Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 26, 2009: The couscous experiment - phase I

Recently a marketer representing a food company offered us some samples of a new brand of couscous. Couscous is not something we use an awful lot of and I wasn't sure I could fairly assess or review it as a stand-alone product; we'd rather not post about foods that we wouldn't use or willingly pay for ourselves. But as a scientist by day, it didn't take me long to devise a series of trials, whereby we could test this product other couscous options available to the home cook.

Let me run you through our contenders.

Product #1. This is the standard variety of couscous that's been available at supermarkets for years (aka North African or Moroccan couscous, I think). A 500g box goes for $2.39 at our nearest supermarket (that's $4.78/kg) and the only ingredient is 'durum wheat semolina flour'.

Product #2. This is the new couscous on the block, the 'pearl' variety (aka Israeli couscous, as far as I can tell). Our friendly marketer tells me it retails at $3.29 for 250g ($13.16/kg) at major supermarkets and some delis. Its sole ingredient is wheat flour.

Product #3. I picked up this moghrabieh (aka Lebanese couscous) from a new food store called Two Prickly Pears at the Carlton end of Lygon St. This 1 kg bag cost $9.95, though it might be available for less elsewhere - has anyone spotted moghrabieh on Sydeny Rd, for example? Its ingredients are semolina, salt and water.

Product #4. I've added quinoa as a final left-field entry. While the various couscous varieties are all essentially pasta, quinoa is a whole grain (and supposedly a super food). Since it cooks up to a similar consistency to ordinary couscous (product #1) and is arguably a more nutritious alternative, I've been substituting quinoa in couscous recipes for a couple of years. This organic quinoa (from Allergy Block) cost $8.30 for 600g (that's $13.83/kg).

The couscous experiment: phase I
For our first taste test, something simple. We cooked each product according to the directions on the packet, adding some 'chicken' stock powder to the cooking water and a small slug of olive oil to finish.

Product #1. The standard couscous takes only 5 minutes to prepare and roughly doubles in volume. A sunny yellow colour, it was soft (not at all chewy) and absorbed the stock flavour well.

Product #2. The pearl couscous took about 10 minutes to cook and expanded only a little. Its colour was more beige; the pearls were tender with some chewiness, and the stock flavouring clearly shone through.

Product #3. The moghrabieh took the longest to prepare (15-20 minutes) and did not expand substantially. Since it's boiled in a large amount of water (in every other case all the cooking water is absorbed), it's probably not surprising that the stock flavouring was rather weak. Even after the longer cooking time these were very chewy, occasionally tough, possibly still undercooked.

Product #4. After 10-15 minutes of cooking, the quinoa doubled in volume. The grains become translucent and lightly golden-brown. It's the outer hull that provides chewiness, a different experience to chewing the denser centres of the larger couscous varieties. Quinoa has a distinctive nutty flavour of its own and the stock only came through mildly. Michael thought this tasted "healthier" than the other products.

At the end of phase I, Michael and I agreed that we preferred the pearl couscous over the other options. It had a nice balance of tenderness and toothsomeness, and carried the stock flavouring best of all. The quinoa earned second place - it has a unique taste and texture that doesn't demand too much seasoning.

This wouldn't be phase I unless there were more couscous experiments to come. Keep an eye out for the next installment!


  1. Great post! Love the scientific comparisons. :)

    xox Sarah

  2. Looking forward to the next installment! I love me some couscous and quinoa.

  3. I look forward to part II - I noticed couscous cowering in the corner of the pantry this week and thought it needs some love!

  4. something I've always wondered about but havent branched out into yet!

  5. I love it!! Cindy you are amazing. I love your scientific foodie brain.

  6. Mmmm I found the Pearl Couscous at Coles a few weeks back. I definitely love it although it seems more like pasta to me than couscous does.

    I love your description of each of the dishes!

  7. I've recently started eating a lot of cous cous, so I can't wait to read the following phases... I haven't attempted quinoa yet, but have plenty of recipes that call for it. Maybe that's my next step.

  8. i loved reading about this can't wait until the next instalment of your experiments! good one!

  9. Glad y'all enjoyed it! More to come...