Quinoa (pronunced keen-wah) is a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium quinoa Wild) grown as a crop primarily for its edible seeds. It is not a true cereal as it is not a grass. Quinoa originated in the Andean region of South America, where it has been an important food for 6,000 years. Quinoa is generally undemanding and altitude-hardy, so it can be easily cultivated in the Andes up to about 4,000 meters. Even so, it grows best in well-drained soils and requires a relatively long growing season.
Quinoa was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, being secondary only to the potato, and followed in third place by maize. In contemporary times this crop has come to be highly appreciated for its nutritional value, as its protein content (12%–18%) is very high. Unlike wheat or rice, quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete foodstuff. This means it takes less quinoa protein to meet one's needs than wheat protein. It is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten free and considered easy to digest.
Quinoa has a light, fluffy texture when cooked, and its mild, slightly nutty flavor makes it an alternative to white rice or couscous.
The first step in preparing quinoa is to remove the saponins, a process that requires soaking the grain in water for a few hours, then changing the water and resoaking, or rinsing it in ample running water either in a fine strainer or in cheesecloth. Removal of the saponin helps with digestion; the soapy nature of the compound makes it act as a laxative. Most boxed quinoa has been pre-rinsed for convenience.
A common cooking method is to treat quinoa much like rice, bringing two cups of water to a boil with one cup of grain, covering at a low simmer and cooking for 14–18 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed. The cooked germ looks like a tiny curl and should have a slight bite to it (like al dente pasta). As an alternative, one can use a rice cooker to prepare quinoa, treating it just like white rice (for both cooking cycle and water amounts).
Vegetables and seasonings can also be added to make a wide range of dishes. Chicken or vegetable stock can be substituted for water during cooking, adding flavor. It is also suited to vegetable pilafs, complementing bitter greens like kale.
Quinoa can serve as a high-protein breakfast food mixed with honey, almonds, or berries; it is also sold as a dry product, much like corn flakes.
Quinoa flour can be used in wheat-based and gluten-free baking. For the latter, it can be combined with sorghum flour, tapioca, and potato starch to create a nutritious gluten-free baking mix. A suggested mix is three parts quinoa flour, three parts sorghum flour, two parts potato starch, and one part tapioca starch. Quinoa flour can be used as a filling for chocolate.
Quinoa may be germinated in its raw form to boost its nutritional value. Germination activates its natural enzymes and multiplies its vitamin content. In fact, quinoa has a notably short germination period: Only 2–4 hours resting in a glass of clean water is enough to make it sprout and release gases, as opposed to, e.g., 12 hours overnight with wheat. This process, besides its nutritional enhancements, softens the grains, making them suitable to be added to salads and other cold foods.