugars. Quinoa is also rich in nutrients and vitamins such as: B1, B2, B6, and B9 as well as vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.
How Does it Compare to Other Grains?
Although it is a seed, quinoa is prepared in much the same way as a grain and it offers many of the same health benefits. But how does it stack up against other grains? Here are some facts about how quinoa compares to other grains:
- Quinoa is a complete protein, unlike most grains, which means that it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids the human body cannot synthesize on its own.
- It contains more fiber and protein per cup than brown rice and it is much richer in iron, folate, and zinc as well.
- Both quinoa and amaranth are seeds and complete proteins, but quinoa contains 4 times as much thiamine and riboflavin as amaranth.
- Quinoa contains 3 grams of protein per cup more than oats and 1 gram more fiber – it is also richer in magnesium, a mineral that plays a role in over 300 essential bodily functions.
- Both quinoa and millet are naturally gluten free and rich in antioxidants, but quinoa is a complete protein and is much easier to prepare.
- Quinoa and sorghum are very similar in flavor and texture but quinoa is lower in calories and fat.
Quinoa is often lumped into a group of grains known as “ancient grains”. While there is no official definition, grains considered ancient are typically those that have remained relatively unchanged for the past few centuries. Ancient grains are rich in dietary fiber and plant protein, so you can see why quinoa would be included. Other ancient grains include amaranth, millet, kamut, sorghum, teff, and farro.
Tips for Buying and Quinoa
If you look for quinoa in the grocery store, you’ll find that there are several different varieties. Each variety has its own unique flavor and texture which makes it good for use in specific recipes. Here is a summary of the different types of quinoa:
- White Quinoa – The most commonly sold variety, white quinoa has a mild flavor and tender texture when cooked.
- Red Quinoa – This variety is a little crunchier and has a stronger grain-like flavor – it is best in dishes like cold salads where the grain needs to keep its shape.
- Black Quinoa – This type of quinoa keeps its black color even when cooked and it has an earthier, sweeter flavor than other varieties.
- Quinoa Flakes – These flakes are made by steam-rolling whole quinoa seeds and they cook faster than regular quinoa, making them a great option for breakfast.
You may also come across quinoa flour (or you can make your own). Quinoa flour is very fine and it has a white color, so it looks very similar to other gluten free flours. Though it can be expensive to buy, quinoa flour has a light, nutty flavor and works well in baked goods to create a tender, moist crumb.
Gluten Free Cooking Tips for Quinoa
In addition to being loaded with nutrients, quinoa is also a very easy gluten free grain to cook. In fact, it cooks faster than rice! Here are some simple gluten free cooking tips for quinoa:
- Soak and Rinse – Quinoa seeds have slight traces of naturally occurring toxins that can remain on the seed even after cooking – these toxins leave behind a bitter taste and may upset your stomach. Before cooking, it is a good idea to rinse the quinoa well in warm water or to soak it for an hour first.
- Toasting – After you have rinsed the quinoa seeds, you can toast it to bring out the nutty flavor before cooking it. Simply toast the quinoa in a tablespoon or so of oil until it is fragrant.
- Simmering – The easiest way to prepare quinoa is by the simmering method (like you would cook rice on the stovetop). Simply combine the quinoa with water or broth at a ratio of 1:2 in a saucepan with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the quinoa is tender then fluff with a fork.
If you aren’t following a recipe, you may be wondering how much uncooked quinoa yields when it is prepared. Generally speaking, quinoa cooks up to three times its size so, if you start with 1 cup of uncooked quinoa, you’ll end up with about 3 cups of cooked quinoa.
So, how do you use quinoa in gluten free recipes?
One of the simplest ways to use quinoa is as a gluten free side dish – simply steam and season it as desired. Another option is to toss cooked quinoa into a cold salad or combine it with roasted vegetables for a warm salad. Quinoa can also be cooked into soups, casseroles, veggie burgers, and more. Don’t be afraid to get creative with this delicious gluten free grain!
Recipe: Warm Quinoa and Roasted Vegetable Salad
This roasted vegetable and quinoa salad is the perfect side dish for a family meal or potluck dinner. Loaded with tender veggies and steamed quinoa, this salad is dressed with lemon juice and fresh herbs with crumbled feta cheese on top to finish the dish in style.
Servings: 4 to 6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
- 1 pound eggplant, diced
- 1 medium zucchini, diced
- 1 small summer squash, diced
- ¼ cup olive oil, divided
- Salt and pepper
- ½ cup uncooked quinoa
- 1 cup vegetable broth (or water)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped mint
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro
- ½ cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 to 2 ounces crumbled feta cheese
- Preheat the oven to 425°F and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment.
- Toss the eggplant, zucchini, and summer squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil then divide between the two baking sheets.
- Season with salt and pepper then roast until the veggies are tender and browned, about 25 to 30 minutes.
- Remove the veggies from the oven and set aside to cool.
- Combine the quinoa and vegetable broth in a small saucepan.
- Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the quinoa sit for 5 minutes, covered, then uncover and fluff with a fork.
- Toast the pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until they are golden brown and fragrant, about 6 to 8 minutes.
- Whisk together the lemon juice, garlic, and herbs in a large serving bowl.
- While whisking continuously, drizzle in the remaining olive oil.
- Toss in the tomatoes, cooked quinoa, roasted vegetables, and toasted pine nuts.
- Season with salt and pepper then top with crumbled feta cheese to serve.
Looking for a simple way to enjoy quinoa in ready-made foods? Try Schar Artisan Baker 10 Grains & Seeds gluten free bread!