People seem to have a love it or leave it relationship with beans. If you love them, you likely have an underlying reason: they’re cheap yet filling, you’ve cut other proteins from your diet, or you grew up in a household, community, or culture that saw beans as a staple. Madhur Jaffrey starts her 750-page World Vegetarian cookbook with a section on dried beans. Louis Armstrong loved his beans so much he closed letters with “Red Beans & Ricely Yours.”
But the primary reason people love beans is that they’ve had them cooked right. Well-cooked legumes don’t just pack a nutritional punch; they have delicious flavors and textures and can be adapted to any meal, from breakfast to dessert. Unfortunately, people who rarely eat beans often only do so by cracking open a can and being immediately disappointed by the texture and taste—and the aftereffects. “The more legumes you eat the more you can eat them,” Jaffrey writes in her chapter on dried beans. And the more you know about how to cook beans, the more likely you are to eat them.
Dried versus Canned
I keep various canned and dried beans among my kitchen staples. Canned beans I use rarely but buy for their convenience: pop them open, and they’re ready to add to your dish. I prefer dried beans for their texture, simplicity, variety, and low cost.
- Texture. Canned beans almost always have a squish factor. This doesn’t matter as much if you’re going to mash or puree the beans, such as into Asian White Bean Dip. But if you’re adding whole beans to a salad, you’ll likely be able to tell whether they came from your pot or from a can.
- Simplicity. Dried beans are just that: beans. No additives, no preservatives, no preseasoning. But canned beans are often rich in all of these things, particularly sodium. Some brands have up to 550 mg per 1/2 cup serving, 23% of the recommended daily intake, and some “low-sodium” varieties still clock in at 270 mg per serving. If you do buy beans in cans, be sure to check the label. Ideally, you want it to say “beans, water”; if it lists salt, check the amount.
- Variety. Once you start reading labels of canned beans, you’ll notice that manufacturers are increasingly mixing in herbs, spices, and other flavors for you. These added flavorings disguise the limited choices in canned bean varieties, with many brands sticking to black, red and white kidney, pinto, and garbanzo. But these are just the beginning of your options. One of the smaller local health-food stores in my area carries nearly 2 dozen different dried legumes.
- Cost. You’re likely to notice something else as you compare brands and labels: those with the fewest additional ingredients tend to cost more. The cans will still be cheaper than most of the other canned and boxed foods in that aisle, but you’ll get the best value from dried beans.
Rinsed versus Unrinsed
Rinsing has long been recommended for beans. By draining and rinsing canned beans before you use them, you can wash away a significant amount of sodium. Some of that rinsing has come into question with the trendiness of aquafaba, the liquid inside a can of cooked beans, primarily chickpeas. This brine is so starchy and easy to whip into a foam that it can be used as an egg replacement. But its fans seem to ignore what can be in that canned chickpea liquid: the very preservatives, additives, and salt they were so studiously rinsing away just a couple of years ago. If you’re skipping the rinsing to use the aquafaba, be sure to buy no-sodium, no-additive canned chickpeas.
Tradition says dried beans are dirty, can have chaff and pebbles mixed in, and should be rinsed before they’re soaked. That advice continues to this day, despite processing and packaging regulations. A brief rinse won’t hurt the beans, and ones that are broken or damaged may become more noticeable.
Soaked versus Unsoaked
When you switch to cooking with dried beans, the first thing you notice may not be affordability or variety: it may be time. Like sourdough bread or slow-cooker fruit butters, this isn’t effortful time; these are hours during which the beans do their thing while you do yours. But it does require thinking ahead.
Most recipes recommend soaking beans overnight and then cooking them for at least an hour. If you plan ahead, neither is a problem, because both time windows are almost entirely hands off and can happen in the background of your day or night. But when people are pressed for time, they look for shortcuts. And the first one is to shorten or skip the soak.
To soak or not to soak depends on the beans and the recipe. Black beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils have thin enough skins that they can take only a little longer to cook if they’re unsoaked, especially if they’re fresh. Beans that are older or have thicker skins do better with soaking.
Recipes that puree beans may also turn out fine without soaking or with a quick soak: throw the beans in a pot of water, heat it to a boil, and then turn off the heat and let the beans soak for an hour before rinsing and continuing with the cooking stage. But some recipes, including one I’ll share later this month, only work if the beans are soaked in cold water overnight. As a default, I recommend that you get in the habit of thinking ahead enough to rinse the beans, dump them in a pot, and cover them with cold water before you go to bed.
Stovetop versus Pressure Cooker
When it comes to cooking dried beans, the basic method is to set them on a pot on the stovetop with at least 3 times as much water as beans and let them simmer for at least an hour. As with the soaking decision, freshness is a big factor in the cooking time needed to make beans tender; older beans will take longer to soften. Although it seems you could keep dried beans forever, you’ll get the fastest results with those stored less than a year.
Even with fresh beans, you can shorten the cooking time by using a pressure cooker. Each brand of cooker operates differently, so check your manual for dried bean instructions.
Twice as Tasty
Although rinsing, soaking, and cooking are the places people usually look for shortcuts when handling dried beans, this month’s posts will consider time-saving tricks I find even more valuable. Next week, I’ll share my basic recipe for and variations on pot beans. This cooking style can apply to almost any type of bean and combines the cooking and seasoning steps. By cooking a big batch of these beans, you can divide them into numerous dishes—including black bean burgers that can be frozen for quick meals. This month, I’ll also share a recipe that skips the stovetop cooking entirely and results in an amazing falafel, again in patties that freeze well for later dinners. Red beans and ricely yours!
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