How to Steam Couscous

Steaming couscous may seem overly complicated but really, the only thing you will lose is the time it requires. The simple process will require about one hour – from start to finish – vs. the 10 minutes required in most package instructions.

This is a small investment that yields a big return in flavor and texture. Steaming couscous swells the individual grains to create tender and fluffy couscous that is 2 to 3 times greater in yield than if you just poured hot water over the grains.

steaming couscous

steaming couscous

Getting Prepared
Purchasing couscous is your first step. I like to look for medium-sized couscous – often referred to in its French name moyen. I think the finer couscous is just too small for most savory preparations, although the it works just fine in desserts.

Whole grain couscous uses the entire grain of semolina. The flavor is richer than ‘normal’ couscous. It does require longer to swell properly, which means you will need to increase the swelling stage time as well as the steaming time – both by about 10-15 minutes.

Steaming couscous is always done on the stove. Oven steamers don’t work the same way in creating a light and fluffy end result. So, unless you have a traditional couscousiere, you will need to get creative with what you do have. I use a large pot for the boiling liquid and a simple steamer insert that sits on top of the pot. You won’t need a top for this preparation because the couscous is always steamed with a cover. I also wrap a towel around the steamer insert right where it sits on the pot. This prevents too much steam from escaping through the sides and forces the steam up through the couscous.

You can create another makeshift set-up by using an Asian bamboo steamer. Select a size that fit directly over your large pot. You will also need to wrap something around the steamer as I did with my set-up. You will also need to line the bottom of your steamer for this method and cover those larger holes. Cheesecloth (muslin) works well for this job.

All set? Great, let’s get started.

I usually use 750 grams (1 1/2 pounds) couscous. This will yield about 10-12 servings – more than I usually need but steamed couscous will keep several days in the refrigerator and it’s simple to re-heat in a microwave or re-steaming.

Step One – Washing and Swelling the Couscous
Wash the couscous by placing it in a large bowl and covering the couscous with cold water. Swirl it around a bit, then drain off the water through a fine strainer. You can also just add 1 part water to 1 part couscous in your large pan – just be sure to use exact measures or you will add too much water and make the grains too soggy.

After washing and straining, dump the couscous out onto a large plate or baking tray. Let the couscous relax for about 5-10 minutes, then begin raking the couscous with your moistened fingers. The idea is to eliminate most of the clumps at this point. Next, working with moist hands, begin lifting the couscous with cupped hands and gently rubbing them while allowing the couscous to fall back into the pan. Enjoy this couscous Zen moment for about 10 minutes.

Step Two – Steaming the Couscous
Fill your pot about half full of water (or a flavorsome broth) and bring to a boil. Prepare your steamer top and secure the sides with a towel or some cheesecloth. Make sure the steamer does not come into contact with the liquid in the pot. Slowly dribble one-quarter of the swollen couscous grains into the steamer, allowing them to form a pyramid-shaped mound.  Steam for about 5 minutes, then add the remaining couscous on top of the mound.  When all the grains are in the steamer, lower the heat to moderate and steam for 30 minutes.  Do not cover the couscous while it steams…and please make sure to set a timer.

Step Three – Second Drying and Seasoning
Carefully remove the steamer from the pot and gently dump the couscous onto a large shallow pan (or a baking tray). Careful – watch out for the escaping steam from the pot – it will leave a nasty burn on your hand (just sharing my experiences here). The couscous will also clump, so use a fork or spoon to gently ease it out of the steamer. Spread the couscous with moistened hands or a spatula, then sprinkle 250 ml. (1-cup) of cold water onto the couscous. Add 1 teaspoon salt to the couscous and stir well to mix. You can also add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil to the couscous at this point – this will help eliminate clumping as the couscous continues to swell. Allow the couscous to relax for 5 minutes. As in the previous step, gently lift and rub the couscous grains together to help eliminate any small clumps.

The couscous is done at this point and you can enjoy it with your favorite tagine preparation. You can also keep the couscous in this state for several hours covered with a damp towel, then complete a second steaming as before – only in this case, reduce the cooking time to 15 minutes.



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