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How to cook couscous

Lynn Wright / 08 March 2015 ( 01 February 2021 )

Find out how to easily cook couscous using a simple couscous to water ratio that's easy to scale up no matter how many servings you want.

Cooked couscous
Add chopped vegetables and herbs to make a delicious couscous salad

Despite its appearance, couscous is a type of pasta, not a grain (although it often gets confused with quinoa). It’s made from moistened semolina flour that’s rolled into tiny pellets and then steamed for hours until light and fluffy in texture. A beloved staple in North African and Middle Eastern cooking, couscous is traditionally served with meat and vegetable stews.

Most couscous sold in supermarkets or grocery stores has been already pre-steamed, so all you need to do is give it a quick soak in hot water.

Use couscous as a side dish instead of rice or pasta, or in a multitude dishes from salads and soups to stuffing and tagines.

How to cook couscous

All you need to prepare couscous is boiling water, but it’s important to use the correct water to couscous ratio. For most types of instant couscous, use a ratio of 1:1 1/2, so for example 1 cup of couscous to 1 1/2 cups of water.

Allow around 60g of couscous per serving. You can add a splash of olive oil, lemon juice or a small knob of butter to the couscous while it soaks – it’s not essential but helps to add flavour.

1. Measure your couscous and place it in a heatproof bowl.

2. Pour the correct amount of boiling water over the couscous. It should cover the couscous by roughly 1cm/½in.

3. Cover your bowl with clingfilm and leave to stand for 10 minutes.

4. When ready, remove the clingfilm and using a fork, fluff the grains of couscous to help separate them.

5. Season with salt and pepper and then serve. If using extra ingredients, stir these in before serving.

Try couscous with this lamb tagine recipe

How to add flavour to couscous

Seasoned and served plain, couscous is great with anything piled on top of it – from roasted vegetables and tasty stews to chops and salmon steaks.

But jazzing up your couscous with additional flavours makes it a knockout side dish or simple delicious on its own. Try adding finely chopped herbs such as coriander and parsley; lemon juice and grated lemon rind; chopped olives, sundried tomatoes or dried fruit such as apricots or sultanas. Or go totally Arabian nights with pistachios, slivered almonds and pomegranate seeds.

With the addition of some extra ingredients, couscous becomes a meal in itself. There’s really no limit to what you can pair with couscous. Try chopped vegetables such as peppers, courgettes and tomatoes; pulses such as chickpeas; diced meat or feta cheese.

Served hot or cold, couscous is a winner for any occasion. It’s also a great addition in many recipes.

Try couscous with this easy chicken tagine

Couscous portion size

Allow around 60g of dried couscous per person, which is combined with 90ml of boiled water (using the ratio of 1:1 1/2). Simply pour the hot water onto the couscous, cover and leave for 10 minutes while the couscous absorbs the water.

For two people measure out 120g couscous and 180ml boiled water and leave to soak in a covered dish or bowl for 10 minutes.

Couscous portions Couscous per person Boiled water
1 60g 90ml
2 120g 180ml
3 180g 270ml
4 240g 360ml
5 300g 450ml
6 360g 540ml
7 420g 630ml
8 480g 720ml
9 540g 810ml
10 600g 900ml

How much water do you use for couscous?

Couscous should be cooked 50% more water than couscous, using a ratio of 1:1 1/2 couscous to water.

Is couscous healthy?

Couscous is relatively healthy, but it does depend what you want to eat it with and whether you're trying to reduce carbohydrates or not. One portion of couscous (from 60g dried couscous) contains 226 calories, around 46g carbohydrates and just over 7g of protein. Couscous is very low in fat (about 0.38g per portion), and served with vegetables and spices can be part of a healthy meal, just watch the oil levels if you're intending on keeping the fat content down.

Is couscous gluten free?

No, couscous is not gluten free as it is made from semolina flour, which is made from wheat. Many dishes served with couscous can be served with rice or quinoa instead for a gluten-free option.

What is giant couscous?

Giant couscous, also known as Israeli couscous or pearl couscous, is a type of pasta called ptitim. Originally created in 1950s as an alternative to rice, it's also popular in soups and cold in salads. Cooking giant couscous can be done in the same way as 'normal' couscous, using a ration of 1:1 1/2 Israeli couscous, but it can also easily be boiled in salted water and drained in the same way you would cook dried pasta

Try this recipe for harissa chicken with giant couscous salad.

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