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Israeli Couscous

Published July 2015

How we tested

Israeli couscous, a round semolina pasta about the size of tapioca, provides wheaty flavor and pleasantly chewy starch to soups, salads, and pilafs. Distinct from the tiny, grain-like North African couscous, Israeli couscous, which originated in 1950s Israel as a substitute for rice, is larger and springier, with round, pale grains that earned it the alternative moniker of “pearl” couscous. We tasted five supermarket products, plain and in our recipe for our Cook's Illustrated Israeli Couscous with Lemon, Mint, Peas, Feta, and Pickled Shallots (see related content).

Cooked according to package directions, most passed muster with our tasters, but one product was a mushy mess. Its directions demanded almost twice the usual quantity of water and had us boiling it far longer than the others. To level the playing field, we tasted all the products again, this time using our preferred pilaf cooking method (toasting the grains in olive oil and then adding water and simmering until the couscous absorbs the liquid). This time all the products got passing grades, but one stood out as a bit better than the rest: Tasters found it especially firm and springy, chewy, and nutty.

What made the difference? We found our answers by examining the nutrition labels. Our recommended products contain about 15 percent protein relative to total carbohydrates, while the lowest-ranking product has about 13 percent. It turns out that this minor-sounding difference is significant in determining whether the couscous cooks up firm and chewy or turns into a mushy mess. Protein holds the carbohydrates together like an adhesive, so characteristics such as chewiness, texture, and resistance to breakdown when liquids are added (and during cooking) are all strongly influenced by the protein-carbohydrate ratio. Products with more protein also develop more flavor (when protein is heated, hundreds of new flavor compounds are created via a process called the Maillard reaction). We also noticed that the winner contains a trace of sugar, more than its rivals, which may have contributed to better flavor. (Our winner adds rosemary extract as a preservative, but so did our two lowest-ranked brands; the rosemary adds little to no flavor.)

In terms of shape, our tasters preferred larger pearls, even if they were only incrementally bigger than others. Packaging may have also influenced our preferences. The airtightness of the packaging tracks with our rating of the contents: Our top two products are sold in jars, and the third- and fourth-place products are sold in plastic bags (with the fourth-place bag inside a cardboard box), while our lowest-ranked couscous is sold with the least airtight packaging, loose in a cardboard box, making it seem “stale.”

While we recommend most of the products we tasted, we’ll be buying our top-ranked couscous for its “rich and nutty” taste and “chewy but tender” texture.


The Results


Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*