Senior Editor Dan Souza never shies away from getting down to the nitty-gritty science of why a recipe works, and he’s constantly questioning the most basic assumptions about the best way to cook a dish. So when he was tasked with developing a quinoa pilaf for the January/February 2014 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, he went back to the most elementary step of the process: cooking the quinoa. And he realized that most of us have been doing it all wrong. Here’s what he had to say about the right way to make a great batch of quinoa, including some words of wisdom he gleaned after talking to the first US importer of the ancient seed.
What were you expecting when you first started working on this recipe?
Honestly, I was expecting not to like it very much. I’ve never been a huge quinoa fan; I’ve always found it kind of mushy, blown out, and quite bitter.
Did you like it by the end?
Absolutely. [Senior Editor Andrea Geary] never liked quinoa either, and she made it a couple of times at home. I guess I helped convert some folks.
How did you start the recipe development process?
I started with a test of five different quinoa pilaf recipes that were already out there. It’s common to see it cooked, rinsed, and cooled and made into a salad, but I really wanted a pilaf that was warm to get a little more flavor in. I decided to use the absorption method, where you add only enough water for the quinoa to soak it up, rather than the pasta method, where you boil the quinoa in a lot of water and then drain it.
Did you feel you made any breakthroughs while developing this recipe?
Yes, I’d say there were two big discoveries. I got in touch with a guy named Dr. Stephen Gorad, who is a cofounder of the Quinoa Corporation. He no longer works directly with it but still goes to a lot of conferences and has his finger on the pulse of the industry. He and his business partner were some of the first guys to really start importing quinoa into the United States, so they had a lot of say over every aspect, including what spelling they were going to use.
They’re the ones who came up with the standard ratio for cooking, which is 2 parts water to 1 part quinoa. When it first started getting popular, there was a lot of variability in the product; it wasn’t always fully dried, for example. So they suggested the 2-to-1 ratio of water to quinoa for the absorption method, even though you didn’t really need that much water. They went with it to be safe. It got picked up and disseminated as the way to cook quinoa. Some recipes use a little bit less, but in my testing I found you could cut it in half: I call for a 1-to-1 cooking ratio, so you get a much lighter quinoa with more bite and snap. And best of all, there’s no chance of overcooking.
I also discovered something about the pilaf method for quinoa: In a traditional pilaf you often toss the grains into hot oil, sauté them, and then add water to cook them through. In some previous kitchen experiments I’d found that quinoa gets more bitter when you heat it in oil before cooking (although I couldn’t find the exact reason). So instead I decided to do a dry toast before adding water; it’s cool, you can see little kernels popping like popcorn. It develops a much nuttier flavor without increasing bitterness.
How did you decide what other ingredients you wanted to include in your quinoa pilaf?
I wanted to complement, but not overpower, the quinoa flavor. I wanted little intense bites, so I used strong flavors in small quantities. I add apricots earlier [in the cooking process] for one variation so they plump up, and other stuff is stirred in off the heat to keep it crunchy or fresh. It’s amenable to a lot of different flavors.
What’s the deal with the different colors of quinoa?
Before it really started to be exported to an international market it wasn’t cultivated in an organized fashion. So the different varieties would grow in peoples’ back yards in Bolivia, and there were different strains, like red and black and white, but people didn’t really care to differentiate that much. Dr. Gorad’s business partner saw these different varieties as a great marketing opportunity and began exporting the different colors to markets abroad. Today they are cultivated in a more organized fashion due to interest and demand.
RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon
Dan Souza's recipe for quinoa pilaf boasts a natural nutty flavor and a judicious amount of boldly flavored ingredients.