I thrive off the unknowns when I enter my kitchen to cook dinner — what bits of produce did my roommate bring home from work? What almost-expired dairy product do I need to use up ASAP? — but there are certain parts of the cooking process that I prefer to be consistent. Quinoa, for example, should cook up perfectly tender every single time, so it can act as the reliable starting point for whatever it is I throw together.
When done right, quinoa is a quick-cooking, fiber-rich, gluten-free base for any number of dishes, from breakfast porridge to lunchtime grain bowls to hearty vegetarian chili. Similar to couscous, it's both fluffy and yet slightly creamy, with a mild, nutty, easy-to-love flavor.
And yet all too often quinoa is mushy and flavorless, past the point of saving by the time it's gummy and overcooked. Luckily, since I'm a vegetarian and routine meal prepper, quinoa has become a staple in my diet; I've cooked so many pots of it over the past several years that I'm confident I can help you make a perfect batch every time. For starters, you'll want to avoid these common mistakes.
5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking Quinoa
1. Not rinsing your quinoa.
I'm all too guilty of skipping steps in recipes that I find unnecessary. So to be honest, I don't always rinse my grains — even dusty farro and starchy brown rice. But quinoa is the exception. Unless you prefer the more pronounced, earthier taste of the seed, I recommend giving it a quick rinse under cool running water, which gets rid of its natural coating that can cause a bitter taste. Even if the box says it is pre-washed, I find it doesn't hurt to give the quinoa another rinse.
Remember, too, to use a fine-mesh strainer to rinse the quinoa. Due to its tiny size, quinoa will fall straight through a larger-holed colander.
2. Following the ratio on the back of the box.
I'm actually a fan of the pasta method for cooking most grains — tossing them into a pot of boiling water and tasting occasionally until they're chewy and tender (no measuring or ratio necessary). But one of the tell-tale signs quinoa is done is when the tiny spiral (the germ) separates and curls around the seed. That's hard to see if it's lost in a pot of water. Plus, quinoa is so tiny it's hard to fish out of a large pot of water to taste.
So that brings us to a grain-to-water ratio, which is hotly debated when it comes to quinoa. The ratio I've had success with every single time is 1 cup quinoa to 1 3/4 cups water. Many boxes call for a 1:2 ratio, which I've found is more likely to result in an overcooked, gummy pot of quinoa. So skip those instructions and use my tried-and-true ratio, which is detailed in this step-by-step guide.
3. Not seasoning the cooking liquid.
You would never cook pasta in a pot of unsalted water, so why would you treat quinoa as such? Generously seasoning the cooking liquid is crucial to the taste of the final product — it's the difference between bland quinoa and quinoa you can't stop eating warm from the pot. Our rule of thumb is adding at least 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt for every 1 3/4 cups of liquid.
But don't just stop at salt — cooking quinoa in vegetable or chicken broth instantly boosts its flavor, as does the addition of a range of aromatics, such as cloves of smashed garlic, a few bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary or thyme, or freshly cracked pepper.
4. Checking on it constantly.
After the quinoa and water come to a rolling boil, you'll turn down the heat to low and cover the pot. Although you may be tempted to stand and hover, it's best to set a timer and walk away. Constantly lifting the lid allows steam to escape, which will cause the quinoa to cook unevenly and likely more slowly than the recommended time. If it makes you anxious to set it and forget it, opt for a pot with a glass lid so you can see what's going on without the unintended consequences.
5. Forgetting to let it steam.
Just like rice, quinoa benefits from a steam (in this case, a quick five-minute one) after the heat is turned off. This step is crucial to the cooking process, because the quinoa finishes cooking in the steam inside the pot, and any last bits of moisture will evaporate — resulting in tender, dry quinoa and not a mushy mess.
Now that you're an expert, get your quinoa cooking on with these five staff-favorite recipes.