We have all seen couscous on menus and blue apron orders, but that is not real couscous, real couscous is steamed and raked with love!
I was making a big couscous dish in preparation for my Moroccan dinner later this month, and wanted to share with you the proper way to steam couscous in a couscousier. In my research I came across many recipes for couscous, some interesting, others disappointing. Most people’s definition of couscous preparation is boiling some water and waiting 7 minutes, I wanted to properly steam my couscous! Finally, I found Paula Wolfert’s comprehensive cookbook on Moroccan food and she talked me through properly steaming couscous. Paula walks you through several steamings and explains that the same instant couscous grains that you buy in the store can be used in these recipes. I was a bit scared of this, so I made sure to buy a package of couscous that had a recipe that included steaming on the side. You should also look for words like “traditional Tunisian” or the such.
Couscous is slowly cooked through several steamings and moments of rest. It is during the rest that the grains swell. You start off with four cups of couscous and end up with somewhere in the early teens, enough to feed an army of 10, at least. My family of four has a fridge full of leftovers. Generally, all you need is water and steam, but I wanted to add a bit of milk, because I read this intensifies the flavors in the couscous and allows it to “sing”! Who am I to deny my couscous its right to sing?
I wanted to go a step further and steam my couscous on the vapors my stew was creating, I think this is the traditional way! It makes a delicious complex flavor for the couscous, but admittedly takes a bit more careful planning with all of the timing of the steps. I include my process in my Lamb and Duck Couscous with Apricot recipe but I have also outlined how to steam couscous over water here. You add a cup of the both from your stew at the end so you still get the complex flavors but without some of the complex time schedule that I created for my original dish. Cooking the couscous separately also allows you more easily to do several steps ahead of time.
You will need some tools to do this properly: a couscousier is a perfect double layered dish with a steaming pot to steam your couscous. You can get away with a double steamer if your colander dish is high enough to allow a lot of water or a stew to fit on the bottom, if it doesn’t don’t panic, just add water between steamings and add a penny to the bottom of your pot to hear when you need to add more water. Makes sure that no steam escapes from the side of your steamer, if it does, use some strips of fabric or aluminum foil to seal the gap. You will also want a piece of cheese cloth to help move the couscous back and forth from the colander to the bowl. Couscous is best served in a large shallow bowl (at least 12 inches, mine is 16). You can use a large skillet if you don’t have one, or even a turkey roasting pan. Anything that can take some heat and will allow you to work with the grains over a large surface.
Perfectly Steamed Couscous
4 cups couscous
3 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp salt
1 tsp olive oil
1 + cup meat broth
4 tbsp duck fat (or butter, depending on your recipe)
5 tbsp butter
- Pour enough water into your couscousier to allow for a steady boil for about an hour, if you can, but make sure you don’t add so much water that the colander will sit in water once it is added.
- Place the couscous in a large shallow serving bowl and cover with two cups of water. Allow to stand for 1 minute and then stir. If there is any standing water, pour it off. I use an earthenware Moroccan bowl that seems to absorb a bit of the water so I never have extra, but if you are using plastic or metal you may.
- Break up any lumps by rubbing grains with your fingers gently and raking through the grains. Do not panic if there are a lot of lumps, just carefully break them apart one by one, there will be fewer and fewer as you proceed with the steps.
- Place colander on top of the boiling water in the couscousier. Line it with a cheesecloth, this makes it much easier to move the couscous back and forth.
- Pour in your couscous and allow to steam for 20 minutes. If any steam is escaping from the seam between your pot and steamer, seal it with some aluminum foil.
Remove to your large bowl and rake again. This time with a whisk or fork, it will be hot.
- Carefully add in 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup water, oil and salt.
- Separate all of the grains and let dry for 10 minutes.
- Repeat the 20 minute steam, step #5.
- Rake again and add 1 cup of water. Allow to dry 10 minutes.
I soak the cheesecloth in water, wring it out and cover the couscous while I work on the stew I will be serving it with. Place another clean kitchen cloth on top of the couscous to keep the moisture in, set aside.
*It will stay this way for several hours without becoming stale if you need to do this ahead of time.
- Put the couscous back in the strainer for the couscousier and steam for another 10 minutes.
- Dump back into serving bowl and add butter and duck fat. Mix until melted, rake out any crumbles.
Slowly sprinkle in the broth and allow to absorb for 10 minutes.
Serve as instructed in your recipe.
Total cooking time: about 1 hour, serves 8-10 generously