Often thought of as a grain in its own right, couscous is actually made up of tiny balls of semolina, like pasta. It’s traditionally eaten in North Africa. The couscous you'll find in the shops is ‘instant’, which makes it super easy and quick to cook – basically if you can boil a kettle, you can cook couscous. If you do come across a recipe that says to steam the couscous for hours this is referring to traditional ‘raw’ couscous, and the quick method can just be applied.
On its own, couscous makes a quick replacement for rice or other grains to serve as side dish, but it also can be mixed with a huge range of other ingredients to turn it into salads, stuffings or more interesting sides. Big balls of giant couscous, sometimes referred to as Israeli couscous, are also available – they’re cooked in boiling water like pasta.
Couscous is a versatile ingredient that’s great as a storecupboard standby. Once cooked, it keeps well, making it a good lunchbox option.
How to achieve the perfect fluffy couscous
Cooking couscous is as easy as making a cup of tea, but there are a few secrets to getting it perfectly fluffy:
- Don’t add too much liquid – as a guide, it’s the same volume of liquid as it is to couscous.
- Don’t leave it for too long to clump. As soon as the couscous has soaked up the hot liquid, fluff it up to separate the grains.
- You can toss the uncooked couscous in a drizzle of oil before adding the liquid, which coats each grain in oil and helps them stay separate. Alternatively, add a drizzle of oil as you fluff up the grains.
- Use a fork to fluff the couscous – stirring it with a spoon can make it go clumpy.
- Giant couscous isn’t meant to be fluffy, but you do want the balls to separate, so boil them like pasta and then toss in oil or butter to stop them sticking.
How long does it take to cook?
Couscous isn’t really cooked, more rehydrated. Depending on the brand you use, this can take anything from 5 to 15 mins, with an average of about 10 mins. Try a small amount – if it’s soft then you’re good to fluff, but if it’s at all crunchy, cover and leave for a few mins more before fluffing.
What utensils do you need?
All you need to cook couscous is a heatproof bowl with a cover or some clingfilm to cover it with. Giant couscous is boiled like pasta for a few minutes then drained, so all you need is a saucepan and a colander.
Simple couscous recipe
Prep: 10 mins
- 200g couscous
- 200ml kettle-hot water or boiling vegetable stock
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Tip the couscous into a heatproof bowl and pour over the water or stock.
- Cover with cling film or a lid and leave for 5-10 mins until the couscous is soft.
- Fluff the couscous up with a fork, drizzling with the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper if you like. The couscous is now ready to serve or use.
How long does cooked couscous keep for?
Once cooked, it will keep at room temperature for a few hours or in the fridge for three days. If the couscous has been mixed with other ingredients they might shorten its fridge life. Cooked couscous can be reheated in the microwave if you want it hot, or use it cold straight from the fridge. The same timings stand for cooked giant couscous.
How to flavour couscous
Couscous is massively versatile when it comes to adding other flavours and can be used as a vehicle for lots of other ingredients:
- Dried spices and herbs can be added to the raw couscous before pouring over the water.
- The couscous can be ‘toasted’ in butter or oil before cooking to give it a nuttier flavour.
- Once cooked, couscous pairs nicely with North African and Middle Eastern spices and ingredients. Fresh soft herbs like parsley, mint and coriander, tomatoes, spring onions, garlic, lemon, preserved lemon, olives, chilli, pomegranate, almonds and dried fruits are all good friends of couscous.
- Another way to add lots of flavour to couscous is to cook it in the same tin as a chicken or piece of lamb has been roasted in while the meat rests. Add the couscous to the sticky tin, pour over the hot water or stock and cover – the couscous takes on a gravy flavour, ideal for serving with the roast.
Alternative options to couscous
Bulgur wheat and couscous are sometimes confused for one another and make a great replacement for each other, especially as bulgur can be cooked in the same way – it just takes longer. In salads, wild and brown rice work just as well, but are cooked differently.
Our top five couscous recipes
1. Chicken & couscous one-pot
This flavoursome one-pot meal is perfect for fuss-free midweek entertaining.
2. 10-minute couscous salad
This makes a great lunchbox filler for a day out and is equally good at home from the fridge. See our video above for step-by-step instructions on how to make this.
3. Moroccan tomato & chickpea soup with couscous
This filling soup is healthy and packed with the flavours of North Africa: harissa, ginger, lemon and coriander.
4. Roast chicken with couscous & pine nut stuffing
Delicious hot or cold and perfect for a picnic, this stuffed chicken will be a real family favourite.
5. Herby couscous with citrus & pomegranate dressing
This colourful side dish goes beautifully with lamb chops or Middle Eastern-style dishes.
Check out our couscous recipe collection for more inspiration.