Why Does My Quinoa Taste Bitter, And How Do I Fix It?

Fields of quinoa
Fields of quinoa. Cristobal Demarta / Getty Images

Question: Why Does My Quinoa Taste Bitter?

Answer: Quinoa might be prepared like a grain, but it's actually a seed. And guess who likes seeds? That's right — birds. So as an evolutionary defense against being eaten by birds, quinoa grows with a natural coating of a substance called saponin.

Saponin has a bitter flavor which discourages birds from eating it. Unfortunately, it will also discourage you from eating it, unless you do something about it.

Quinoa is a tall grass that flowers, goes to seed, and then, once the leaves turn from green to yellow, is harvested using a combine thresher that chops off the tops of the plant, loosens and then separates the seeds from the chaff.

Whole quinoa seeds are still enclosed in a husk, or shell. And it's on the exterior of these husks on which the saponin occurs. (Technically this husk is actually the dried flesh of the fruit that produces the seed.)

And this husk is removed before it is packaged and sold. Which means that commercially packaged quinoa shouldn't have this problem.

And yet! Here you are, wondering why your quinoa has a bitter flavor, which means that somewhere along the line, the quality control was, for whatever reason, not adequate. It doesn't take much saponin to produce enough bitterness to affect a whole bag.

Happily, the solution is simple. All you need to do is rinse your uncooked quinoa in cold running water for a minute or so, until the water runs clear.

I like to use a mesh strainer rather than a colander, so that the quinoa doesn't get rinsed out of the holes.

You can sort of sift the quinoa around with your fingers while it's rinsing. Once the water runs clear, you can shake out the excess water and then prepare it as usual.

Most quinoa manufacturers rinse the quinoa before they package it, but if your quinoa is tasting bitter, they either didn't do a very good job of it, or for some reason it wasn't done at all.

Either way, a quick rinse is all it takes to ensure your quinoa won't taste bitter.

Note too that in recent years, owing to the exploding popularity of quinoa, new cultivars of quinoa containing lower amounts of saponin are being developed through selective breeding. Which means bitter quinoa may one day be a thing of the past.

You can read much more about quinoa, like its nutritional content and how to cook it, here: What is Quinoa?