Couscous is a staple in North African cooking—but this versatile ingredient can also be used as a non-traditional side dish in many classic recipes. 
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

Couscous makes for a quick, healthy side dish that becomes fluffy when cooked, but is chewy and firm in texture. It's great for a simple side, an easy salad, or even stuffed in vegetables. But what exactly is it? 

Couscous is a tiny pasta made of wheat or barley. Although couscous was traditionally hand-rolled, these days it's made by machine: Coarsely-ground durum wheat (semolina) is moistened and tossed with fine wheat flour until it forms tiny, round balls. Most of the couscous available in North America is "instant" or quick-cooking. In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, couscous is steamed over a simmered stew after being tossed with a little water or oil and water. 

Credit: Photo: Caitlin Bensel

There are three main types of couscous you'll see: Moroccan couscous, Israeli couscous (pictured above), and Lebanese couscous. 

  • Moroccan couscous is the smallest—about the size of semolina—and cooks in minutes.
  • Israeli couscous, also called pearl couscous, is larger and resembles tiny pieces of pasta. It takes about 10 minutes to cook.
  • Lebanese couscous, also called Moghrabieh couscous, is larger than Israeli couscous and takes the longest to cook. 

Is Couscous Healthy?

Just one cup of couscous contains over half your daily recommended intake of selenium, a powerful antioxidant that helps fight inflammation and bad LDL cholesterol levels in the body. Couscous is also a good source of fiber, with one cup supplying almost 10 percent of your daily recommended intake, but you'll want to make sure you're pairing it with plenty of other fiber-rich foods as well. To get the most bang for your buck nutritionally, opt for whole-wheat couscous.

How to Cook With Couscous

Couscous is more than just an accompaniment to stew. You can use it as a filler in beef patties (soak it in water for five minutes and use instead of breadcrumbs—½ cup per pound of ground beef or lamb); add leftover cooked couscous to a salad; or use it in a bread, muffin, or pancake recipe (soak in an equal volume of warm water for five minutes or more before adding it—¼ cup couscous to ¾ cup wheat flour). 

Here are four other, delicious ways to cook with couscous:

Couscous With Winter Vegetables

Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

This cross between a pilaf and a salad is one of the most appealing non-traditional uses for couscous. It's quick to make and a great standby any time of year. You'll find it especially useful if you are cooking for vegetarians or vegans (just omit the cheese and butter). Leftovers are delicious for breakfast with a fried egg on top.

Mediterranean Chicken and Couscous Bowls

Credit: Caitlin Bensel

These quick chicken-and-veggie bowls are endlessly adaptable, depending on what you have on hand. Treat the couscous like pasta, simmering until tender and then draining. Unlike most pastas, you'll want to rinse and drain the couscous so the grains don't clump together. 

Cauliflower Couscous Toss

Credit: Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Use this recipe as a template for any hearty vegetables and grains you have on hand, like broccoli and green beans or quinoa and farro.

Chicken and Couscous Stuffed Bell Peppers

Credit: Photo: Alison Miksch

Update the classic stuffed bell pepper recipe with a tangy chicken, couscous, and goat cheese salad, instead of the traditional ground beef and rice. Broiling the peppers before filling brings out their sweet and smoky flavor and keeps them from ending up either soggy or undercooked.