Every fall people ask us how to harvest quinoa. These tall plants produce masses of seeds, each seed resulting from the pollination of a single flower in their beautiful inflorescences (flower clusters). When the seeds are fully ripe and ready for harvest, they will fall out of the seed head easily. If part of the seed head is grasped in hand, the hard little seeds should easily dislodge.
There will be seasons when cold, wet weather, threatens the harvest. If such weather is looming, simply cut the seed stalks about 15cm (6″) below the start of the seed head, and bundle them in groups of eight to twelve. Hang these indoors in a well ventilated room, away from bright sunlight. As the stalks dry, the seeds will become looser, and begin to fall from the seed heads. It’s useful to lay a bed sheet or tarp below the hanging stalks in order to catch any that fall.
Our favourite method for harvesting the seeds is to bash the heads about inside paper yard waste bags. These are the right size to catch all the seeds and chaff as it is separated and freed from the seed heads. If you squeeze and twist the seed heads, you will hear the hard, dense seeds falling into the bag. Process all the dry seed heads this way, and then collect the contents of the bag in a large bowl.
It may be prudent to allow the seeds (and chaff) to continue drying in the bowl. If so, be sure to mix the contents of the bowl regularly so it dries in a uniform way.
Separating seeds from chaff can be a messy affair. It can be done outdoors on a windy day simply by pouring the contents of the bowl into another. The chaff is much lighter and less dense than the seeds, and some of it will blow away each time one bowl is poured into another. This can also be done (we’ve done it!) indoors using a bed sheet and a table fan. Lay out the bed sheet to catch the chaff, and pour the seeds from one bowl to another in front of the fan. After five or six “pours,” the seeds will be quite free from chaff, but the process can be repeated until you are satisfied.
Quinoa seeds are coated with a bitter substance called saponin. They require rinsing prior to cooking to remove the saponin. Rinse quinoa as you would rice, in several bowls of cold water. This will free any remaining particles of chaff as well.