Couscous is a dish of tiny pasta spheres with several uses, including serving as an ingredient in grain-based salads and soups or as a base for stews.
Given its similarity to various grains, you may wonder whether it’s considered safe to eat on a gluten-free diet.
This article examines whether people who follow a gluten-free diet can eat couscous, as well as provides some alternatives.
Couscous is traditionally made from semolina, a flour derived from durum wheat, which contains gluten. It’s moistened and tossed, usually with a machine, to make tiny ball-shaped pasta.
Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. It can also be found in oat products that have been cross-contaminated or processed in the same plant as gluten-containing grains.
Some people need to avoid gluten for medical and health reasons, and therefore follow a gluten-free diet.
Many people live with some degree of gluten sensitivity or intolerance, in which the body cannot digest or break down gluten. This can cause symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, headache, and tiredness.
Other people have celiac disease, an abnormal autoimmune response to eating gluten. Symptoms of celiac disease can be more severe and include seizures, numbness, nausea, fatigue, joint pain, joint stiffness, skin disorders, brittle bones, and digestive issues.
Semolina is a wheat product, so it naturally contains gluten. This means that couscous made with semolina wheat is not a gluten-free food.
Summary: Traditional couscous is made from semolina, a flour made from durum wheat. This means that most couscous contains gluten, a protein that some people need to avoid.
Alternatives for couscous
The majority of widely available couscous is made from semolina or durum wheat.
While there may be some gluten-free varieties, such as cassava-based couscous or others made from a mixture of corn or tapioca starch and egg whites, they don’t appear to be easily accessible.
Therefore, it’s probably easier for most people to use a gluten-free alternative to couscous that can be similarly integrated into recipes.
Some similar but gluten-free alternatives to couscous include:
- Quinoa. While quinoa has a slightly crunchier texture, its size and shape are similar to those of couscous, and it works well in most dishes.
- Sorghum. Sorghum is a cereal grain with a hearty, nutty flavor. It has a round shape and is slightly larger than couscous.
- Short-grain rice. Short-grain rice is a little stickier than couscous, but it has a similar shape and versatility.
- Riced cauliflower. This option is becoming much more accessible and can even be found frozen. Cauliflower is a neutral-flavored, gluten-free alternative to couscous with a similar shape and texture.
- Millet. This small round cereal grain is similar to sorghum.
These substitutes can all be used in place of couscous in most recipes, providing a similar shape and structure but without gluten.
Homemade cornmeal couscous recipe
You may also be interested in giving homemade gluten-free couscous a try. Simply use cornmeal as follows:
- 1 cup (198 grams) of cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of olive oil
- 1.5 cups (360 mL) of water
- pinch of salt
- Combine the cornmeal with salt and olive oil in a large pot.
- Add the water and bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for approximately 12 minutes, or until the grains feel dry to the touch.
- Remove the pot from the heat to cool. Once thoroughly cooled, transfer the couscous to a new pot and use a fork to fluff it. You may need to use a food processor to break up any large clumps.
Summary: Riced cauliflower, short-grain rice, sorghum, quinoa, and millet are gluten-free and may work in place of couscous in many dishes. Alternatively, you can try making your own cornmeal couscous.
Couscous is a versatile, neutral-flavored grain product traditionally made from semolina wheat. It’s often used in dishes like salads, soups, and stews.
Suggested read: Gluten foods list: List of what to avoid and alternatives
While couscous made from wheat is not gluten-free, some varieties of couscous are made from naturally gluten-free alternatives, such as corn, fermented cassava, or a mixture of potato or tapioca starch and egg whites.
Another option is to choose gluten-free substitutes for couscous altogether. Quinoa, short-grain rice, and sorghum have properties similar to those of couscous but don’t contain gluten. Alternatively, you can try making your own cornmeal-based couscous at home.
If you need to avoid gluten, be sure to read the ingredient label when choosing couscous or other grain products to determine whether they contain it.