20 Ways To Liven Up Bland Quinoa

When it comes to filling, hearty sides, few things compare to quinoa. It's super nutritious, packed with complex carbs, lots of protein, and an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. It has a low glycemic index, meaning it doesn't spike your blood sugar after eating it like pasta or white bread might. And it's gluten-free, making it a great option for people with dietary sensitivities. All that, plus it has a delightfully chewy, nutty taste and texture you can't find in a lot of other whole grains.

The only drawback? Quinoa can also be incredibly bland at times. But, that's actually good news, because it means the grain gives you a blank canvas to cook with. You can add any number of different toppings and additives that will liven up this bland whole-grain and make it the star of any meal. Here are our picks for 20 ways you can instantly make quinoa richer, more savory, filled with flavor, and a literal joy to eat. Let's dig in!

Toast your quinoa before you cook it

The first thing you can do to make quinoa more flavorful actually happens well before you ever put on a pot of water to boil. Toasting uncooked quinoa in a skillet is a simple and fun way to significantly increase the flavor of the grain, making it much nuttier and slightly smoky tasting. It also helps to impart a great umami flavor to the quinoa it might not otherwise possess. 

To toast the grain, just add 1 cup of uncooked quinoa to a dry skillet or saucepan that's been warming over medium heat. When the quinoa hits the hot pan, stir it frequently, letting the grains toast for about 3 to 4 minutes or until they become fragrant and golden brown. Once toasted, remove the pot from the flame and then cook the quinoa as normal in boiling water. You'll notice the final cooked grain has a much richer and more pronounced nutty flavor!

Splash in some orange juice

One of the quickest and easiest ways to instantly amp up the flavor of freshly cooked quinoa is by adding a splash of orange juice to the grain's water as it cooks. The sweetness and acidity of the OJ perfectly complement the nutty qualities of the quinoa, making that earthy, slightly bitter flavor much more prominent and pronounced — and way more delicious. 

Most recipes call for 1 cup of quinoa cooked in 2 cups of water. To add orange juice when cooking your quinoa, just use around ¼ cup less water and replace that liquid with orange juice instead. Bring your liquid to a boil like normal, add your quinoa, cover, and let simmer for about 15 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is soft and fluffy. For a richer, fuller citrus flavor, stir in a tablespoon of additional fresh OJ right before dishing up your meal.

Boil in some beef broth

If you're looking for a richer, more savory bowl of quinoa, try adding a cup of broth to your water instead of sweet citrusy orange juice. Beef broth in particular can add a wonderful, robust flavor to cooked quinoa that makes it anything but bland. Using the same recipe of 1 cup of quinoa cooked in 2 cups of liquid, just replace anywhere from ½ to a full cup of that water with your broth and then cook the grain as normal. 

In addition to beef broth, chicken broth, veggie broth, and even bone broth also all work beautifully as a liquid to cook quinoa in. Just be sure not to use too much broth — a little goes a long way! In most cases, you'll want to dilute your broth to at least a 50/50 mixture with plain water in order to avoid your cooked quinoa tasting too salty.

Mix in some fresh chopped herbs

Once your quinoa is cooked, one of the most effective ways to add a punch of flavor to the dish is with the addition of fresh, chopped herbs. As your quinoa simmers, start by grabbing some of your favorite fresh herb — cilantro, parsley, basil, mint, chives, dill, thyme, and oregano are all good options. Make your selection based on the theme of your meal and what you'll be pairing the quinoa with. Next, rinse the herbs and remove any thick stems. Then chop the leaves finely. 

When your quinoa is done cooking, fluff it in the pot with a fork and then stir your freshly chopped herbs right into the still-warm grain. To amplify that natural herb flavor even further, you may also want to add a touch of butter or olive oil. Mix everything together, add a little salt and pepper, and serve!

Add a spoonful of pesto

If you like what fresh herbs can do to cooked quinoa, then you'll love the way an herb pesto can really help to liven up the flavor of the grain. While a single herb like basil or cilantro only adds one flavor to your quinoa, homemade pesto adds a much more complex flavor profile to the dish. It combines the tastes of all the ingredients used in the pesto — herbs, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and sometimes even lemon juice. The pesto can add a kick of umami flavor and will also enhance the creaminess of the quinoa, ensuring every bite of the grain is full of flavor. 

To add pesto to cooked quinoa, start by stirring 1 to 2 tablespoons of the wonderful green stuff into 1 cup of the cooked grain. Taste, and then add more if needed. Make sure the cooked quinoa isn't too hot as you stir in the pesto — you want the grain to be warm but it shouldn't cook the condiment. Too much heat can ruin pesto's vibrant flavor and consistency.

Stir in crumbled feta or goat cheese

After the use of herbs, one of the most delicious ways to add flavor and texture to cooked quinoa is with the addition of cheese! After all, who doesn't love a bowl of warm, nutty, cheesy goodness? Although grated cheddar or Monterey Jack would work in a pinch, the best cheeses to add to quinoa typically have a lot of fragrance or tang, or saltiness. You want something that pairs well with the mild nutty flavor of the grain, without overpowering it. 

Feta, goat cheese, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, blue cheese, and even crumbly Mexican Cotija cheese are all ideal options to mix with cooked quinoa. As with the herbs we were adding earlier, wait until the quinoa is cooked and fluffed. Then add around ¼ to ⅓ cup of grated or crumbled cheese to 1 cup of cooked quinoa. Taste your dish, and then if you're looking for more cheesiness, add more crumbles as needed.

Toss in some chopped nuts

In addition to cheese, chopped nuts are another great add-in for quinoa that highlight and amplify the grain's already nutty flavor. Nuts also help to make quinoa even more nutritious — they're a great source of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. And, they add texture and crunch to your quinoa as well. Almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios are all great nuts to consider adding to any quinoa dish.

Use a sharp knife to dice them down into fine chunks or pulse them through your food processor until they reach the desired texture. Add whichever nut you choose to your cooked quinoa after it has been fully cooked and fluffed with a fork. This will help the nuts to retain their texture and crunch without becoming soggy or overcooked. (If you love the interplay of quinoa and nuts, consider throwing together Quinoa Stir-Fry With Garlic And Pineapple which combines quinoa and cashews with the goodness of green onion, garlic, peas, pineapple, soy sauce, and maple syrup. Yum!)

Add in diced, dried fruit like raisins

While you're thinking about things you can toss into your cooked quinoa to liven up its flavor, don't overlook the wonders that a handful of raisins can impart on any dish. Raisins are an ideal way to infuse quinoa with a bounty of flavor due to their sweet, tart, tang. If you want tender raisins and quinoa with a mild grape-like sweetness, add your raisins to your quinoa water as the grain cooks. This will allow the fruit to rehydrate and give it plenty of time to release its flavor into the grain. For a quinoa dish with sweeter, chewy raisins, add the fruit to the grain after it has cooked and prior to serving. This will also help to highlight the contrast of the chewy raisin texture with the fluffy nutty quinoa.

Not a raisin person? Don't worry. You can do the same thing with dried cranberries, diced dried apricots, dried cherries, or even diced dried mango or pineapple. Each adds a wonderful fruity sweetness and chew to any bowl of cooked quinoa.

Fold in some sautéed onions

Sautéed onions are good for more than just omelets, burgers, and stir-fries. These savory, buttery, caramelized mounds of deliciousness are also a great way to liven up any bowl of cooked quinoa. To make the best-tasting caramelized onions, always pick the right type of onion (sweet onions like Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Spanish onions tend to caramelize best). 

Slice your onions extra thin, cook them slowly in a combination of butter and oil to avoid burning, and be patient — it can take 30 minutes or longer to get that "just right" mixture of brownness, tenderness, and sweet, smoky flavor. For 1 cup of cooked quinoa, start by stirring in around ¼ to ⅓ cup of caramelized onions. Taste and then add more if needed. If you really like the mixture of quinoa and onions, consider making a quick salad with the dish. All you need to add is a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some fresh chopped herbs — parsley, cilantro, or chives are all ideal!

Throw in diced cherry tomatoes

Diced, ripe cherry tomatoes are another perfect stir-in to add to a bowl of quinoa. While diced whole tomatoes will add extra juice to the quinoa, turning the whole meal into mush as you stir them in, halved cherry tomatoes are the perfect alternative. Due to their tiny size, they will produce less juicy and even more flavorful. And, they have built-in form and structure since you're just cutting them in half, so they won't fall apart in your dish no matter how vigorously you might mix them with those quinoa grains.

The combo of quinoa and diced cherry tomatoes is also the perfect foundation for a wide variety of different side dishes and entrees. You can add herbs and feta for a cold salad or fresh mozzarella, basil, and a balsamic glaze for a Caprese-inspired bowl. Stir in diced cucumber, red onion, feta, and Kalamata olives and your salad has moved to a Greek-inspired dish. You can even use the tomato and quinoa mixture as the basis for a Mediterranean wrap or a veggie stir-fry!

Drizzle on some balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar doesn't always get the love or respect it deserves in the kitchen. This sweet, tangy, fruity condiment (which originates in Italy and is made from the juice of freshly crushed grapes) is an ideal way to add flavor to everything from salads and marinades to roast veggies and pasta. It's also obviously a great flavor-packed addition to a bowl of cooked quinoa. 

To flavor 1 cup of cooked quinoa, start by stirring in 1 to 2 tablespoons of the wonderful elixir and then add more as needed to satisfy your individual taste. It's potent so remember that a little goes a long way. For the highest quality balsamic vinegar, check the label of whatever you're buying. Look for terms like "Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" or "Aceto Balsamico di Modena" – this ensures the vinegar was made in Italy and was produced to the highest quality standards possible. The vinegar should also be thick and syrup-like — it should coat the back of the spoon — and it shouldn't contain any added sugars, caramel, or artificial flavors. Your quinoa will thank you for that authentic Italian taste.

Stir in some Greek yogurt

When it comes to great tasting foods, creamier is almost always better. And, the same holds true for quinoa. Creamy dishes have a more appealing, velvety texture; they often contain more rich, satisfying fat; and they tend to have more balanced flavor profiles ... all great reasons to consider adding some creaminess to a bowl of cooked quinoa. One of the most effective and nutritious options for adding tang and punch — and that velvety smooth texture –  to quinoa is plain Greek yogurt. 

For instant creaminess, just stir a tablespoon or 2 of the stuff into 1 cup of the cooked grain before serving. Sour cream and cream cheese are also great options for creating a similar effect. Or, if you follow a plant-based diet, you can also get some wonderfully creamy quinoa by adding a couple of spoonfuls of silken tofu or even a dollop of hummus.

Combine with curry powder

More than just a simple stir-in, ground spices like curry are one the most basic and essential tools for adding flavor to any dish, including cooked quinoa. You can add dried curry to quinoa at any point in the cooking process. To work it in before you start cooking the grain, just pour around 1 teaspoon of curry into the bottom of your pot with a bit of oil or butter and then gently toast the spice over high heat for a couple of minutes. This will help to release aromatic compounds in the curry and make your quinoa even more flavorful. Next, add your quinoa and water to the curry-filled pot and cook as normal.

You can also add the same amount of curry to your quinoa and water mixture as the grain simmers and softens. This will create a slightly more mild, well-rounded flavor profile for the dish. Finally, don't forget that you can also always add spices like curry to any dish after cooking. This is the best route to take if you want to control the intensity of the spice. Start with a small amount, taste, and then add more as needed to meet your specific requirements.

Add a bit of coconut milk

For a tropical, island-themed quinoa meal, consider adding a splash of coconut milk to your bowl. Coconut milk — the creamy, rich liquid extracted from the grated flesh of mature coconuts — is a staple in Southeast Asian, Indian, and Caribbean cooking and adds both flavor and a luxurious texture to any dish, including quinoa. Coconut milk is an especially good choice to pair with quinoa because of the way the mild sweetness of the coconut and the nutty, savory flavor of the quinoa complement each other so perfectly. 

Add coconut milk to 1 cup of quinoa that has already been cooked, then drizzle on around ¼ to ⅓ of a cup of the liquid and fluff the grain with a fork. (Using much more might make your quinoa soggy.) For a more intense coconut flavor, you can also simply cook your quinoa directly in coconut milk. In this case, you'll want a 1:2 ratio of dry quinoa to liquid (or 1 cup of quinoa and 2 cups of coconut milk, respectively). Measure out your ingredients and then cook as normal, just like if you were using water in the dish.

Fold freshly diced avocado into your quinoa

Avocado is a hearty grain's best friend. This luscious green pitted fruit is a staple in brown rice bowls, Mexican rice, beans, farro, or freekeh salad, and is — of course — widely used in all kinds of sushi. And, you can add quinoa to that list of complex carbs that go beautifully with some freshly diced, ripe avocado. Pairing the two is easy. 

First grab some ripe, in-season avocado. Halve and pit the fruit and then dice it into large chunks. Next, toss the diced avocado with a bit of fresh lemon or lime juice. This will help to keep it from turning brown when exposed to the air. Finally, since the fruit is so soft and delicate, carefully fold the avocado chunks into your cooked quinoa with a rubber spatula. Start from the edges of the bowl working towards the center, gently scooping and folding the diced avocado and the cooked quinoa together until the two are mixed well. If you want to further highlight the mild, buttery creaminess of the avocado — bringing even more flavor to your quinoa — add a bit of freshly ground salt and pepper and a small dash of hot sauce to the dish. 

Stir in some roasted veggies

Another great way to make bland quinoa sing with added flavor is by mixing the grain with some freshly roasted veggies — butternut squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes in particular are all great options. Each is naturally sweet and develops a wonderful, slightly caramelized flavor when roasted in the oven. This sweetness perfectly compliments and harmonizes with quinoa's earthy natural flavor. Even better, these roasted veggies also pack a tender, slightly crispy texture that contrasts beautifully with the fluffy, slightly chewy texture of cooked quinoa. All in all, it's an ideal culinary match!

Depending on your love for whichever vegetable you're dicing up and roasting, you can mix your quinoa and veggies in a 1:1 ratio. Or, if you prefer more grain and less veg, go for 1 cup of quinoa mixed with ½ cup of roasted squash, carrots, or sweet potatoes. Toss well, add a dab of butter and salt and pepper to taste and you've got one flavor-packed incredible side that goes with almost anything.

Sprinkle in some heat with red pepper flakes

Quinoa is a great vehicle for hot and spicy flavors. You can pair it with Tabasco or salsa, chile verde, or smoked paprika. But, the absolute best way to add fire — and flavor — to cooked quinoa is with a generous helping of red pepper flakes. Also sometimes known as crushed red pepper, red pepper flakes are quite literally the by-product of red chili peppers that have been dried and crushed. 

Since the spice also includes the pepper's seeds — the true source of any pepper's heat — these flakes are also one of the most effective methods for adding spiciness to any dish. Mildy pungent and sometimes very hot, red pepper flakes are different from salsa or hot sauce in that they add warmth without overwhelming a food's natural flavor. This makes them an ideal addition to quinoa. 

For 1 cup of quinoa, add around ¼ to ½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes to the water as the quinoa is cooking. You can also add the same amount of the spice to the grain after it has cooked. Just be sure it's still warm from the stove. You need that residual heat in the quinoa to help release the flakes' potent, mouth-watering fire.

Add a little soy sauce

Like fresh avocado, soy sauce is another delicious cooking staple that goes well with grains of all types, including rice and especially quinoa. The natural saltiness you get from soy sauce is perfect for helping to balance and amplify quinoa's natural, nutty sweetness.  Soy sauce also adds depth and complexity to the flavor profile of any dish, making it an ideal flavor enhancer for cooked quinoa that you might later use in anything from a salad to a wrap to a soup or stir-fry. 

Soy sauce is potent, so start with a tiny amount stirred into your quinoa, taste it, and then add more as needed. A great starting point is 1 to 2 teaspoons per cup of cooked quinoa. If you find soy sauce too salty to use in that quantity, consider calling in a substitute. Tamari, teriyaki sauce, sesame oil, and fish sauce are all popular soy sauce substitutions.

Stir in a spoonful of miso paste

Like soy sauce, miso paste is another great Asian-inspired cooking staple that's hearty and flavorful, packed with umami goodness, and ideal for adding flavor to cooked grains like quinoa. Made from a mixture of fermented soybeans, salt, and steamed rice or barley, miso paste is most commonly used to make miso soup, but it's also a popular ingredient in many marinades, dressings, glazes. 

The easiest way to add a punch of miso flavor is to dissolve the paste in the water you'll be cooking your quinoa in (before you add the grain). For 1 cup of cooked quinoa, you'll need 2 cups of water and about 1 to 2 tablespoons of miso paste. Once the miso is dissolved in the liquid, cook the quinoa as normal. To add miso flavor to quinoa that has already been cooked, just dissolve a small amount of miso in water and drizzle it over the warm grain. Then fluff the quinoa with a fork to help it absorb the extra miso-packed liquid.

If all else fails, use bacon crumbles

It's true that bacon really does make everything better. And quinoa is no exception. The smoky, salty, savory, umami kick of bacon is an ideal way to give even the blandest bowl of quinoa a wonderful burst of flavor. You can use traditional smoked thick-cut or center-cut bacon in the dish. Or pick a tasty variation like hickory-smoked bacon, maple bacon, or even peppered or jalapeño bacon. Whichever you choose, cook the bacon until nice and crisp, and then let drain and cool on a couple of paper towels.

Once your bacon is cool enough to handle, crumble the meat by hand or dice it with a knife until you've got a mass of evenly sized bacon bits. Then simply dump as little or as much bacon as you'd like into your quinoa and mix well. To instantly turn your bacon/quinoa mixture into a meal, just add some shredded cheese or some sautéed or steamed vegetables. Alternately, for an amazing breakfast or brunch crowd-pleaser, just top the quinoa and bacon mixture with a fried or poached egg. Quick, easy, and oh-so-delicious!