Traditional Moroccan couscous is always prepared by steaming, a method that allows each individual grain of couscous to become plump and tender without being clumpy, soggy or sticky. This is usually done in a couscoussier such as the one shown above; a couscoussier is designed to steam couscous in a basket which is set over a pot of boiling water or stew. If you don’t have a couscoussier, you can use a universal steamer or a very large metal colander set over a stockpot.
The Qaffal – Sealing the Joint Between the Steamer and the Pot
No matter the equipment used, be sure that no steam escapes from the joint where the steamer meets the pot. If you do notice steam escaping, drape a long piece of folded plastic wrap over the rim of the pot and then nestle the steamer basket into place. The plastic wrap can be left in place throughout all of the steaming steps unless you find that it needs to be replaced.
Using plastic wrap is a fairly new method for sealing the joint. Some cooks still use an old, traditional method of wrapping the joint with strips of cotton that have been dipped in a batter-like mixture of flour and water. This seal is referred to as a qaffal. Not only is it messier than plastic wrap, but the seal must be removed and reapplied for each steaming because it’s wrapped around the joint after the steamer has been placed on the pot. This was, however, such an expected and routine step to preparing couscous that an expression evolved: Wallah law maqafflti la fawwarti; meaning, “If you don’t tighten up (ie. work hard) you won’t succeed.”
Although semolina couscous is the most popular, it’s important to note that couscous comes in different sizes (or calibers) as well as different grains such as barley, millet, corn, wheat, oats, mixed grains, and more. These factors affect how much water is absorbed by the couscous as well as the number and length of steaming sessions. For example, fine couscous might require less water than medium or large; barley couscous requires more water than semolina.
The tutorial below outlines the method for steaming semolina couscous three times. For each steaming, the couscous is tossed with increasingly larger increments of water. Some Moroccans might steam semolina couscous only twice, using more water for the initial steaming, but I prefer the results from three steaming sessions.
How to Steam Couscous
In each step below, you’ll be handling the couscous for only a few minutes. However, allow 1 1/2 hours total because the couscous will need to steam about 20 minutes in each of the three steps.
In addition to your couscoussier, you’ll need a very large bowl or basin for working with the couscous. The photos here show a gsaa, a wide, shallow ceramic dish used for both mixing and serving.
Some points to keep in mind:
- The quantities of oil, water and salt in various steps are for 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of dry couscous. Adjust the measures to the amount of couscous that you’re steaming.
- If you won’t be steaming the couscous over stew, fill your pot halfway with water, bring it to a boil, then maintain a rapid simmer throughout the steaming steps.
- Be sure the bottom of the steamer basket does not come in contact with the liquids below.
- Before starting, oil your steamer basket and set up your work area.
- Note that the couscous should be left uncovered during the steaming. Most Moroccans would not even consider covering it. If you feel you must break with this tradition, you will probably need less water for the final steaming to avoid a heavy, wet couscous.
Step 1 – First Steaming of the Couscous – 1/4 c oil + 1 c water
- Empty 1 kilogram of dry couscous into a gsaa or very large bowl. Pick through the couscous to remove any debris or unwanted bits.
- Add 1/4 cup (60 ml) vegetable or olive oil to the couscous. Toss and rub the couscous between your hands for 1 or 2 minutes to coat each couscous grain with oil. This helps prevent clumping later on.
- Distribute 1 cup (236 ml) of water over the couscous. Toss and rub the couscous for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed evenly. Break up any small balls or clumps that form while you work with the couscous.
- Transfer the couscous to the oiled steamer—handle the couscous lightly and don’t pack it—and place the steamer atop the pot. Steam the couscous for 20 minutes, timing from when the steam rises from the couscous.
Step 2 – Second Steaming of the Couscous – 2 c water + 2 tsp salt
- Empty the steamed couscous back into your bowl and break it apart.
- Distribute 1 cup (236 ml) of water over the couscous. Toss and lightly rub the couscous grains until the water has been evenly absorbed. Break apart any balls or clumps that form.
- Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of fine salt over the couscous. Toss and rub the couscous to distribute the salt evenly. Taste; if desired, add up to another teaspoon of salt in the same manner.
- Distribute another 1 cup (236 ml) of water over the couscous. Toss and rub the couscous until the water has been evenly absorbed. Break apart any balls or clumps. If small balls won’t break apart, discard them.
- Transfer the couscous back to the steamer (remember, no packing!) and place back on the pot. Steam for 20 minutes, again timing from when you see the steam rise from the couscous.
Step 3 – Third Steaming of the Couscous – 3 c water (or milk or broth)
- Turn the couscous back into your bowl and break it apart.
- Gradually add up to 3 cups (710 ml) water (or milk for sweeter couscous dishes; broth may be used for savory dishes) in the same manner as before—lightly toss and roll the couscous after each addition to distribute the liquid evenly and to break up any clumps. Use only as much liquid as needed to make the couscous al dente; it should be light, fluffy and tender but with a slight bite or chewy texture.
- Return the couscous to the steamer (no packing) and steam for the final time—10 to 20 minutes from when you see steam above the couscous. If you’re working with a large quantity of couscous, you can add the couscous to the basket in increments; just top off the couscous in the steamer whenever the steam rises through the couscous that’s already in the basket.
Using Steamed Couscous
After the third steaming, the couscous is ready to be prepped for serving. Examples are:
- tossing the couscous with butter and sugar for Seffa Medfouna or a sweet couscous
- tossing the couscous with butter and broth and serving it as Couscous with Seven Vegetables or other savory variations
- tossing it with butter and offering it in a bowl with buttermilk (couscous saycouk)
- mixing it with savory ingredients to serve as a salad or use as a stuffing.