Culinary Arts

How to Cook Couscous: Tips, Techniques, and an Easy Recipe

Written by MasterClass

Feb 15, 2019 • 5 min read

Couscous is beloved the world over for its grainy texture and the way it soaks up cooking liquids when served as a side dish for tagine. The popularity of instant couscous means it’s now known as a near-instant meal: If you have a way to boil water and 10 minutes, you can have fluffy couscous for dinner, topped with sun-dried tomatoes, canned tuna, olives, or whatever else is taking up space in your pantry. (And it’s great served cold for lunch, too!) A staple dish throughout North Africa, including in Morocco and Tunisia, and the Middle East, couscous is a healthy alternative when rice or pasta fatigue sets in.

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What Is Couscous?

Couscous is a North African type of pasta made with semolina flour and water shaped into small granules. It’s also the name of the popular dish consisting of cooked couscous served with a stew of meat and vegetables. First eaten by Berber people between the 11th and 13th centuries, couscous was traditionally made by women, who sprinkled water over hard-wheat flour and rolled the resultant dough into irregular 1-3 millimeter balls. This fresh pasta-like dough was then gently steamed as a carbohydrate-rich vessel for saucy meat and vegetable-based meals.

How Do You Make Fresh Couscous?

Fresh couscous is prepared in a special pot called a couscousière, which steams the couscous above an accompanying soup or stew. The steam from the boiling liquid gently cooks the couscous, yielding the fluffiest texture, and when the stew is ready they’re served together. Cooking couscous in the traditional way, which often involves multiple rounds of steaming and intensive fluffing, ensures that each grain is separate.

What Is the Difference Between Fresh Couscous and Instant Couscous?

Fresh, handmade couscous is not prepared with water—instead, it’s steamed for about an hour above the stew it will later be served alongside. The couscous found in grocery stores, however is actually “instant couscous”—pre-steamed and dried, designed to be rehydrated by a quantity of boiling water or broth.

What Is the Best Couscous to Water Ratio?

Instant couscous should generally be prepared in a roughly 1:1 ratio of liquid (water or broth) to couscous, but ratios can vary from as little as ¾ cup liquid to as much as 1½ cup liquid, so check the package instructions. It’s also a matter of personal preference: If you want crunchy couscous, try using less liquid. If you prefer your couscous soft and tender, err on the side of more liquid.

What Is Israeli Couscous?

Israeli couscous, also called ptitim or giant/pearl couscous, is actually not couscous at all—it’s a type of pasta developed in the 1950s by then prime minister David Ben-Gurion as a way to feed the influx of immigrants to Israel. Balls of Israeli couscous are bigger than couscous, with a soft, chewy texture. Designed for industrial production, Israeli couscous is perfectly spherical and typically pre-toasted for flavor.

More traditional cousins to couscous include:

  • Lebanese mograbiah is made from bulgur wheat and larger than couscous. The name means “from North Africa.”
  • Palestinian maftoul is larger and less regular in shape, and typically made by hand.
  • Sardinian fregola is another large, handmade, semolina-based pasta. Like Israeli couscous, it’s toasted.

What Is the Difference Between Couscous and Rice?

Couscous is made from whole wheat flour whereas rice, which is naturally gluten-free, is the starchy seed of a cereal grass. Both are staple foods rich in carbohydrates, but couscous is a manmade product similar to pasta, and rice is a cultivated crop. Rice is larger and generally has a longer cook time than grocery-store couscous.

What Are the Health Benefits of Couscous?

Couscous contains 2.2 grams of dietary fiber per cooked cup, around 10 percent of your recommended daily value. (For comparison, white rice only contains 0.5 grams.) It’s not especially high in nutrients, but couscous makes a good base for proteins and vegetables.

Is Couscous Gluten-Free?

Couscous is made from whole wheat flour, which contains gluten, and is therefore not suitable for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Since the no-knead method for forming couscous does not activate the gluten in wheat flour, it’s possible to make “couscous” alternatives from gluten-free flours. You can also substitute quinoa for couscous to achieve a similar texture without the gluten.

Is Couscous Vegetarian or Vegan?

Couscous can easily be made vegan or vegetarian. It is popular with meat dishes because its large surface area sops up fats and juices, but it makes an excellent base for tender, flavorful veggies. Traditionally it’s often served with a thin sauce of hearty carrot, sweet potato, squash, tomato, bell pepper, eggplant, and zucchini.

How to Cook Couscous in a Rice Cooker

Cook couscous in a rice cooker on the “white rice” setting. Use 1½ cups liquid per cup of couscous, so the couscous doesn’t dry out in the rice cooker. If using water rather than broth, add a pinch of salt—and other seasonings, if desired—to your couscous. Another superfast way to cook couscous, beloved by backpackers and college students alike, is to use a tea kettle or other water-boiler—just pour the boiling water over over the couscous (don’t forget the salt!).

How to Make Couscous in the Microwave

You can cook couscous in the microwave by simply boiling the broth in the microwave instead of a saucepan, and adding it to the couscous. Pour one cup of broth into a microwave-safe dish with a nonmetallic object (such as a wooden spoon or chopstick). Heat the water in one-minute intervals, stirring between intervals, until it gives off steam, about four minutes for one cup. Pour boiling water over one cup couscous. Add butter and oil. Stir to moisten, cover with a plate or plastic wrap, and let couscous steam for 10 minutes. Fluff and serve.

4 Creative Couscous Recipes

  1. Make it vegan. Although most couscous recipes use chicken broth, it’s super easy to make a fully vegan couscous dish. Instead of chicken broth, use vegan vegetable broth or water seasoned with salt, black pepper, and/or ginger, garlic, and spices. (Plain water leads to bland couscous.) Use olive oil instead of butter to add fat, and serve with a vegetable stew—traditionally, eggplant, zucchini, carrots, squash, and tomato.
  2. Serve it cold. Couscous is also delicious cold—use it as the grain base for a picnic- or lunchbox-friendly salad. Try cold couscous mixed with Israeli couscous, quinoa, or other grains, and top it with fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, canned tuna, or leftover grilled salmon.
  3. Sweeten it up. Sweet couscous makes a delicious dessert or breakfast—add almond milk or orange juice to couscous made with plain hot water and season with cinnamon, sugar, and orange zest. Top with nuts and dried fruit.
  4. Crisp up the crust. Try a couscous tahdig, the Iranian rice dish with a crispy bottom. Prepare one cup of couscous using your preferred method. Heat olive oil and/or unsalted butter in a medium nonstick pan. When the butter melts, turn the heat down to low and add couscous and a simple tomato sauce, using the back of a spoon to press it into the pan evenly. Cover the pan and steam for an additional 10-12 minutes, or until edges are lightly brown, and flip onto a plate.

Quick and Easy Couscous Recipe

1 cup
Prep Time
5 min
Total Time
15 min
  • 1 cup instant dry couscous
  • 1½ cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth (or water plus ½ teaspoon salt)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • In a medium saucepan, bring broth, salt, butter, and oil to boil over high heat.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Stir in the couscous, cover tightly with a lid, and let sit for 10 minutes.
  • Use a fork to fluff.