We here at Plated love inventive dishes, food hacks, and workarounds in the kitchen. In “The Replacements,” we’re focused on swapping out traditional ingredients for inventive choices to rethink classic dishes. These creative substitutions can enhance recipes and help you experience your meals in a new way.
The world eats a whole lot of rice—a cool 708 million metric tons were harvested in 2014, according to the USDA. That’s because half of the earth’s population considers long-grain, short-grain, sticky, and brown rice its principal nourishment.
That makes for one important global grain, and a delicious one too: We eat rice stirred into risotto, served beneath a stir-fry, and turned into the base of a burrito bowl.
But there are other ways to soak up a sauce or bulk up a dinner. When you’re looking to boost the protein and nutrient content of a meal, stay fuller longer, or limit carb intake just slightly, replacing rice with quinoa is a great way to go.
Quinoa has a more focused group of devotees than rice. It was domesticated by the Incas around 5000 BCE and grows primarily in northern South America. Quinoa is what’s known as a pseudo cereal—a seed that resembles a cereal grain and is used in the same way but doesn’t actually come from the grass family. This factoid can seem like a technicality, but it’s this separation that hands quinoa some excellent characteristics you won’t find in rice and helps explain how quinoa has rocketed from a regional staple to a superfood.
For one, quinoa is higher in protein, fiber, and fat than even brown rice, a combination that keeps hunger away all afternoon. While your bowl of quinoa conveys 6 grams of protein to your belly (that’s in one dry ¼-cup serving), rice has just below 4 grams. More importantly, quinoa’s protein content is made up of all nine of the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of the protein our bodies need. Rice, which has the least protein of all the common grains, also has to be paired with complementary ingredients, like beans, to deliver those same amino acids. You’ll find five times as much fiber in quinoa as in white rice and twice as much as in brown rice, while quinoa’s fat content clocks in at over twice the amount in brown and nine times what’s in white rice. All that for 31 grams of carbs per serving, compared with rice’s 36!
Once cooked, quinoa seeds go from disk-shaped pucks to tiny pearls with funny little tails emerging from each grain. Those tails are endosperm, and they contribute a lot of the fabulous nutrition you’re getting—quinoa provides large amounts of phosphorus, iron, and riboflavin. They also give quinoa the kind of toothsome texture you just don’t get in a bite of rice, almost like al dente pasta. What’s more, quinoa retains its texture well when cold, making it a good replacement for rice in a salad, such as this Quinoa-Avocado Salmon Salad.
Cultures worldwide have worked hard for millennia to imbue plain rice with flavor. From Indian biryani to Mexican green rice, that venture has mainly been a successful way to turn a bland food into something savory. Fortunately, you don’t have to work so hard with quinoa, which has a nutty, fresh flavor the moment it’s heated. Peruvians tended to keep quinoa plain, adding it to soups or simmering it with milk. Its taste pairs especially well with other nutty flavors, like walnuts and sesame seeds. Quinoa also brings out the earthiness of mushrooms, which we play up in Quinoa Patties with Pan Roasted Mushrooms.
Once you fall in love with this South American seed, we doubt you’ll stick with Peruvian ways of preparing it. Quinoa takes beautifully to almost any preparation you’d do with rice. So long as you double check the ratios of water to grain, you can substitute quinoa in dishes like fried rice, pilafs, and our Greek-inspired Cheesy Quinoa Stuffed Tomatoes.
Calorically, quinoa is on par with brown rice (171 for ¼ cup of rice and 172 for the same amount of quinoa) and slightly higher than white rice (168.5 calories). But per calorie? You’ll find more flavor, texture, protein, and minerals in quinoa.
And if you just can’t pick one favorite, you can combine and conquer: Our Quinoa and Rice Bowl With Kale, Kimchi, and Egg is the best way to enjoy them in harmony.