Is Quinoa a Substitute for Rice?

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 6th, 2015 | Ask the Chef

quinoa (400x400)I know that quinoa has been popular for a while, but I haven’t cooked with it yet. Is it truly a replacement for rice? Could I use it as a substitute in fried rice, casseroles, etc.?

Is quinoa a replacement for rice? It can be used almost anywhere rice can be used, and it can be cooked like rice in most cases (I haven’t tried cooking it like a risotto*, but imagine it would work), but it doesn’t taste like rice. Its flavor and soft yet slightly crunchy texture are unique. UPDATE: Since this recipe was published, we have tried quinoa in risotta and now have a recipe: Quinoa Risotto with Mushrooms & Goat Cheese.)

Can quinoa be used as a substitute for rice in fried rice, casseroles, and the like? I’m not sure how it would be fried as for fried rice, but it makes a great side dish; bed for stir-fried vegetables, stews, and the like; an add-in for salads, casseroles, and soups; used in stuffings; made into veggie burgers; and it’s even good as breakfast porridge or desserts like rice pudding. I’ve prepared it like pilaf, steamed it, and boiled it like pasta (which was my least favorite method.) It cooks more quickly than even white rice.

Quinoa is actually a seed rather than a grain, and its protein exceeds that of any grain by a wide margin. It’s unique in that its protein is complete. Plus it’s high in fiber, magnesium, and iron, so nutritionally it’s an excellent addition to your diet. Because it’s soft enough to be satisfactorily ground, you can either grind it into or buy flour made of it. One of my cookbooks has both a gluten-free butterscotch brownie and a cookie recipe which use quinoa flour.

There are many varieties of quinoa, and you can now find it in colors other than off-white. It might also be tan, red, or black. Don’t worry if you find a few black seeds in among the off-white; just cook them along with the rest. The difference in taste is subtle. If you have a choice, consider the color along with the other ingredients in what you’re making – they can perk up the appearance of a dish.

Although most quinoa these days comes processed, it’s still a good idea to rinse it before cooking. The seed is coated in substance called saponin, a natural pesticide. While much of this substance is removed during processing, it’s easy enough and cheap insurance to wash it again. Put the quinoa in deep bowl and cover it with cold water. Rub it between your palms gently, drain through a fine sieve, and repeat. Finish by running cold water over it in the sieve, and drain well.

My favorite way to serve quinoa as a side dish is to cook it in chicken broth instead of water and add sautéed, lightly caramelized onions after it’s cooked. You might give that a try for your first effort. After that, the sky’s the limit.

*Editor’s note: Although not a chef, our resident cook, TT, has made risotto with quinoa. You can check out her recipe here.

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