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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