Bulgur and couscous are both grain products made from wheat; they are commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisines. Both come as small pellets and are available in a range of sizes, and both cook relatively quickly, at least compared to grains such as rice and barley. Despite their similarities, these two wheat products are not interchangeable, although they do complement many of the same flavors.
Wheat Varieties and Processing
Couscous is made from durum wheat, or semolina, the variety typically used to make pasta. In fact, couscous is a type of pasta made by creating a dough and then breaking it up into pieces the size of birdseed or peppercorns, depending on the coarseness or fineness of the finished product. Bulgur can be made from different varieties of wheat that are parboiled and then cracked to make a precooked whole grain product that can be prepared quickly and easily.
Nuances of Texture
Although bulgur can be prepared with enough water to form a porridge, it is most commonly cooked by being boiled, or soaked in boiling water, with the excess water then drained once the grain has softened. This preparation method ensures that the bulgur will be tender but not mushy, and will separate into distinct granules that work well in salads and pilafs. In contrast, couscous is usually steamed with water or broth, making a tender, sticky grain that soaks up flavorful sauces and stews.
Subtleties of Flavor
Bulgur has a delicate, nutty flavor, much like the taste of wheat before it has been refined into flour. Couscous is more processed, and therefore has a more neutral flavor. Although both wheat products are typically seasoned with Mediterranean flavors, bulgur is most commonly dressed with seasonings typical of the Middle East such as parsley, mint and lemon. Couscous is more commonly used in North African kitchens, and is seasoned with the cumin, cardamom and saffron characteristic of these cuisines.
Bulgur's most common use is in tabbouleh, the classic Middle Eastern salad featuring tomatoes, green onion and parsley. It is also a staple component in kibbeh, where it is mixed with ground beef and shaped into patties or used as a topping for flatbread. Couscous is most often used in tagines, North African stews that are traditionally prepared in clay vessels with conical tops that hold in steam. Couscous pairs especially well with lamb, goat and chicken.
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