Quinoa is the seed of a plant native to South America. While it may be small in size, quinoa has garnered superfood status in recent years and for good reason. It has an exceptional nutrient profile that few other grains can rival.
While relatively new to North America, quinoa has been a staple in some South American diets for thousands of years. Its popularity is due in part to its higher protein content. Unlike most plants and vegetables, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids, so its protein profile is similar to that found in meat, fish, eggs and poultry.
Quinoa is also high in lysine, an amino acid essential for tissue growth and repair. Quinoa's high quality protein and unique amino acid profile make it an important staple for vegetarian and vegans who rely on plant sources to meet their dietary requirements.
Quinoa's is gluten-free, making it a popular choice for people with Celiac disease. Quinoa joins the ranks of other gluten-free grains including rice, corn, buckwheat and millet.
Quinoa's low glycemic index value means it causes a gradual and steady rise and in blood sugar. Diets rich in low glycemic index foods have been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and breast cancer. Foods with a low glycemic index are also beneficial for blood glucose control in people with diabetes.
One-half cup (125 ml) of cooked quinoa contains 88 calories, 3 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat and 2 grams of fibre. It also contains notable amounts of manganese, magnesium, iron and phosphorus.
Nutrient information per ½ cup (125 ml) cooked:
Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b
Quinoa grains are about the same size as millet but are flatter with a distinct spiral shape.
The color of quinoa ranges from pale yellow through red and brown to black. As it cooks, the external germ, which forms a band around each grain, spirals out. It forms a tiny crescent-shaped tail, similar to a bean sprout. The grain itself is soft and creamy while the tail is crunchy giving it a unique texture. Quinoa has a mild, slightly nutty flavour when cooked.
Quinoa is available in a variety of forms, including raw grains, flour and flakes. It's also becoming a common ingredient in many whole grain and gluten-free products such as breakfast cereal, crackers and wraps.
Not long ago quinoa was only available in specialty food stores. Today with its increasing popularity, it's available at most major grocery and bulk food stores. Look for it in the organic and health food sections or with other whole grains, such as barley and millet.
If you're purchasing quinoa from a bulk food store, the same rules apply as with anything bought in bulk: be sure the product is covered and free of moisture. Be sure to purchase it from a store with a high turnover of product.
Store quinoa as you would other grains - in a tightly closed container in a cool, dry place.
Quinoa has a hard outer shell and will keep for more than a year if stored properly. However, its natural fat content makes it susceptible to going rancid. Store quinoa in the fridge to extend its shelf life.
Unprocessed quinoa contains a coating of saponin, a natural bitter-tasting compound. Most quinoa sold commercially in North America has been pre-rinsed to remove this coating. However rinsing quinoa under cool running water before cooking can help eliminate any residual bitter taste associated with saponin.
Compared to other whole grains quinoa cooks relatively quickly in less than 15 minutes.
To prepare quinoa, rinse it under cool running water. Combine one part quinoa and two parts water (such as 1 cup quinoa and 2 cups water) in a small saucepan and place over high heat. When water comes to a boil, cover with a lid and reduce to a simmer over low heat. Continue to cook for 12 minutes, or until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the quinoa is translucent. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.
To add flavour to cooked quinoa, you may use low sodium vegetable or chicken stock instead of water.
If you desire quinoa to have a nuttier flavor, you can dry roast it before cooking. To dry roast, place quinoa in a skillet over medium-low heat and stir constantly for five minutes.
Quinoa triples in size when cooked; one cup (250 ml) dry quinoa yields 3 cups (750 ml) cooked.
While steamed quinoa is the easiest and perhaps most common way to prepare this ‘grain', it's versatile and works well in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
Quinoa flakes and flour on the other hand, are a nutritious and tasty addition to baked goods, including muffins, cookies and breads.
If experimenting with quinoa in an existing recipe, remember that it triples in size, so a little goes a long way.
Quinoa can be effective way to thicken a recipe since it absorbs liquid. However, if you're adding it to a recipe and don't want it thickened, simply add extra liquid. Cooked quinoa tastes delicious when added to muffins, cookies and cakes.
Healthy ways to enjoy
- Make a warm breakfast porridge by cooking quinoa in milk or soymilk. Sprinkle cooked quinoa with sliced almonds, dried cranberries, honey and cinnamon.
- Add ½ cup of cooked quinoa to your favourite pancake or waffle recipe.
- Top a spinach salad with ½ cup cooked and cooled quinoa, toss with sliced veggies and a balsamic vinaigrette for a hearty meal.
- Enjoy a wholegrain salad for lunch. Combine equal parts steamed quinoa and brown rice, toss with sliced red peppers, diced cucumber and crushed garlic. Drizzle with equal amounts of olive oil and lime juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper and red chili flakes.
- Serve steamed quinoa with baked fish and roasted vegetables for a simple, but healthy mid-week dinner.
- Add raw quinoa during the last 15 minutes of cooking to your favourite vegetable and bean soup for a boost of flavour and protein.
- Brush skinless chicken breast with egg white and coat with quinoa flakes. Season with salt and pepper and dried herbs (such as basil or rosemary); bake at 375°F (190°C) for 18-22 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and reaches an internal temperature of at least 74°C (165°F).
- Add cooked quinoa to your favourite cookie or muffin recipe. They'll turn out slightly crunchy with a mild nutty flavour. Click here for a recipe.
- Stir in 1/3 cup of cooked and cooled quinoa into low fat yogurt. Top with fresh berries and ground flaxseed for a satisfying snack.
Did you know?
- Since quinoa doesn't contain gluten, it's one of the least allergenic grains.
- The Incas considered quinoa a sacred food and referred to it as the "mother seed".
- You say quinoa, I say Chenopodium quinoa (otherwise known as it's scientific name).
- Quinoa is related to beets, chard and spinach.