Dried beans are one of the few food products that are cheap and durable enough to also double as childhood craft supplies. But they are good for more than gluing to your turkey themed collage or for filling tiny sacks of potatoes in your latest diorama; dried beans can and should have a starring role in many a thrifty meal. Did I mention that they are highly nutritious and also quite tasty?
So… all of this begs the question: why don’t more people cook dried beans? Well, there are a few pitfalls you can run into: mushy or grainy beans, beans that won’t cook no matter how long you boil them. And then we also have, as Harold McGee calls it in On Food and Cooking, “the problem of legumes and flatulence.” (At this point in my reading, I could not help but giggle both from childish amusement at the word “flatulence” and out of deep satisfaction that I have a book that directly addresses this issue.) But there are a myriad of ways to combat beans’ difficulties: soaking the beans overnight, soaking with baking soda (but not too much or they’ll taste soapy and bitter), soaking with salt (but this can make the beans grainy), pressure cooking, long cooking at a low temperature (but be careful if you’re at a high altitude). All of this conditional and contradictory advise can be enough to make you reach for what suddenly seems like a very reasonably priced can of beans.
But don’t worry, I’m going to try to make some practical sense out of all of this advise, so roll your sleeves up and get ready to cook some beans! I’m going to broadly group beans into four categories and will address each with additional posts, further relevant information and (of course) recipes. Small beans (like lentils) cook relatively quickly and do not need to be soaked ahead of time. The trick to cooking small beans is to fully cook them while not letting them get mushy. Large beans (kidney beans, black eyed peas) need to be soaked and cooked for a longer period of time. The trick with them is to get them cooked all the way through and have a soft, creamy texture. And split beans (such as split peas) are different altogether, with the outer shell of the bean removed they easily dissolve into a puree. Lastly, soy beans could be part of the large bean group, but they are different enough in their preparation and versatility to warrant their own category. So I shall begin a legume themed odyssey and make my way through all four types of beans and try to make some practical sense of how to turn humble beans into delicious foodstuffs.
But first, I’ll outline a few of the key techniques and common recommendations of bean cookery that will help you understand how beans cook, and why your recipes call for certain techniques or ingredients.
1. Cooking times.
Just a warning: they might be long (like hours) and they might vary, by a lot. It’s easy to forget that these dried little suckers are produce. Yes, dried produce, but they are plants nonetheless. And just like your apple pie will taste different from year to year based on the apple crop, your beans might cook differently from batch to batch, based on the crop. Watch out that your beans are not too old, while they might look and smell the same for years very old beans can take much longer to cook. So when you’re cooking be prepared to test the beans for doneness, and don’t panic if they’re not done yet, just add more cooking liquid and increase the cooking time.
Beans have lots of good-for-ya proteins and carbohydrates in them. But they’ve also got a few carbohydrates we humans are not good at digesting. And when we eat them the digestive process can take a comical turn. There are a lot of ways to get rid of these undesirable carbohydrates, but it depends very much on the type of bean and how you’re cooking it. Many recipes list salt and baking soda as ways to cut down on the gas, which is only sort of true. They help beans cook faster, and a long cooking will break down the indigestible carbohydrates. In my book the most important thing you can do on this account is to never, never undercook your beans. Trust me on this one.
There are two reasons to soak beans. First it decreases the cooking time. Second some of the indigestible carbohydrates in beans leach out into the soaking water, then you can toss the water and have less gas-inducing beans. But (as always) the whole picture is not that simple. When you toss out the soaking water, you also toss out lots of good nutrients and flavor. Welcome to the complicated trade-offs to balance while cooking beans. I usually soak, and then cook thoroughly with the soaking liquid.
3. Baking Soda & Salt.
Soaking or cooking beans with baking soda decreases their cooking time. But use it sparingly, too much will taste terrible. Salt also decreases the cooking time, but salt also reacts with the proteins in the bean to make them firm. This can be a good thing (and help to keep your lentils from disintegrating) or it can be a bad thing (making your kidney beans have a grainy texture).
4. Acid, Sugar & Calcium.
All of these ingredients increase the cooking time of beans. So if you’re boiling beans add tomatoes, lemon juice, wine, and vinegar after the beans have reached their desired consistency. Again there’s an exception: if you are going to cook beans for a really, really long time (like baked beans) then these ingredients will keep your beans firm, when they would otherwise turn to mush.