If you’ve ever scanned through a recipe calling for couscous, you may have wondered if you could substitute Israeli couscous, or vice versa. Does that one word really make a difference? Is it just referring to where the product comes from?
While they sound similar, couscous and Israeli couscous are actually two different ingredients with different preparations and uses.
In short, couscous is smaller than Israeli couscous and requires less time to cook. Read on to learn about the differences between these two often confused ingredients.
While you may think couscous is a grain like wheat or rye, it’s actually a type of tiny pasta made from semolina and water. Semolina is a type of flour made from durum wheat—a hard grain that is high in the gluten protein. Compared to all-purpose flour, semolina is coarser and more golden in color.
Traditionally, couscous is handmade by pouring a bit of water into the semolina to develop a dry mixture that is then rolled between the hands until tiny pieces form. Today, couscous is often machine-made.
After mixing, couscous is then dried. When it comes time to cook, the couscous is steamed until tender.
While couscous is now eaten all over the world, it’s particularly popular in North Africa, where it’s said to have originated. As the national dish of Morocco, plain steamed couscous is often used as a base for lamb and vegetable stews.
As mentioned above, regular couscous is steamed rather than boiled. Therefore, it’s essential that you use the proper ratio of liquid (water or chicken stock work well) and couscous to avoid an overcooked or undercooked product. Use 1⅛ cup of liquid for each cup of couscous.
Since most commercially available couscous is steamed and then dried, the cooking process is pretty quick. First, bring your liquid to a boil in a pot. Once the liquid is boiling, add the couscous, cover the pan, and remove from heat. Allow the couscous to sit for five minutes and then remove the lid. Fluff with a fork and enjoy as desired.
Israeli couscous is also known as pearl couscous, p’titim, and giant couscous. It was first made in Israel in the 1950s as a substitute for rice, which was in short supply.
Pearl couscous is made by mixing together semolina or wheat flour with water. The dough is then put through an extruder to form small, uniform balls. After the pasta balls are formed, they’re toasted in the oven to impart both color and flavor.
Due to its larger size, Israeli couscous is boiled rather than steamed. The end result is a chewy product with a bit of a nutty flavor.
Like all types of pasta, you’ll want to bring a pot of water to a boil before adding the pearl couscous. The cook time will depend on your desired texture. For al dente Israeli couscous, simmer for eight to nine minutes then drain.
Both couscous and Israeli couscous are relatively neutral in flavor, so they pair well with a wide variety of other ingredients. Either type of couscous can be lightly seasoned and then used as a base for robust stews or rich braised meats. You can also use the grains as a component of salads.
Regular couscous works well for stuffing vegetables like peppers and zucchini as well as for making into patties. The larger Israeli couscous can add a chewy texture to soups.
If you’re looking to eat either type of couscous as a simple grain salad, you can turn to a few time tested spices to add flavor.
Even if you’re an avid cook, there’s always room to learn more about ingredients as well as cooking techniques. And that’s part of the fun of cooking!
One way to expand your kitchen knowledge and skills is by enrolling in online cooking classes. Escoffier and America’s Test Kitchen have teamed up to bring home cooks cooking classes complete with photos, videos, and access to a professional chef instructor.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the culinary world, consider enrolling in culinary school. Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts offers both in-person and online options in culinary arts, baking and pastry, and plant-based culinary arts.
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