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The 10 Best Quinoa Substitutes

Brown rice is an excellent substitute for quinoa when it comes to flavor and nutritional value. Other substitutes include barley, farrow, couscous, polenta, millet, bulgar, chickpeas, lentils, and grated cauliflower. 

In the rest of the article, I will discuss these quinoa substitutes in more detail. I will also discuss some commonly asked questions like the water-to-grain ratio comparison of quinoa to its substitutes, as well as quinoa’s nutritional makeup.

A bowl of uncooked quinoa

1. Brown Rice

Brown rice is the most popular substitute for quinoa because of its nutty taste, macronutrient content, and heartiness. It matches the nutrient profile of quinoa, which consists of high vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. 

Long-grain white rice, such as jasmine, is also a great substitute. However, white rice won’t match the flavor and nutrient profile of quinoa quite as much as brown rice. I recommend white rice in a pinch because it’s almost always readily available. 

Additionally, you can use wild rice, which has a beautiful flavor profile and protein content. This method will take significantly more time to prepare than brown rice or quinoa. 

Overall, rice is the best substitute for quinoa in savory dishes, including animal proteins or vegetarian stir fries and curries.

Related How Long Does It Take to Digest Rice? | Brown Vs. White Rice.

2. Barley

Barley matches quinoa very closely in texture, size, and consistency, making it a great visual substitute for quinoa. Overall it has a similar flavor and is a bit chewier than quinoa. 

Additionally, barley doesn’t contain as much protein as quinoa and does contain gluten. If you’re looking for a ketogenic or gluten-free option, barley may not be the best choice. 

Another consideration for barley is cooking time. It takes longer to prepare barley than quinoa, so you may need to start cooking it earlier during meal prep. If cooked too long, it can become a bit mushy. 

Due to these considerations, I recommend barley in soups and stews as a substitute for quinoa. Additionally, it works great in breakfast dishes because it is exceptionally filling. 

3. Farro

Farro is a type of whole-grain wheat considered an ancient grain or one that’s remained genetically unchanged over the past few centuries. It’s similar to barley but can be used as a substitute for quinoa in many dishes. 

Like barley, farro contains gluten and is somewhat chewier than quinoa. 

However, if wheat products are not an issue, farro’s earthy nuttiness gives it an excellent flavor profile in dishes that call for quinoa. 

Most farro sold in the United States is pearled, meaning the outer husk has been removed to make it easier to cook. Soaking the farro overnight will reduce cooking time. Otherwise, it takes about as long to cook as barley. 

4. Couscous

A spoonful of couscous

Couscous is another wheat derivative made with semolina flour. 

Because it’s made with ground wheat, it’s versatile and works well in various dishes. It lacks its own flavor, allowing you to season or accompany it in many creative ways. 

Additionally, couscous provides a light and fluffy texture that mirrors quinoa superbly. 

However, couscous won’t have the same nutty flavor as quinoa or barley and does contain gluten. 

To prepare couscous, you need to add boiling water to it, cover and let it stand for 10-15 minutes. Because of how quickly you can prepare it, it’s one of the best substitutes when you’re short on time. 

5. Polenta

While polenta differs considerably in texture from quinoa, it provides a similar flavor and is versatile in many dishes. 

Polenta is made with ground corn, giving it a slightly sweeter flavor than quinoa, and is a perfect substitute in breakfasts or sweeter dishes that complement its flavor. 

While the grains are much smaller, and the texture is much creamier, polenta (also known as grits) is excellent comfort food and is the perfect template for sauces. Ensure you use enough water for cooking the polenta thoroughly, or they will come out dry and brittle. 

6. Millet

Millet is one of the best substitutes if you want couscous’s fluffiness and quinoa’s flavor profile. 

Millet is a small spherical grain from Africa and Asia that matches the nutty flavor profile of quinoa. It has a light texture that pairs well with many dinner entrees and sauces when cooked.

However, millet is easy to overcook and is prone to becoming mushy and more similar to oatmeal than quinoa. 

To prepare millet, the best practice is to toast the grains on your stovetop before boiling them and removing them at the right time (about 15 minutes). This practice will prevent overcooking and allow the millet to finish absorbing the water away from heat. 

7. Bulgar

Bulgar rivals couscous for time and is an excellent substitute if you’re in a pinch. This grain is made from wheat berries that have been cracked, cooked, and dried to naturally process the grain. 

The pre-cooking process makes them ready to go in about 10 minutes. All you need to do is add boiling water and leave them covered to absorb the liquid. 

In addition to its short cooking time, bulgar has a wonderfully earthy flavor that compliments savory meals, much like quinoa. 

It’s used in many middle eastern dishes and has high protein and fiber content to keep you full all day long. As a wheat derivative, it does contain gluten. 

8. Chickpeas

A bowl of uncooked chickpeas

Another popular option with high protein and fiber is chickpeas, which are readily available and easy to cook if you use the canned variety. If you use dried chickpeas, you can control the texture more, but the process can take 3-10 hours, depending on your method.

Chickpeas are larger and firmer than quinoa while lacking a chewy texture. However, the flavor profile matches quinoa very closely, and it’s an excellent substitute if you want to capture the bold, nutty notes quinoa provides. 

I recommend stocking up on some cans of chickpeas so that you always have a quick and ready substitute for quinoa, rice, or other dishes calling for grains. 

9. Lentils

Lentils, like chickpeas, are legumes, making them a healthy and hearty replacement for quinoa in suitable dishes. Legumes include beans, peas, and nuts and are an excellent source of fiber, protein, and minerals. 

Lentils stray away from the nuttier flavors of quinoa and chickpeas and taste more similar to red beans. Additionally, they are a bit mushier than quinoa and don’t have the same chewy bite. 

That being said, legumes provide a unique flavor to dishes and are unmatched in their ability to fill you up and keep you full all day. They are also readily available and work well in many dishes.

Related Is it Safe to Eat Raw Lentils? | What You Need to Know.

10. Grated Cauliflower

Grated cauliflower is one of the best options if you want a low-carb, gluten-free alternative to the other substitutes. This substitute is incredibly nutrient-dense, providing the same texture and consistency as white rice. 

While the texture is light and fluffy, and the flavor a bit more aromatic than quinoa, this option is a wonderful template for all kinds of dishes and sauces, both sweet and savory. 

It’s easy to prepare as well. You just need to grate the cauliflower, press any moisture out of it, and steam it to completion. 

How Long It Takes to Cook Quinoa and Other Grains

When substituting essential ingredients, planning for additional time is crucial to get everything ready at the right time. 

Quinoa takes about 12-15 minutes to boil to completion. Substitutes that take less time include couscous, bulgar, chickpeas, and cauliflower. The substitutes that require 15+ to 30 minutes include polenta, millet, and lentils. The longest replacements to cook are brown rice, barley, and farro. 

To simplify the process of adjusting your cook time to each substitute, I’ve created this graph to help you plan ahead. Cook times are based on data from The Whole Grain Council.

GrainCooking Time (min)
Brown Rice25-45
Chickpeas5 (from the can)

Chickpeas from the can and cauliflower are the quickest options to prepare. Additionally, couscous and bulgar take about the same amount of time as quinoa and are very easy to prepare. Using other substitutes will require more time to cook.

The Water Ratio of Quinoa and Other Grains

In addition to the cooking time, knowing the correct water ratios and final amount is essential to appropriately substituting these ingredients. 

Quinoa requires a 2:1 ratio of water to liquid and produces triple the amount of product. Substitutes that match this ratio are Bulgar and Farro. Other substitutes will need a 2.5 to 4 ratio of water to grain and produce over 3 cups of product. The exception is couscous, with a 1:1 ratio.

In case you need a reference guide, I’ve created this table so you can quickly assess how much water you need depending on your substitute. 

Grain (1 cup)Amount of Water (per cup)Final Amount
Quinoa2 cups (480 ml)3 cups
Brown Rice2.5 cups (600 ml)3 cups
Barley3 cups (720 ml)3.5 cups
Farro2.5 cups (360 ml)3 cups
Couscous1 cup (240 ml)2 cups
Polenta4 cups (960 ml)4.5 cups
Millet2.5 cups (600 ml)4 cups
Bulgar2 cups (480 ml)3 cups
Lentils3 cups (720 ml)4 cups

Chickpeas can be used out of the can or soaked and boiled overnight if dry. When cooking chickpeas or cauliflower, the liquid ratio isn’t important as they are removed from heat and drained once cooking is complete. 

Protein Content of Quinoa

Quinoa flakes spilling from a wooden spoon

Quinoa is high in protein and fiber, but how much protein does it have, especially compared with other grains?

Quinoa has about 8g of protein per cup, cooked. This is relatively high compared to other grains, which typically have 3-6g of protein per cup. Legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils, have about double the protein at 15-18g. Cauliflower is nutrient dense but lacks significant protein. 

Quinoa is an excellent source of protein, especially compared with other substitutes, as shown below. 

Grain (1 cup)Protein per Cup (cooked)
Brown Rice5.5g

The ideal amount of protein per day is about 0.8g per kilogram of body weight. At 8g per cup, quinoa fulfills 10kg or 22 lbs of body weight per day. This amount is about 10-20% of the daily recommended protein for most Americans. 

Other grains, especially ones containing gluten, have significantly less protein but are still a reliable source. If you want to focus on a protein-rich substitute, I recommend legumes. 

Is Quinoa Gluten-Free?

Gluten is commonly found in wheat products and can cause gastrointestinal stress for some individuals. While quinoa is gluten-free, some substitutes aren’t, and it’s helpful to know which contains gluten. 

Quinoa is gluten-free, in addition to being nutrient dense and high in fiber. Substitutes that contain gluten include barley, farro, couscous, and bulgar, which are wheat derivatives. Couscous, rice, chickpeas, lentils, and cauliflower do not contain gluten.

Related The 10 Best Substitutes for Quick Oats in a Recipe.