Making Couscous: How to Cook Couscous

Couscous is the name given to both the uncooked grains of semolina flour and the complete steamed dish, paired with vegetables, chicken, lamb and other meat. A staple of Moroccan cuisine and the North African table, couscous is now popular in Europe and North America where it is available in pre-steamed form ready for use in a microwave oven.

For a more authentic couscous, you are encouraged to try the traditional Moroccan way of cooking couscous using a couscoussier. This is an easily mastered process that takes about 45 minutes to prepare.

Making Couscous: Instant Couscous

Pre-packaged couscous is available in small boxes at most supermarkets. These brands of couscous are marked as “instant” and offer easy-to-follow instructions for cooking in a microwave oven. If you do not have the time it takes to make raw couscous, then follow the instructions for instant couscous and steam it for the last couple of minutes.

Making Couscous: Traditional Method

To make traditional steamed couscous, you need a couscoussiere, a perforated steamer which sits on top of a pot. The process may look complicated but it is rather easy to master once you understand the technique of handling couscous grains. The principle is very simple: the wetting, drying and steaming of semolina grains has the purpose of swelling them without making them soggy or lumpy. Using this traditional method, your couscous grains will be perfect: swelled by steam and cold water, yet soft, light and separate.

Note that the couscous grains used here are raw and not of the instant variety. You can buy these in a variety of sizes in bulk at health food stores or Moroccan shops. We prefer the medium-sized grain variety of couscous.

Serves 6 people

3 cups medium-grain couscous (not instant)
2 tablespoons olive oil

Step1: Washing and drying of couscous

The first step is to wash or moisten the couscous before steaming. In Morocco, an earthen or wooden shallow basin is used. You can substitute this for a roasting tin, at least 4cm (1 ½ inches) high.

Pour the couscous into the bowl and add ½ cup water. Spread the couscous well, through your fingers, mixing it with the water and separating any clumps. Leave the couscous to absorb the water for 10 minutes.

Repeat the same process by adding ½ cup water. Each grain should be swollen and you should be able to pass the couscous through your fingers without any lumps that might have formed.

Add the olive oil and mix well using your fingers to incorporate the oil.

Step2: First Steaming of Couscous

Bring 5 quarts of water – or the couscous broth – to a boil in the bottom of your couscoussier. Meanwhile, dampen a strip of cheesecloth, dust it with flower and twist into a strip the length of the circumference of the rim of the couscoussier pot. Use this to tightly seal the perforated colander on top of the pot. This will make sure that steam only rises through the holes of the colander.

Once the water boils, pour the couscous into the perforated colander and steam on medium heat for 20 minutes.

Step3: Second Drying of the Couscous

Remove the colander and dump the couscous into the bowl and let is sit until cool to handle. Sprinkle a ½ cup of lukewarm water and run the couscous grains through your fingers to break and separate any lumps. Set the couscous aside and let it dry for at least 10 minutes.

If you are preparing couscous in advance, let it dry and cover with a damp cloth. It can wait for many hours before the final steaming.

If you want to serve the couscous straight away, return the couscous to the top colander of the couscoussier, making sure the two containers are re-sealed with cheesecloth, for a final steaming of 40 minutes. Make sure there are at least 2 inches of water in the pot. Add several cups of water if you notice a large quantity has evaporated.