Cooking couscous can be a simple process that can benefit greatly from keeping in mind a few tips. Many cooks agree that steaming the couscous is preferable to boiling it in water like rice. Knowing what type of couscous is being cooked is another important element, because some varieties — such as Israeli couscous — have slightly different cooking instructions. It also is important to understand that couscous has a very faint flavor, so knowing how and what it will be eaten with can dictate any additional ingredients that might be added.
Steaming was the first way couscous was cooked, and it continues to be the most effective way of cooking couscous. The process of steaming takes more time than other methods but results in couscous with a fluffier texture and more volume. The cooking liquid used when steaming does not have to be water. Replacing the water with stock or a mixture of water and wine can add an underlying flavor to the grains that can complement the main dish.
The type of couscous can affect the way it is cooked and for how long. The main difference is the size of the grain. Small grains, like those in Moroccan couscous, can be steamed fairly quickly. Cooking large-grain couscous such as the Lebanese variety could require a technique that is more akin to cooking risotto. All varieties can be placed directly in liquid and cooked, regardless of size, but larger grains will take a long time to steam and could become paste-like in the process.
The flavor of couscous once cooked is subtle. This can be an advantage, because other ingredients can be added while cooking couscous to affect the final flavor. Popular additions include pine nuts, butter and freshly chopped herbs. Another way to add flavor is to put spices, vegetables and other foods into the steaming liquid. Adding an onion, a stick of cinnamon or even a piece of meat to the liquid will impart a richer flavor.
When cooking couscous directly in water or stock, it is best to treat it like rice. This is especially true for instant couscous. Enough boiling liquid should be added to cover the grains; the water should be returned to a boil and, with the heat either shut off or turned on the lowest setting, the covered pot should be left on the range until done. Unless the grains are large, methods such as adding liquid and stirring constantly until the couscous is cooked will cause the grains to be sticky and heavy instead of light and fluffy. Adding too much liquid can be remedied by draining the excess from the pan and then slowly heating the couscous and stirring until it has dried to an acceptable consistency.