Quinoa, pronounced "keen-wah," is often called the oldest grain, but it is actually the seed of the chenopodium plant, which is in the same general family as such plants as spinach and beets. There are well over 100 different species of these seeds, but two types — traditional and red — are the ones most commonly available. The red variety may contain slightly more protein and nutrients than the traditional, which is usually a pale yellow or off-white color. Which one is best for your diet or your recipe will depend on your preferences and how you plan to cook it.
Humans are believed to have been cultivating the quinoa seeds for more than 5,000 years. These seeds are protein-rich and full of nutrients, making them a popular staple in many healthy diets, including vegetarian and vegan ways of eating. They contain all the essential amino acids, making them a complete protein. When cooked, they have a slightly nutty flavor and a texture that is probably somewhere between a sunflower seed and firm pasta.
Either red or traditional types — or any other types you might be able to find in your local stores — can work when you are cooking with quinoa. The varieties are generally interchangeable, though the taste, texture and color of the dish will change depending on the variety you choose. Traditional quinoa, which is typically the most commonly available kind, is known for its ability to take on whatever flavors it is combined with. If you plan to prepare a dish with a lot of other flavors and textures, it may be a good choice. The red variety often has a slightly stronger taste that might compete with the other flavors.
If you want more texture and flavor, red quinoa might be the better option. It often has a nuttier flavor than the traditional variety, and is also generally chewier. The red seeds are a popular addition to salads to add protein and flavor. Traditional quinoa, with its almost rice-like appearance after cooking, is most often used in dishes that might have called for rice or other grains, or as an addition to soups, casseroles and stir-fries.
When purchasing the seeds, look for packages that say the quinoa has been pre-washed. The seeds are naturally coated in a layer of bitter saponin that helps repel birds. Choosing pre-washed seeds means most of this will have been washed away, though you still might want to rinse them to be sure. If you choose a variety that does not say it has been washed, be sure to rinse extra carefully to avoid a bitter aftertaste with your meal.
People who need wheat alternatives for such things as pasta, flour and grains often turn to this versatile seed for nutrition and flavor. Quinoa pasta and flour are two products you can buy to help replace wheat products in your diet. These nutritional seeds are also good for specialized diets beyond vegan and vegetarian. For instance, serving quinoa whole or in other forms can help replace wheat items in a gluten-free diet.