March 18th, 2014
10:30 AM ET
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America's Test Kitchen is a real 2,500 square foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston that is home to more than three dozen full­time cooks and product testers. Our mission is simple: to develop the absolute best recipes for all of your favorite foods. To do this, we test each recipe 30, 40, sometimes as many as 70 times, until we arrive at the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time, and equipment that yields the best, most­ foolproof recipe. America’s Test Kitchen's online cooking school is based on nearly 20 years of test kitchen work in our own facility, on the recipes created for Cook's Illustrated magazine, and on our two public television cooking shows.

Here at America’s Test Kitchen, we never shy away from getting down to the nitty-gritty science of why a recipe works, and we’re constantly questioning the most basic assumptions about the best way to cook a dish. So when we were developing a quinoa pilaf for our January/February 2014 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, we went back to the most elementary step of the process: cooking the quinoa.

And we realized that most people have been doing it all wrong.

Why Did We Make a Quinoa Pilaf?

It’s common to see quinoa cooked, rinsed, and cooled and made into a salad, but we wanted a warm pilaf because it would allow us to fold in more flavors. We decided to use the absorption method for cooking, meaning we add just enough water for the quinoa to soak it up, rather than the pasta method, where we’d boil the quinoa in large amounts of water and then drain it.

What’s the Correct Water-to-Quinoa Ratio for Cooking?

When quinoa first started getting popular, there was variability in the product; it wasn’t always fully dried. So importers decided that a 2-to-1 ratio of water to quinoa—when cooked using the absorption method—would be a safe recommendation. This was disseminated as the tried-and-true ratio, but in our testings we found we could cut it in half, seeing as most of the quinoa you can buy today is evenly dried.

We call for a 1-to-1 cooking ratio, which results in a much lighter dish with more bite and snap. And best of all, it eliminates any possibility of overcooking.

Don’t Toss Quinoa in Oil Before You Cook It

In a traditional pilaf we often toss the grains into hot oil, sauté them, and then add water to cook them through. In some previous kitchen experiments, however, we found that quinoa gets more bitter when you heat it in oil. So rather than coating it with oil, we decided to dry toast the quinoa before adding water to help it develop a nuttier flavor without increasing the bitterness.

What’s the Deal With Different Colors of Quinoa?

Before quinoa began being exported to international markets, it wasn’t cultivated in an organized fashion. Different varieties grew in peoples’ back yards in Bolivia, and there were different strains, such red and black and white; most people didn’t really care to differentiate that much. Importers, however, saw these different varieties as a great marketing opportunity and began exporting the different colors to markets abroad. Today they’re are cultivated in a more organized fashion due to interest and demand.

RECIPE: Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon
Serves 4-6

1 1/2 cups prewashed quinoa
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
1 small onion, chopped fine
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Toast quinoa in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until quinoa is very fragrant and makes continuous popping sound, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer quinoa to bowl and set aside.

2. Return now-empty pan to medium-low heat and melt butter. Add onion and salt; cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened and light golden, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Increase heat to medium-high, stir in water and quinoa, and bring to simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until grains are just tender and liquid is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking. Remove pan from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff quinoa with fork, stir in herbs and lemon juice, and serve.

More from America's Test Kitchen:
Testing Large Saucepans
How to Cook Whole Grains
Our Gluten-Free Cookbook
Our Online Cooking School Tutorial for Quinoa Pilaf with Chile, Queso Fresco, and Peanuts

Carve the way to roast beef enlightenment
Perfect chocolate chip cookies (that happen to be gluten-free)
Go for gold with slow-cooker beef stroganoff

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  10. clementine

    bloody hell,what a grumpy bunch! You know what you need, don't cha! A big slice of cake! It's just food guys! Most of the planets population suffer a severe lack of it and here you are nit picking, get over it! Yaaaaaawn.

    September 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm |
  11. Cast yet

    Is it possible that we can't even read or comment about FOOD without being so sarcastic and nasty?? A perfectly good site is ruined by such foolish comments!

    September 3, 2014 at 3:43 pm |
  12. Mary Segall

    This is THE BEST food conversation I've ever read! A lot of times, people post a comment because they want a medal for "thinking about trying" a new recipe because it "sounds" good. But you all are passionate about food, and you won't back down. You talked about topics from Andean agriculture to the Burning Man exhibit to goji berries. It was real, raw, and emotional (and also funny at times.) By the way, I think we do owe a thank you to the ancient farmers in the Americas who cultivated many of the wonderful grains, fruits and vegetables that we love to eat today.

    April 4, 2014 at 4:52 pm |
  13. Xtina

    Wait – I thought quinoa has to be rinsed to remove saponins. Is this step still necessary or have the manufacturers eliminated it? If we have to rinse it, do we have to drain it in a sieve and wait until it's bone-dry to toast it?

    April 1, 2014 at 1:01 am |
    • ayelene

      Some comes pre-rinsed, and it will say so on the package. Otherwise, you need to rinse it very well. I've get it as dry as I can when I make it, but it's never completely dry and it always comes out well. (I also sometimes toast it in butter along with my diced veggies when making a pilaf, and it comes out beautifully ;) )

      April 1, 2014 at 7:55 am |
  14. Jeannie

    What a nasty bunch of people there are on this blog, what is the point of that when it is about healthy eating. It probably doesn't matter what those people are eating because their bodies are being poisoned by their outlook on life. Why do people act this way when there is nothing to be gained excepts making someone else feel bad? As if life isn't difficult enough without some people looking for ways to hurt others.

    March 28, 2014 at 10:52 am |
    • kimmie0

      I believe the idea of freedom of speech has been perverted. People who stand up against government abuses are being shut down, and the mean-spirited ones among us have too much free-reign. I would rather blogs and comment moderators would filter out the meanness, and the bad grammar. It would be a whole new customer service skill set... really explaining to people why their comments are not acceptable. It does seem as though someone should be appointed Sergeant of Arms of the internet, not police... instructors of good behavior. If you don’t play by the rules, you don’t play... kind of a Burning Man approach...

      April 1, 2014 at 2:48 am |
      • donna

        I have been on some forums to find out information about things that I knew nothing about and was solo talked down to it was insulting. No question is a stupid question so don't talk down to people just because they are not familiar with a certain subject. No one knows everything about everything.

        July 28, 2014 at 7:02 am |
  15. Katherine

    I have been eating quinoa for many years now, it was recommended by my holistic doctor. I have always used the absorption method,never heard of the boiling and draining way. I usually eat it warm, in the winter it makes a great small breakfast, throw in some goji berries while it is cooking...heaven in a little bowl! The red quinoa is stronger tasting but makes a great tabouleh in the summer.

    March 23, 2014 at 1:50 am |
  16. Suzanne Nelson

    I'm a big fan of Cook's Illustrated and the test kitchen. Just want to suggest that although quinoa for export may not have been grown in an "organized manner" until recently, it has been grown for 1000s of years by Andean cultures – not just in "people's backyards in Bolivia". Come on folks, you can be more gracious than that! Quinoa, potatoes, tomatoes, chiles, and a number of other crops enjoyed around the globe were "grown in people's backyards" in the Andes and surrounding areas for a long, long time before we "discovered" them! Give thanks to smallholder farmers everywhere who steward the crops we depend on – and enjoy in new ways!

    March 22, 2014 at 2:38 pm |
  17. degregorius

    Toast the quinoa? Please clarify. Does that mean heat in the pan without any oil?

    March 20, 2014 at 11:43 am |
    • Barney Keenwah

      Don’t Toss Quinoa in Oil Before You Cook It

      Did you read the instructions before reading the recipe? Here's a direct quote from the instructions - "In a traditional pilaf we often toss the grains into hot oil, sauté them, and then add water to cook them through. In some previous kitchen experiments, however, we found that quinoa gets more bitter when you heat it in oil. So rather than coating it with oil, we decided to dry toast the quinoa before adding water to help it develop a nuttier flavor without increasing the bitterness."

      March 20, 2014 at 11:34 pm |
  18. instigator

    Judging by the comments so far... I wonder I Mr Obama eats Quinoa? And for that matter if we can finally stop killing our planet, or at least start deporting illegal conservatives yet. After all we all know this post isn't about food at all... it's about the rising revolution to end worldwide free will and perpetuate "the man" keeping us down!!!!. (Hey, at least my post had the word Quinoa in it!) ;)

    March 20, 2014 at 9:59 am |
  19. David

    I have never heard of Quinoa so I'm quite sure I'm not cooking it wrong.

    March 19, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
  20. heathercolegrove

    What "fresh herbs" would one use? I LOVE how the leave that part out......I'm need some guidance ...anyone have any suggestions?

    March 19, 2014 at 8:23 pm |
    • BeerBrewerDan

      It's sort of too bad if you can't take an instruction to use fresh herbs and just go with it. Perhaps you should stick to easier recipes, like Kraft Mac n Cheese.

      March 21, 2014 at 8:30 am |
      • LOL

        Instead of being snarky, why not just suggest some erbs? O-raaay-ga-noooo.

        March 21, 2014 at 8:48 am |
    • Ally

      heathercolegrove, I would say it depends on what flavor profiles you want. If you want an Indian flavor you could use curry, cilantro, maybe some toasted mustard seeds and cardamom. I have a salad-like recipe where I throw in toasted pine nuts, dried cranberries, parsley, basil, garam masala and some feta cheese. For the simple citrusy recipe similar to above you could use lemon, parsley, rosemary, maybe some tarragon or dill.

      March 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
      • Ellie

        Thanks for the tips on the fresh herbs! Very useful.

        April 7, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
  21. Azure

    unclear order: so is it toast, wash, cook; or is it wash, toast, cook.
    Some test kitchen–can't make clear instructions.

    March 19, 2014 at 7:48 pm |
    • NyteShayde

      You have a problem with reading a recipe? It's pretty clear as to what they were doing. Not they're fault you're an idiot.

      March 19, 2014 at 8:15 pm |
      • Man Oh Man!

        Says the guy who can't use words good.

        March 19, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
        • LOL!


          March 20, 2014 at 10:17 am |
        • Usage Patrol @ LOL!

          Learn to recognize humor and sarcasm on the boards.

          March 21, 2014 at 7:04 am |
        • LOL@Usage Patrol

          That's why I was laughing, buzz kill.

          March 21, 2014 at 8:32 am |
        • Usage Partol@LOL

          You killed Man Oh Man's first derp.

          March 21, 2014 at 9:11 am |
        • LOL@Usage Partol

          March 21, 2014 at 9:19 am |
  22. Guest

    More elitists garbage telling you the "correctt" way to cook your quinoa. Cook it how you want too, or don't cook it if you don't like it. Let people live their lives, this is pathetic.

    March 19, 2014 at 6:56 pm |
    • snowr14

      As much as you might hate it, there are some methods that will get the best nutrient value out of what you eat. Best example of it is the masa harina which requires corn to be cooked with lime and water. It helps make niacin in the digestive tract

      You don't want all the nutrients you could potentially get out of what you eat, its your choice. But not all are like you.

      March 19, 2014 at 7:34 pm |
    • NyteShayde

      Elitists? It's a FOOD recipe not a damn guideline for living your life. Get a grip.

      March 19, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
    • ayelene

      Lighten up, dude. This is a cooking/food blog, hence the cooking instructions/directions. I think you're overthinking it with the "let people live their lives..." comment. And taking things a wee bit too personally and not in the manner in which they were intended.

      April 1, 2014 at 8:01 am |
      • Troll Patrol

        Well said, but don't let him rile you. Trolls is trolls.

        April 1, 2014 at 8:06 am |
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