Traditionally, “couscous” is the name for the classic Moroccan stew served over steamed grain, but otherwise, couscous refers to the mild, versatile grain-like ingredient we’ll be exploring here. This guide to couscous has tips for using this versatile, quick-cooking food, with ideas and links to lots of tasty recipes.
The fine granules cook almost instantly and soak in sauces to make the most of every flavorful drop, making it an excellent accompaniment to many meals. The appeal of couscous lies in its light texture and mild, familiar flavor. The ease and speed of preparation are a plus to the busy cook, too.
Contrary to popular belief, couscous isn’t a whole grain or seed, but a tiny form of pasta — it’s made from the starchy endosperm of hard spring durum wheat, also known as semolina flour. For a better understanding of couscous, let’s dig into the details about this steamed staple.
What Is Couscous and Where Did It Come From?
The exact origin of couscous is still debated to this day, but most can agree that it came from somewhere around Algeria and Morocco between the 11th and 13th centuries. Couscous slowly spread through much of the Middle East and North Africa, until it made the jump over to France in the 16th century.
By the 20th century, it was fully adopted into French cuisine, seeing how beautifully it paired with traditional braised meats and slow-cooked vegetable stews.
To make couscous, the wheat kernel is refined (that is, the bran and germ are removed), leaving the endosperm, which is then steamed, dried, and cracked. Semolina, the flour used to make pasta, is also made from the endosperm of durum wheat, explaining why couscous and refined pasta taste remarkably alike.
Varieties of Couscous
If a recipe simply calls for “couscous,” you can safely assume this means the fine, golden granule, readily available in almost all supermarkets and natural foods stores. There’s more than one type of couscous to enjoy, however, and to diversify your pantry.
Moroccan couscous is our gold standard, quite literally, with gleaming semolina particles that fluff up to incredible volumes when cooked.
Whole wheat couscous has more more fiber and nutrients, though it’s not as commonly available.
Vegetable-enriched couscous incorporates spinach and/or tomato, adds flavor and color in one fell swoop. You can even find gluten-free versions in some specialty markets and online stores.
Additionally, there’s Israeli couscous, but that cooks up more to a tiny pasta texture, and is a subject for a different guide, to come!
How to Buy and Store Couscous
Commonly sold in bulk, couscous stored in an airtight glass jar in a cool, dry place will keep well for many months. Since has minimal natural fat, the risk of rancidity is minimal. Still, as with any grain-like food, the sooner it’s used, the better.
You can also find boxes of couscous sold in the ethnic or kosher section but expect to pay a premium for the packaging. Many of these options are bundled together with seasoning mixes to make a complete side dish, which may or may not be helpful if you’re following a recipe, so be aware of exactly what you’re buying.
The nutritional makeup of refined couscous is, not surprisingly, comparable to that of ordinary pasta. It’s low in fat, fairly high in protein and, if made with enriched durum wheat flour, contains good amounts of iron and the B vitamins thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. If you can find whole grain couscous, you can count on a tiny bit of additional fiber and protein. Here’s a complete nutrition profile of couscous. You’ll see that the difference between the two is minimal.
How to Cook Couscous
Basic Cooked Couscous: Use 2 parts water to 1 part couscous. Place the amount of grain needed in a heatproof bowl or deep casserole dish. Bring the amount of water needed to a boil, then pour it over the couscous. Cover and allow to sit for about10 minutes, then fluff with a fork. It’s now ready to use in a variety of interesting ways.
Couscous Recipes and Serving Suggestions
A bed of grain: Use couscous as a bed of grains in place of rice for stir-fried vegetables, curried vegetables, and the like. Because it’s so light, couscous offers a nice contrast to hearty bean dishes.
Moroccan-style stews and tagines: For a delicious, simplified vegetarian version of the Moroccan dish make a stew of some characteristic ingredients—tomatoes, chickpeas, zucchini, carrots, and onions, spiced with ginger and turmeric. Try this Harvest Tagine that makes enough for a full feast. Similarly, consider Seven Vegetable Couscous, Just above, a traditional dish for the Jewish New Year; it’s easy enough to make any day you want a savory treat.
Hot cereal: For a delicious hot cereal, combine couscous in a saucepan with 1/2 cup plant-based milk for every cup of cooked grain. Simmer over low heat until absorbed. Sprinkle with wheat germ and serve with agave or maple syrup, raisins, and nuts. Here’s a bowlful of Sweet Cinnamon Couscous.
Quick pilafs: Simply embellished, couscous pilafs make fast work of creating a tasty side dish that can be served with all kinds of meals. Lemony Couscous with Broccoli is a case in point, shown just above.
Savory patties: Not all cakes are sweet. Proving that point, Vegan Couscous Cakes are more like lightly spiced patties, perfect to pair with a light salad.
Bright grain salads: Make couscous a base for light summer salads. Toss diced tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, bell peppers, scallions and herbs with cooked couscous and dress in a mild vinaigrette or lemon juice/olive oil. Add olives if you’d like; it’s kind of a couscous tabouleh. Easy Vegan Couscous Salad (Mediterranean Style) is a great example to use as a template, and you could always swap out the vegetables as you see fit.
Buddha bowl base: Swap out plain white or brown rice in your favorite Buddha bowl with couscous for an even quicker fix. Couscous Bowls are a good template to use if you’re not sure how to get started.
Paella swap-in: When you’re craving traditional Spanish paella but don’t have much time, Vegetable Couscous Paella is the shortcut you need to try. Saffron lends authenticity to this fragrant dish; don’t be tempted to go for cheaper substitutes if you want the same heady aroma.
Soup grain: Add a little cooked couscous to soups to give them a little heft. This fast and easy Moroccan Chickpea and Lemon Couscous Soup recipe is perfect for a busy weeknight meal. The lemon adds brightness, along with spicy paprika and golden turmeric.
Dessert: Don’t forget to leave room for dessert! This Peach Couscous Cake is fluffy and mildly sweet, perfect for a light finish to any meal. Or, see this Couscous Dessert Bowl, which looks like it could also be a great breakfast.
We hope you enjoyed this guide to couscous; make sure to explore more of this site’s Good Food Guides.
Contributed by Hannah Kaminsky: Hannah has developed an international following for her delicious recipes and mouthwatering food photography at the award-winning blog BitterSweet. Passionate about big flavors and simple techniques, she’s the author of Vegan Desserts, Vegan à la Mode, Easy as Vegan Pie, Real Food, Really Fast, Sweet Vegan Treats, The Student Vegan Cookbook, Super Vegan Scoops, and The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet Pan. Visit Hannah at BittersweetBlog.com.