Couscous can refer to two different things: either the coarsely ground durum wheat called semolina, or the popular North African dish with couscous.

Couscous with Pork Tenderloin
Photo by Meredith

What Is Couscous and What Is It Made Of?

North African couscous comes in two different grinds of semolina: fine and medium. In Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria where couscous originates, couscous is steamed in a special double-chambered food steamer with the semolina in the perforated top and a sauce with meat, poultry or fish, and vegetables is in the bottom part.

Is couscous a grain? We often think of couscous as a grain due to its small size, but couscous is actually more similar to pasta.

Types of Couscous

Traditional couscous has a small, fine texture. However, you can buy larger grained varieties — most often called Israeli couscous but also known as giant couscous, and pearl couscous — which are the size of peppercorns. This variety takes a little bit longer to cook than its smaller cousin, and has a nuttier flavor and chewier texture.

Small and Pearl or Israeli Couscous
Regular couscous (left) and pearl or Israeli Couscous (right) | Photo by Meredith

What is Israeli Couscous?

Israeli couscous is different than North African couscous. It is a tiny pasta made of wheat and then toasted. Its texture is slippery and chewy. Because of its shape, Israeli couscous is also called pearl couscous. In Israel, Israeli couscous is called ptitim in Hebrew. While North African couscous is prepared by steaming, Israeli couscous is cooked in water like pasta.

What is Couscous Salad?

Both North African and Israeli couscous can be used in couscous salad to which raw or cooked vegetables, chicken, feta cheese, fruit, nuts, fresh herbs such as mint are added.

Is Couscous Gluten-free?

It may have similarities to rice and other grains in size and use, but couscous is made from wheat, so couscous is not gluten-free. There are gluten-free substitutes for couscous, however: Quinoa is gluten-free and is a excellent substitute for couscous. There is also a gluten-free couscous available, usually made of maize (corn).

What is the Ratio of Couscous to Water?

For North African couscous, the couscous-to-water ratio varies depending on the type of couscous. Brand recommendations differ greatly. It is best to follow the package instructions but if there are none, a rule of thumb is a 1:1 ratio of couscous to water: add 1 cup boiling salted water or broth to 1 cup couscous. If there is still liquid left over after 10 minutes, let it sit for a couple of more minutes if the couscous is still crunchy, or pour off the excess water if the couscous is tender. Coarser and whole-grain couscous require more water.

For Israeli couscous the recommended couscous to water ratio also depends on the brand. A rule of thumb is 1 cup pearl couscous to 1½ cups water.

For any type of couscous, fluffing it up with a fork afterwards is crucial to taste and consistency.

Is Couscous Healthy?

Couscous is low on the glycemic index, making it a healthful, high-fiber food. It also has a high mineral and vitamin content, including folic acid, manganese, and potassium. A single serving of couscous has about 60% of the suggested intake of selenium, which is an antioxidant that helps reduce plaque buildup and LDL cholesterol in artery and vein walls, making it a heart-healthy food. For even more added health benefits, try using whole wheat couscous, when available.

What is the Nutritional Value of Couscous?

There is a difference in the nutritional value between regular and whole-grain couscous. 1 cup of cooked regular couscous contains 174 calories, 6 grams of protein, 36 grams of carbohydrates, and 2 grams of dietary fiber, as opposed to 227 calories, 9 grams of protein, 49 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of fiber in whole-grain couscous.

The answer to the question whether rice or couscous is healthier depends on the type. White and brown rice have more calories than couscous but also a lower glycemic index. In terms of the overall nutritional value, whole-grain couscous and brown rice are always the better choices.

Where Can I Find Couscous?

Couscous traveled from North Africa in the 13th century, where it was a food staple in countries like Morocco and Algeria, then found its way to the Middle East. Luckily, it is now widely available and cooked throughout the world. Both the smaller and larger varieties are available at most grocery stores. You can often find it in bulk section or on the grocery shelves (near the pasta, rice or international foods). Some boxes are sold with flavor packets.

How is Couscous Used in Recipes?

It is most often used the same way we use rice and pasta: served alongside meat, vegetables, sauces, stews, and tagines. But, it can also be tossed into salads and used to bulk up baked goods or as a filler (similar to breadcrumbs) in hamburgers or meatloaf.

For more, check out How to Cook Easy, Versatile Couscous.  And explore our entire collection of Couscous Recipes.