Quinoa is a seed, not a grain, with many health benefits.
Quinoa is a seed, not a grain, with many health benefits.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 - 10
Quinoa is the name of the edible seed of a species of goosefoot native to South America. Although quinoa is botanically a seed, it is often commonly referred to as a grain and is prepared in much the same manner.
The goosefoot plant, chenopodium quinoa, is an annual that grows to approximately 3 to 6 feet tall. Its woody stem ranges in color from green to purple or red with broad, powdery, alternating leaves. The plant produces deep red or purple flowers. Quinoa seeds vary in color depending on variety, ranging from white or yellow to red, and sometimes black.
Quinoa is a warm season crop that requires full sun and well-draining soil. In most areas in the United States, planting occurs between April and early June when soil temperatures have reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is well suited for high altitudes and northern growing. The plant is drought resistant but not tolerant of temperatures that exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit and suffers in regions with hot summers.
Quinoa is most easily started from seed. Rather than starting in an indoor container and later moving the plant outdoors, as is done with many crops, quinoa seeds are planted directly in the garden in early spring once average soil temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Seeds germinate quickly, in less than one week. Although the plant is slow-growing at first, it grows very quickly once it reaches about one foot in height.
Quinoa started from seed takes approximately five days to germinate. Harvest occurs between 90 to 120 days from planting when the leaves have fallen off and all that remains are seed heads on stalks.
The quinoa seed should be hard and difficult to dent when it is ready for harvest. Soft seeds are given more time.
To harvest, the seed heads are cut from the stalk, along with a few inches of stalk attached to the seed head. The stalks are tied together and the seed heads hung to dry until they are thoroughly dried out.
Once dry, the seed heads are gently swept off the stalk and cleaned of any debris by straining, rinsing and drying once again.
Note: Leaves can also be harvested and eaten throughout the growing season, but only ⅓ of the plant’s leaves can be removed at a time. Smaller, young leaves are eaten fresh. Larger, older leaves are cooked like spinach.
Uncooked quinoa that is stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place keeps for up to three years.
Cooked quinoa may be kept in the refrigerator for up to one week, or in the freezer (in an oxygen-free container) for 8 to 12 months.
Quinoa is native to the South American Andes, somewhere in the region surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. It was a staple food of pre-Columbian civilizations, such as the Incas, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columbian societies began to cultivate quinoa sometime circa 5000 BCE. The name “quinoa” derives from the Spanish translation of the native Quechua people of the Andes.
The Inca people referred to quinoa as “the mother grain.” Planting seasons were celebrated with ceremonial reverence to the plant. To honor the harvest, Incans drank chicha, a beer made from fermented quinoa, and made sacrifices of animals, food and cloth. Incan soldiers mixed quinoa with fat to make “war balls,” a portable source of protein and energy for strength and endurance.
When the Spaniards arrived in South America, they scorned the grain as “food for the natives” and introduced their own cereals to South America. When the Spanish conquered the Incan empire, they destroyed the quinoa fields and forbade the growth, harvest, eating and ritual honoring of quinoa.
Archaeologists have also found evidence of quinoa consumption among native North American people. Evidence of cultivated quinoa seeds dating back to nearly 2000 BCE have been discovered along the southern Mississippi River bed and in caves in Alabama.
Following the decimation of the Incan empire, quinoa would not re-emerge as a commonly-recognized food until the late 20th century. It is so popular today, in fact, that the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN named 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa.”
The world’s top producers of quinoa are Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador (FAOSTAT, 2012).
The three most common varieties of quinoa are white quinoa, red quinoa, and black quinoa. White quinoa, the most common variety, cooks up the “fluffiest”, while red and black quinoa have crunchier textures and and the seeds separate more easily.
Quinoa is typically cooked and consumed like a grain, and is often used as a replacement for rice. When cooked, it is used as a side dish, in salads, or in wraps.
Quinoa is used to make quinoa flour and quinoa flakes.
It is also found in a variety of products such as chocolate bars, whiskey, quinoa chips, quinoa cereal (an oatmeal replacement), and gluten-free pastas.
In recent years, quinoa has become one of the most popular “superfoods”, highly touted for its numerous nutritional benefits. Here’s a look at the health buzz surrounding the seed that masquerades as a grain:
Quinoa is gluten-free.
Quinoa is one of the most nutrient-rich foods available. While most actual grains are lacking in protein content, the “pretend-grain,” quinoa, serves as a complete protein source containing all nine essential amino acids.
Unlike true grains, quinoa is also rich in health-supportive fats. While it takes nearly 350 calories’ worth of whole grain to provide one gram of fat, it only takes 63 calories’ worth of quinoa to provide the same amount. Nearly 30% of quinoa’s fatty acids come in the form of the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, oleic acid.
Quinoa contains almost twice as much fiber as true grains. Fiber helps relieve constipation, lowers cholesterol and glucose levels, and helps prevent heart disease by reducing high blood pressure and risk of diabetes.
Quinoa has a low glycemic index.
Quinoa is rich in minerals such as manganese, copper, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. The benefits of these minerals are wide-ranging: Antioxidants such as zinc and manganese protect the body’s mitochondria, red blood cells and other cells. Magnesium helps relax blood vessels, promotes blood sugar control and plays a role in the formation of healthy bones and teeth. Iron is the basis for hemoglobin formation, and helps to keep blood cells healthy.
High levels of flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol are present in quinoa. These flavonoids have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-depressant effects.
Quinoa is high in riboflavin (B12), which helps with energy production and improves energy metabolism in the cells of the brain and muscles.
Quinoa is a drought-tolerant plant that prefers the temperate climates of the spring and summer months of northern regions. Growing quinoa is not recommended in southern parts of the United States where soil temperatures reach or exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the summertime. Quinoa also prefers high altitudes, and some growers say that “sea level” quinoa grown in lower-altitude regions has a less palatable, more bitter taste.
1. Start quinoa in an outdoor garden bed from seed once the final frost of the season has passed, and soil temperature averages 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Prior to planting, rake a three inch layer of compost, blood and bone meal into the soil.
3. Plant seeds in rows, ¼ inch deep. Plant a few seeds together, spacing the groups of seeds 10 to 14 inches apart to give room for each plant. Seeds germinate in 4 to 10 days. If more than one seed sprouts, thin down to one seedling once seeds have reached at least 4 inches tall.
4. Weeding is among the most important aspects of growing quinoa! For the first several weeks, keep the area well-weeded so the quinoa has room to establish itself. Once seedlings reach 4 inches tall, mulch around them to help prevent weed growth.
Quinoa is a drought-resistant plant, and is susceptible to fungal disease if it gets too much water, especially in early stages of life. Water sparingly once the plant has developed at least two hearty leaves and during heavy droughts.