SUPERFOODS are all the rage these days. Certain berries, fish, leafy greens and nuts all fall into that broad classification of foods that can impart big health benefits. Counted among them is a quirky grain-like seed called quinoa that you may be hearing more about these days.
What Is Quinoa?
Cultivated in the high Andes mountains of South America for more than 5,000 years, quinoa, pronounced KEEN-wah, is an ancient grain that’s fed the world for millennia. But the small, round rice-like food only started gaining in popularity here over the past decade or so, earning superfood status among some nutritionists.
“It’s a relative of beets and spinach and Swiss chard, it’s in that family,” says Cathy Leman, a registered dietitian nutritionist, personal trainer and founder of Dam. Mad. About Breast Cancer, a nutritional resource for the breast cancer community. But for many health-conscious cooks, quinoa has become a revered staple, used as a grain or starch in a variety of dishes.
“Quinoa is technically a seed, but we treat it more like it’s a whole grain,” says Julie Lanford, registered dietitian/nutritionist and author of cancerdietitian.com, a nutrition resource of cancer services. Also sometimes called a pseudo-grain or a pseudo-cereal, quinoa is typically used as a grain or cereal in dishes, even though it’s a seed. “When I’m helping people make choices in the carbohydrate group, we consider it a healthy carbohydrate and kind of lump it in with whole grains. But because it’s a seed, it has more protein than other types of grains.”
What Are the Benefits of Quinoa?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that a cup of cooked quinoa contains 220 calories, 8.14 grams of protein, 3.55 grams of fat, 39.41 grams of carbohydrates and 5.2 grams of fiber. That high fiber content makes quinoa a good grain choice, as does its protein content. “It has more protein than any other grain,” Leman says, so using it in place of rice or pasta, which don’t have as much protein, can help you feel fuller longer. This can be very helpful if you’re trying to lose weight. “If you’re looking for satiety, quinoa offers a little more bang for your nutritional buck.”
Quinoa is also considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Most plant-based proteins do not contain all of these amino acids, but as a seed, quinoa does. This makes it a great food for vegetarians, vegans or other individuals who can’t or don’t eat meat. Quinoa is also packed with a host of vitamins and minerals. “It’s a rich source of iron, potassium, riboflavin, B6, niacin and thiamin. It’s also a good source of magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese,” Leman says.
Quinoa is also gluten-free, so people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities can enjoy it. Lanford says that even if gluten isn’t a sensitivity you have, “I think it’s good for people to get variety in the carbohydrates that they eat. The nice thing about quinoa is it’s an easy replacement for rice or other grains just to give your body something different.”
The Oldways Whole Grains Council reports that while there are some 120 varieties of quinoa, you’re most likely to encounter three types in the grocery store: white, red and black. All three are similar in nutritional content, but “red quinoa holds its shape after cooking a bit better than white quinoa, making it more suitable for cold salads or other recipes where a distinct grain is especially desirable.” Black quinoa has a sweeter or earthier flavor than white quinoa, but otherwise cooks very much the same.
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that Americans eat more whole grains, explaining that “grains are either whole or refined. Whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa and oats) contain the entire kernel, including the endosperm, bran, and germ. Refined grains differ from whole grains in that the grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ, which removes dietary fiber, iron, and other nutrients.” Removing the outer portions of the kernel takes much of the nutritional content of the grain with it, leaving behind a stripped-down portion of the grain that cooks faster.
But here’s where quinoa has an advantage over other whole grains – “it cooks in the same time of white rice but has the nutritional quality of brown rice,” Lanford says. Quinoa is ready to eat in about 15 minutes, roughly half the time it takes other whole grains to cook.
How Is Quinoa Cooked?
When preparing quinoa, you should first rinse the seeds in a fine-mesh strainer before boiling them. Rinsing helps removes the outer coating of the grain, called saponin, which is a defense mechanism to protect the seeds from insects and birds. This saponin can impart a slightly bitter flavor, so it’s best to rinse it off before cooking. (Some packages of quinoa are labeled as “pre-rinsed” which means you can skip this step.)
Just like you would with other grains, use two parts liquid, which can be water, stock or even milk depending on the recipe, to one part quinoa. As it cooks, the quinoa absorbs the liquid and expands, becoming soft and fluffy. The quinoa is ready to eat when the liquid has been absorbed and you notice what looks like little white rings around a translucent center. (Those rings are the germ of the kernel.)
If cooking is an obstacle, Leman recommends seeking out prepared quinoa, such as the frozen plain quinoa available at Trader Joe’s. She says when her kitchen was being renovated, she had to find ways to prepare meals without a stove and found that the frozen quinoa was a great way to maintain nutritious eating habits. “You really don’t have to cook anymore. You can thaw it or heat it and that’s your base,” but it’s important to seek out plain varieties that don’t have sauces, as those sauces can be high in sodium and other unwanted ingredients or additives.
She says while some people might object to the packaging or higher price point of prepared foods, the nutritional boost might offset that. “If (using prepared quinoa) helps you get it on your plate, who cares? If you’re not getting it into your body it’s not doing you any good,” so if removing the cooking step helps, “just bite the bullet and buy the frozen stuff. Anything to make it easier.”
How Can I Incorporate More Quinoa Into My Diet?
Given how versatile quinoa is, “there are so many ways to incorporate more of it into your diet,” Leman says. While most recipes call for cooked quinoa, it can also be used raw – incorporated into granola recipes, for example, to add some high-fiber crunch.
If quinoa is a new food for you, Leman recommends starting out by mixing it with rice until you develop a taste for it. “Use half rice and half quinoa and decrease the amount of rice and increase the amount of quinoa over time as your taste buds adjust.” She also recommends using low-sodium vegetable stock or broth as the liquid to boost flavor when using quinoa as a side to vegetables or in place of rice or pasta.
“It’s also nice in soups. And what’s great about using it in soups is that you don’t have to cook it and then add it, you can just throw it raw into the soup,” she says. This is a great way to punch up the nutritional value of a vegetable soup. Using it in stir-fries and salads and in veggie burgers can also help you increase your quinoa intake. Leman recommends pairing quinoa with beans or legumes, such as lentils. “Black beans, quinoa and avocado is a deadly delicious combination. Mix them up and put it all in a corn tortilla, and it’s just delicious,” she says.
You can also bake with quinoa, both in its whole form and ground up as quinoa flour. (Try the vegan-friendly muffin recipe Leman shared below.) It can also be used to make pasta. Again, virtually anything you can make with other types of grains can be made with quinoa.
And it’s not just for dinner: Try substituting quinoa for your morning oatmeal or as a healthier spin on grits. “Typical Southern grits are not whole grain,” Lanford says, “so I substitute quinoa,” to make a creamy and delicious breakfast porridge that can help keep you feeling full until lunchtime.
Leman likes to make a big batch of porridge using 1/3 cup each of steel-cut oats, amaranth, millet and quinoa. “I cook it all together in my Instant Pot and it makes this creamy gruel that has different textures. That combination of all those grains is addictive.” Once it cools, refrigerate it and then you can have easy breakfasts each morning by simply dishing out a serving and reheating in the microwave.
BBQ (Banana, Blueberry, Quinoa) Muffins Recipe
- 3⁄4 cup quinoa (yields enough for 2 cups cooked quinoa with ¼ cup left to top the muffins)
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 11⁄4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 very ripe bananas
- 1⁄4 cup honey
- 1⁄4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
- 1 flax egg
- 1⁄2 cup applesauce
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup blueberries
- Cook quinoa in a large pot of boiling water, stirring occasionally, until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain well and return to pot. Cover and let steam 10 minutes. Pour off any condensed water, then let cool. Set aside 1⁄4 cup cooked quinoa for topping muffins.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, baking powder and cinnamon in a medium bowl.
- Mash bananas, honey and brown sugar in another medium bowl, until sugar is dissolved and banana is completely mashed. Add flax egg and continue to mash until combined. Stir in applesauce and vanilla.
- Stir banana mixture into dry ingredients just until combined. Stir in blueberries and 2 cups quinoa. Divide batter among muffin cups. Sprinkle lightly with reserved 1⁄4 cup quinoa.
- Bake muffins until tops are firm, just beginning to brown, and a tester inserted into muffins comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes.