Culinary Arts

What Is Couscous? Couscous vs. Rice and How to Cook Couscous

Written by MasterClass

Feb 15, 2019 • 4 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 Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the Middle East, and the Meditteranean, 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 from crushed durum wheat 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 that is served in many Moroccan restaurants.

First eaten by Berber people between the eleventh and thirteenth 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.

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. White and brown rice is larger and generally has a longer cook time than grocery-store couscous.

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.

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How to Cook Couscous

Bring one cup water, chicken broth, or vegetable broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat and add couscous along with a splash of olive oil or a dab of butter. Stir, cover saucepan with lid, and let sit for 10 minutes. Season with kosher salt. Fluff and serve.

Find recipes for couscous salad, couscous porridge, and more with our complete guide to cooking with couscous.

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.

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What Is Israeli Couscous?

Israeli couscous is a type of 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.

Other varieties of 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.

Learn how to cook Israeli couscous with this easy recipe.

Is Couscous Gluten-Free?

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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 the 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.

You can also substitute whole wheat durum flour made from whole grains to make a healthier version of traditional couscous.

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