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Instant Couscous - is it bitter, or is it me?

The 5-minute appeal of instant couscous is undeniable, but I have not been happy with the results. I have tried several brands, including Near East and Trader Joe's, and both regular and whole wheat. There always seems to be a metallic aftertaste. I normally use very little salt, and am making the couscous in Pyrex in which the water has boiled. Even if I make it in broth (so, more salt) I detect the aftertaste. I confess that I've never gone so far as to try spring water (my tap has a Pur filter) but since I don't have this problem with rice or other pasta, I doubt that it's the water.

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  1. Ive never experienced an aftertaste or bitterness in couscous.

    1. I buy the Near East garlic & olive oil flavored cous cous all the time and I've had a problem. I sometimes by the parmesan flavored one too.

      1. I use Near East all the time. Love it. Never an aftertaste. I use plain, and the garlic and one other. Usually always cook in low salt broth, my own if I can and add some dried mushrooms which are good, scallions, sometimes sundried, depends what I am having it with. And sometimes plain. Always good to me. Bought another brand in a large jar, sorry name escapes me. Same taste more expensive. Even did some from whole foods. Same result again. Way more money ... same result, no difference in taste. So back to Near East. Sorry can't help.

          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

            No clear, I just looked at one in my pantry

            1. re: kchurchill5

              thanks for checking, kc5.

              greygarious, what type of pot are you cooking it in?

                1. re: greygarious

                  oy, sorry. i really have no business "Hounding" while sick...this cold is clearly affecting my brain function :)

                  assuming you're talking strictly about the plain, unflavored varieties, i'm at a complete loss. and now i'm going to wonder about this! i hope someone can be more helpful...

                2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  I usually just heat my broth always use broth in a measuring cup in the micro and add to a pyrex bowl with the couscous, cover with saran and forget it.

            2. I thought for a long time that I didn't like cous cous because I'd only ever tried the instant type, and found it bitter.

              14 Replies
              1. re: saraeanderson

                Aha - not just me! I was about to ask what brands you do like but since it's the speedy preparation of instant that prompted me to use it, I don't really care about longer-cooking options. If I'm going to have to cook it longer, I can just as readily use a small-shape pasta like orzo or acini di pepe (sp?).

                1. re: greygarious

                  I dont really understand what instant cous cous is. Normally you just boil water add cous cous, cover it and its ready in about five minutes.

                  To me it is inherently and instant food.

                  What is the difference with instant? im sure if its bitter it's because of some kind of flavor packet. Instead just put some butter, salt, olive oil, in when you add the cous cous. If its not too much trouble also add some herbs, spice, or dried fruit. For example someone mentioned garilc and olive oil flavour. You could just add these two things to the "non instant" version, and bingo you got it.

                  1. re: gastrognome

                    Just couscous what don't you get. I just call it couscous cuz it is instant. No difference. Just a quick cooking grain Usually I get the plan sometimes I get a garlic flavored one. No packet, but the plain is just as good and flavor yourself. It is just good.

                    I guess I just say instant cuz it is quick, same as all the other couscous out there. sorry if we were confusing.

                    1. re: kchurchill5

                      Couscous is not really a grain per se, but just a form of pasta.

                      1. re: Sinicle

                        I was generalizing, sorry. I should of been specific.

                    2. re: gastrognome

                      I was reminded to ask the question because couscous was featured on today's epidose of "Lidia's Italy". She showed the several varieties and explained them; instant is couscous that has already been cooked, then dried. Other couscous takes longer to cook, and there are various sizes of pellet. The Wikipedia article discusses some of the differences.

                      The bitter, metallic aftertaste that I perceive is in plain instant couscous made by adding boiling water and letting sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Doesn't matter if I do or don't add salt. Using broth does not cover the off-flavor for me.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        I use Near East and haven't noticed on off taste. Does it still taste that way if you cook it on the stove? I have never made it in the microwave before.

                        1. re: danhole

                          Water boiled in the microwave is different than water boiled in a pot on the stove? If anything, I'd expect the pot to affect taste, not a Pyrex glass measuring cup. Enough other posts on this thread agree about the aftertaste that I think some of us have taste buds and noses that are detecting something most people don't.

                          1. re: greygarious

                            Not really saying that, just curious if it makes a difference. I thought that maybe the couscous picked up some sort of taste from the microwave. But I will admit I am not a supertaster! Now my daughter is and can pick up flavors that I never detect. Now that I know you can cook it in the microwave I will do that next time.

                            1. re: greygarious

                              I think you're right about the sensitivity. I don't find it bitter but do find it stale tasting and smelling.

                        2. re: gastrognome

                          What you are describing is instant couscous. Non-instant couscous doesn't rehydrate in 5 minutes, as greygarious notes.

                          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                            I just made couscous for the first time last night, and thought there was a mistake in the recipe when I saw 3 to 5 minutes cooking time. This was a recipe from the newspaper: the box said there were instructions on the side panel but there weren't. There were a couple of recipes on the back that involved meat and called for cooking in a tangine for 2 hours. But I did my non meat recipe and it was delicious in 5 minutes.
                            My box (Belaria brand) doesn't say instant, just "Couscous". So now I'm confused. By the way it cost $2.19/lb at Fairway. Can't wait to try it as a cold salad this summer, so quick and easy.
                            Just realized, my neighbors where I used to live were from Morocco, and she made tangines for me whenever we came over. She told me how it was a special treat for them because she had to go shopping in Manhattan to get all the right ingredients. They're back in Morocco now, retired, so good for them. I'll guess I'll stick with this stuff for now. Maybe it was underdone, but what do I know?

                            1. re: coll

                              I think for the most part the couscous sold here in the US (and certainly all of the boxed products) is instant couscous, the cooked then dehydrated type, even when it doesn't say "instant." Instead of seeking out instant, you need to specially seek out the traditional kind if you want it.

                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                I emailed my friend in Morocco this morning, don't know what time it is there but when I hear from her, I'll let you know if she has anything else to add. Since it's a new addition to my repetoire, I'm investigating!

                    3. I don't detect a bitter or metallic flavor, but I have found that couscous tends to have an "off-smell," as if it were rancid. Since it's just flour and water, like pasta, I doubt that it is rancidity--and I have never smelled this in regular pasta, even if I had it in the pantry for several months. The smell is there in both cooked and uncooked couscous. Perhaps it has something to do with the manufacturing process.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Missyme

                        Don't notice it or any smell sorry. I love it.

                        1. re: Missyme

                          I too noticed a rancid 'off' smell with couscous when I last bought it even though it was inside the sell-by date. I have eaten couscous many times before but haven't previously noticed a smell. I wonder if it was a particular batch (I live in the UK by the way so it is unlikely we bought from the same batch). Do you know if it is safe to eat when it smells like that?

                          1. re: Aryl03

                            Rancid fats can damage the liver but I have no idea how much or how little will cause a problem. I think there may be an element of rancidity in the off-flavor I experience with instant couscous. I just don't use it anymore, convenient though it is. I can cook other small pasta shapes, like orzo or ditalini, in a small amount of water/stock, stirring often, in only a few minutes longer than it takes to make instant couscous. I recently bought Trader Joe's couscous mix - a larger pellet mixed with colored orzo and split peas/lentils. This takes longer to cook, and isn't ideal because the legumes are still a little tough when the couscous is finished, and I found the same unpleasant taste in THAT size couscous. I give up!

                          2. re: Missyme

                            I just bought a jar of whole couscous from Sur la Table and it smelled and tasted rancid - for sure. I couldn't figure it out. Then I read that whole couscous can go rancid because it contains the germ of the wheat which turns rancid with age. I'm returning the jar which says it's well within the time limit.

                          3. Do you think it's possible that you are tasting something that isn't really there, because you're expecting to taste the metal? Could you have had one truly metallic/bitter batch, and are now afraid you're going to get the same thing every time?

                            I have psyched myself into thinking certain foods always tasted weird because of a single bad experience I'd had in the past. I still can't eat 16-bean soup to this day because of one horrible batch I made with liquid smoke back in 1993 while I was trying to get over the flu. Every time I try to have a bite of any version that recipe today, I immediately "taste" that liquid smoke and it makes me feel sick again. In fact, I'm getting a little queasy even typing about it now.

                            I eat instant couscous all the time, usually a whole-wheat one. Never tasted anything off.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: dmd_kc

                              I believe you. Tuna casserole ... not just because it is bad ... in my opinion but it has a taste. The lady who made it the tuna just smelled bad to me. My mom made it a few times for me and it smelled great and my friends even loved it. Much fresher and unique, not just the mush that some make. Well to this day I can't eat it . That same smell no matter what.

                            2. I've noticed an 'off' flavor in instant cous-cous, too - I can actually see it described as either metallic or rancid (I always thought of it as a rancid-flour-flavor).

                              In various cooking adventures, I've tried to find NON-instant cous-cous (not the big Israeli ones, but the small-grained variety), but somehow haven't managed to find it. I've heard that you can also get it fresh, but that is difficult in Seattle. Anyone ever tried to make it from scratch, or found fresh or non-instant?


                              1. I love it and have never noticed it bitter. I boil the water, toss it in, cover and then for plain stuff I usually add a lump of butter, garlic, a handful of parm. Today @ Publix they had spinach flavored, and tri-color couscous. New to me. I held the tri-color in my hand but it was $9- and I wasn't sure if we would like it. It's from RiceSelect. Previously I bought the Near East Toasted Pine Nut and found it to be delicious.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                  Yikes. You can get 2 lbs of tomato, spinach, or tri-color French couscous from Kalustyan's for $9.99 (see link). I can't speak to RiceSelect's, but Kalustyan's tri-color couscous is very nice; unlike tri-color pasta, the tomato and spinach varieties actually have a different flavor than the plain. Kalustyan's has great-quality bulk grains, legumes, spices, etc., too if you're ever looking to fill out an order.


                                  1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                    Near East Pine Nut or the Roasted Garlic are my favorite. I did get some from a local whole foods type place. It was also good but I didn't really notice any difference between the box and the other. I've had tomato couscous which I love.

                                  2. if you have supertastebuds (not a supertaster, as I actually DO like cilantro), yes, couscous is slightly bitter. I don't consider myself to have such buds, but have tasted such bitterness. I usually off-set it with cooking with broth instead of water. Any brands I've used plain (water only, no salt, sea salt, himalayan salt, etc) same bitterness.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Caralien

                                      I think some folks are confused about the "supertaster" thing. There are a few ways of testing. One is to put a packet of Sweet 'n Low (saccharine) in 5-6 oz of tepid water and taste. If it's strongly sweet, you are a non-taster; a mild mix of sweet/bitter, a regular taster; very bitter, a supertaster. Supertasters tend to find coffee and vegetables - especially brassicas (like broccoli, cabbage) in particular - bitter, so they may be "picky" eaters who don't get good nutrition. Non-tasters (I seem to fit this category) crave sweet tastes more than regular or supertasters. Google "supertaster test oz" for more info.

                                      Since science has established that genetic differences affect taste and smell perception, I have no problem (now that I know others share my experience) in believing that something in the way grain is processed into couscous makes it off-putting to what seems to be a minority of the population.

                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        I can't eat saccarine--it's bitter to me. I know friends who like it because it dissolves in iced tea better, but I can't handle it. Bitter, metallic.

                                        Cilantro and white pepper seem to be the things that are offensive to the official supertaster groups, but those are 2 things I love. It could be my heritage--growing up with both! That said, cornstarch is ick to me. I try, but it is an irritant. As is Rose's Lime.

                                        I've decided I'm not a supertaster because I don't fall into the categories explicitly of what is great or bad. Can I taste things? Yes. Including being able to discern what is in a recipe for the most part (95-8%) accuracy when I make it at home. So I'm happy with that. It's an ethereal feeling when I've made a duplicate of a taste I've had in the past. THAT makes me so happy, although I'm so giddy that my friends, family (and husband) simply have to accept it, as they have no idea what I'm so excited about.

                                    2. I like the Near East parmesan couscous and haven't noticed an aftertaste either. Sometimes they have a bit too much sodium for me. We started buying plain couscous in bulk (well, not that much, loose would be a better term...) at Whole Foods. I just haven't looked for it elsewhere yet. I'm not sure where I found the recipe, but we bring two cups of College Inn low sodium chicken broth to a boil and stir in one cup of loose couscous. Take it off of the heat and let it sit covered for about 20 minutes. Yea, I know it's not quite instant but I'm usually making other stuff while it sits. Fluff it a bit and stir in the other flavors and spices of your choice. We found that a cup of grated or shredded parmesan cheese goes rather nicely. The other night we tried a little fresh dill in the mix and were pleased with the results.

                                      I haven't tried it plain, so maybe the cheese or broth is masking the off taste.

                                      1. A couple of thoughts:
                                        1) are you using saran to cover the pyrex? After seeing some food show (can't remember which one), there was a suggestion to use a rectangular pyrex and cover it with saran in order to increase the flat surface area available.

                                        Their method was cover for 5 minutes; remove cover and rake to fluff it up, re-cover and let it sit 5 more minutes. I tried this with pyrex and saran exactly once. I really didn't like something about the result, but it was so long ago I can't tell you what it was.

                                        I have continued to use the let sit for 5, rake, let sit for 5 more method and think this does make for a better result.

                                        The rest of what I normally do is boil water in a kettle, and then pour the water into a glass or ceramic container that has a glass or ceramic lid. I usually add sea salt and pepper to the water before pouring in the couscous. Here's the sort of thing I use:

                                        I'm wondering if the use of saran imparts that off taste?

                                        2) Bob's Red Mill Couscous tastes "sweeter" to me than many other brands. I thought it might be comparatively fresher or something about their durum wheat... Have you tried Bob's Red Mill?

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: souvenir

                                          Ok. I am now totally confused. Just today I bought couscous at the coop in bulk. Thought I would save a little money for the summer couscous salad we made a lot last summer with whatever vegies looked good. Last summer and before I always bought the Near East brand. But today I thought, "Why not buy this in bulk and save" since we make it a lot. (They had both regular and whole wheat couscous in bulk.)

                                          So do I need to cook this stuff differently? Or the same as the Near East stuff. I had that down to a science.

                                          (I can ask at the coop and see if anyone knows, but the odds of the right person being there over the holiday weekend are remote.)

                                          1. re: karykat

                                            As an earlier poster said, almost all couscous sold here is the pre-cooked, dried, instant type (instant meaning you just let it steam after the water has been boiled.) Once upon a time, there was no instant couscous, and if you wanted to make it, you needed to buy a pot specially designed to steam couscous, broth, protein or vegetable in three separate layers. It took a long time and was worth it...That's how real couscous restaurants in Paris, for example, cook the dish, and why it's not considered fast food over there.

                                            1. re: penthouse pup

                                              Ok. I was getting different vibes from the posts. I will just assume what I have is instant.

                                              1. re: karykat

                                                You could try to find real couscous in Brooklyn or try the Organic Food Store ?
                                                They may have normal couscous and whole wheat couscous...

                                        2. I haven't noticed a bitter note in couscous, but I don't remember the last time I made it just plain, without broth or onion or garlic or some other flavor which could be masking this.

                                          That said, one further suggestion- beyond springwater, you might try distilled water. In my opinion this produces superior results with soups and grains and with anything reconstituted; it might improve a simple "elemental" couscous significantly. Then again, if that bitterness really is in the pasta itself, the purity of this method might just accentuate the problem.

                                          Second: never, ever use plastic wrap in the microwave. My doc warned me about plastic and microwaves many years ago, long before the brouhaha when the test results were leaked to the public a year or two back. And what's one of the the worst offenders of all? Why the wrap that's used more often in microwave ovens than any other plastic item.

                                          An ironic headline attached, one from failblog.org that I may have posted before. I'd call it humorous, but that doesn't quite fit when one considers that the issue could be affecting millions.