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How to cook quinoa for salads

by Tansy Boggon

Cook quinoa with the perfect texture for salads and other dishes.

What is quinoa?

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a small seed often used as a grain substitute. For this reason, it is known as a pseudograin.

With a mild nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture, quinoa is suitable for savoury and sweet dishes.

It can be a delicious base or addition to salads. However, it can also be used to make porridge, burger patties, stuffed capsicums and added to soups and stews.

Quinoa comes in various colours: white, red, and black. It can generally be purchased as white or tricoloured.

There are insignificant nutritional differences between the colours of quinoa. Although, white quinoa is the least bitter of the three. Red and black quinoa have a chewier texture that holds up better in cold dishes like salads. The tricoloured quinoa mixes can be beautiful in salads.

tri colour uncooked quinoa in a white bowl
Tricoloured quinoa, uncooked.

It used to be that you could only find quinoa in health food stores. However, you can now find it alongside rice and pasta in the supermarket.

Why try quinoa?

Variety is key to a balanced diet. And what better way to add more variety to your grain and seed intake than with quinoa?

Although quinoa is considered a grain, it is high in protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Thus, quinoa is a complete protein.

Quinoa is also a good source of fibre, iron and magnesium. It makes an excellent alternative for dishes such as Tabbouleh and couscous salad, which contain gluten.

So, why not master cooking quinoa for salads and try some quinoa salad recipes?

Bowl with Lentil Quinoa Salad on dark pink background.
Lentil Quinoa Recipe.

How to cook quinoa?

If overcooked, quinoa can become mushy and unappealing, especially in salads where you want it to have some texture and nuttiness.

The tips below will assist you in creating fluffy quinoa with a bit of chewiness, perfect for salads.

Is it necessary to rinse quinoa before cooking?

It is recommended to rinse quinoa in a fine-meshed colander under running cold water for 30 seconds before cooking to remove bitterness due to the natural coating of saponins on the outside of quinoa.

Fortunately, however, most quinoa sold in packages has been ‘pre-rinsed’, which means that rinsing isn’t necessary. Further, some varieties have been selectively bred to be saponin-free or low in saponins.

I generally don’t pre-rinse quinoa, and it tastes great.

Having said this, some people may be particularly sensitive to saponins. So, if you are, you may find it best to rinse your quinoa or find a saponin-free variety.

Does quinoa require soaking before cooking?

No. There is no need to soak quinoa.

You won’t improve taste or texture by soaking quinoa before cooking. Further, soaking quinoa may cause the saponins to leach into the quinoa. So, skip this step if you’ve seen it suggested elsewhere.

What is the ratio of water to quinoa?

Combine one part uncooked quinoa with two parts liquid. That is, cook 1 cup of quinoa with 2 cups of water with a pinch of salt.

Quinoa can also be cooked in stock or water with various spices or flavours. See the tips below for making quinoa taste better.

Should you stir quinoa while cooking?

There is no need to stir quinoa while cooking. The gentle bubbling of the water while simmering should evenly cook the quinoa. It will only stick to the bottom of the saucepan if the heat is too high.

Should you cook quinoa covered or uncovered?

Cook quinoa, uncovered.

Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Then, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, keeping the saucepan uncovered.

Cook until all the water is absorbed. At this point, the quinoa will potentially be slightly chewy.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and cover with a lid. Allow it to steam, covered for five minutes.

Then, remove the lid and fluff the quinoa with a fork.

There you have it—quinoa ready for salads or other preparations.

How long does it take to cook quinoa?

It takes about 15-20 minutes to cook quinoa. However, giving it an additional five minutes to steam yields fluffier quinoa.

Roast pumpkin quinoa salad.

How to avoid mushy quinoa

One issue people find with quinoa is that it becomes mushy when overcooked.

To avoid mushy quinoa, measure your quinoa and water to ensure the exact ratio.

If there is insufficient water, you will have burnt quinoa at the bottom of your saucepan and uncooked quinoa on top. Too much water, and you’ll have mushy, overcooked quinoa.

I am an intuitive cook and generally throw ingredients together. However, I always measure my rice, quinoa and buckwheat to get evenly cooked grains.

How do you know quinoa is cooked?

Quinoa is cooked when it pops open, revealing its curly germ.

Can you eat quinoa hot or cold?

You can enjoy quinoa, hot or cold, as a side dish or combined into salads or other recipes.

Dishes and recipes perfect for cooked quinoa?

Cooked quinoa can be served as a side dish in a similar way you would rice. Think quinoa served with stir fry or curry.

Its nutty texture makes quinoa a great base for a grain bowl. For grain bowl inspiration, see my recipe blog, 25 Delicious Grain Bowls and Formula for Easy Grain Bowls.

Quinoa may also be combined into salads. See my recipes for Pumpkin Quinoa Salad, Lentil Quinoa Salad and Roasted Cauliflower Quinoa Salad.

Cooked quinoa can also be added to soup, stews, casseroles, pilafs or risotto-like dishes. It can also be used to bulk up burger mixture or meatloaf. It can be combined with vegetables, spices and tomato paste to stuff veggies, such as roasted stuffed capsicums or tomatoes.

Quinoa can also be used for sweet dishes such as porridge or baking.

Roasted Cauliflower Quinoa Salad.

How long will cooked quinoa keep?

Leftover cooked quinoa will be good for 3 to 5 days when stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

Cool to room temperature before covering so condensation doesn’t build up on the lid, leading to potentially soggy wet quinoa on reheating.

Quinoa may also be frozen and stored in the freezer for months. Store in pre-portioned small containers or ziplock bags so you only defrost what you need.

How to reheat cooked quinoa?

You can defrost pre-cooked quinoa by leaving it in the fridge to thaw out, ready for combining in various recipes. However, the microwave is a good option for warm, fluffy, re-heated quinoa.

To reheat quinoa in the microwave, place frozen quinoa in a microwave-safe dish and reheat on high for 30 seconds. Stir and repeat until it is heated through.

What to do with leftover quinoa?

Got leftover quinoa? Use it in all the ways you would quinoa.

If you reheat quinoa from frozen, it may become mushy. In this case, it’s probably better added to other dishes, such as stews, meatloaf or stuffed veggies, where texture isn’t as much of an issue.

How do you make quinoa taste delicious?

Although quinoa can be cooked in water and salt only, it can also be cooked in stock or with spices and aromatics for flavour.

Salt or stock is an important addition for tasty quinoa.

Try cooking quinoa in water with the addition of:

  • fresh minced garlic or garlic powder
  • sautéed onion
  • a sprig of rosemary
  • dried oregano
  • dried bay leaf
  • vegetable stock
  • black pepper

You could even switch out some water for coconut milk for an Indian or Thai coconut-flavoured quinoa.

Quinoa can be further flavoured after cooking with ingredients such as:

  • lemon juice
  • lemon zest
  • fresh herbs: parsley, mint, chives, etc.
  • butter (olive oil can have a bitter aftertaste that doesn’t complement quinoa well)
  • taco seasoning

Do you have a favourite use for quinoa?

I’d love to hear how you enjoy quinoa.

Recipes with cooked quinoa

If you are looking for satisfying salad recipes to combine your quinoa into, check out my recipes for:

Cooked Quinoa

How to cook quinoa ready for salads and other preparations. Yields 3 cups of cooked quinoa.
Cook Time15 minutes
Resting Time5 minutes
Total Time20 minutes
Course: Side Dish
Keyword: dairy-free, gluten-free
Servings: 3 cups
Author: Tansy Boggon


  • 1 saucepan


  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • pinch salt


  • Place quinoa and water with a pinch of salt into a saucepan.
  • Bring to boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat.
  • Then, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, scraping any quinoa pushed up the sides of the saucepan. As it simmers, you should see bubbles coming up into the quinoa.
  • Cook the quinoa for 15-20 minutes until all the water is absorbed. You may use a fork to check that all the water has been absorbed at the bottom of the pan.
  • Once water is fully absorbed, remove the saucepan from the heat.
  • Allow it to sit, covered, for 5-10 minutes.
  • Then, remove the lid and 'fluff' the quinoa with a fork.
  • Flavour or combine into other recipes.


Leftover quinoa will keep for 4 to 5 days, refrigerated in an airtight container. Cool to room temperature before covering.
Other preparation methods
Quinoa can also be cooked in a rice cooker with the same proportions of quinoa to liquid.
It may be prepared in a Thermomix at 100oC on speed 4 for 16-18 minutes without the basket.
Alternatively, quinoa can be cooked in a microwave, covered. Use the same ratio of quinoa to liquid. Heat on high for 6 minutes. Stir and heat for 4 minutes. Then, allow it to sit, covered, for another 5-10 minutes. You may need to adjust the timing depending on your microwave.
Joyful Eating Book Cover.

Joyful Eating: How to Break Free of Diets and Make Peace with Your Body

“… practical tools to help people release their sabotaging thoughts, enabling them to eat more intuitively and find joy in the moment.” — Michelle Stanton, author of The Timeless World.

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