A bean plant produces its seeds in pods. The seeds are what we refer to as “beans.” To produce Dried Beans, the bean pods are left (usually) to fully mature on the plant, and sometimes longer as well, to dry out. The pods are then opened up, and the actual beans extracted, and dried further if necessary. The pods are discarded or used as animal fodder. In large-scale, commercial growing operations, matured bean plants are cut down near the ground, and left to dry out in the fields in the sun. They are then gathered, and sent to a threshing machine that separates the beans out of the pods. Processing machines then wash, mill, polish and pack the beans into large bulk bags for wholesale. Brand-name purchasers of the large bulk-bags then rebag the beans into smaller bags for sale to consumers.
Dried Beans are a very efficient way of storing up food, and protein-high food at that, without requiring any energy to either process them for storage (as in canning), or to keep them stored (as in freezing.)
You can buy them dried loose in bulk or in bags, or already cooked up in cans and ready to use. The advantage to cans is time, and you don’t need to turn on your stove. However, there are more advantages to cooking them from dried:
- You save money. Lots. Particularly if you use a pressure cooker to reduce fuel costs;
- Home-cooked beans can be healthier. Most people probably don’t even realize that a 1/2 cup of canned beans can use up 1/3 of your daily (US) recommended sodium intake;
- The texture of dried beans cooked up at home is usually better than that of canned;
- You feel like you’ve really cooked something, even though you just plonked Beans and water on your stove. Just enough work from you that you feel you actually cooked something, but not so involved that it actually takes up any of your time;
- You get the stock from cooking the Beans. See further below;
Still, there’s a psychological barrier your first time out: that it’s complicated, or a lot of work, or takes forever, and none of these is true.
To prepare them for eating, the dried Beans must be first rehydrated with water — either by soaking in advance or as part of a cooking process (Dried Beans that weren’t pre-soaked don’t do any cooking for the first 40 to 60 minutes of being in a simmering pot of water on a stove, they just rehydrate during that time.) Then, they are actually cooked through simmering to make them tender. Generally, the method for simmering used nowadays is in a pot of water on top a stove; historically, the beans would have been set in a crock of water on the edge of a hearth.
At a minimum, you can get away with whacking dried Beans and water together in a pot, and let simmer for a few hours. You don’t have to do any further work; the water does it for you. Just check occasionally that the beans remain covered with a generous amount of water at all times.
That being said, traditionally in North America and Europe the dried beans are let stand to soak first before cooking. However, a conversation is emerging in the cooking world about whether soaking beans in advance improves the end-result. We’ve covered that in a separate entry called “Soaking Beans”, but both sides of the debate are agreed that soaking beans in water does save you on average at least 45 minutes in cooking time — and thus cooking fuel costs. There’s also a debate about the role of salt in cooking beans; see separate entry on Brining Beans.
However you cook your Beans — slow-cooker, pressure-cooker, or plain old pot of boiling water, Beans give off a fabulous stock. The 1976 cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen was one of the first to champion bean stock; other cooks seemed to start discovering it at the start of the 2000’s.
When you drain the cooked Beans, place a colander into a large bowl or Dutch oven, and then dump the Beans into the colander so that you catch the stock. Then freeze the stock, preferably in deli-sized containers so that you can thaw small portions as you need them. Bean stock is a tasty addition to gravies, soups, stews and sauces, and don’t forget the nutrient boost. Why on earth would you pour it down the drain, and then make a special trip out later to spend money on dried, salty stock cubes?
You can buy Dried Beans such as Kidney Beans, Black Beans, etc already cooked and ready to use in your recipe. Most cooks would say, though, that the home-cooked ones taste better, have better texture, are way lower in sodium, and cost a fraction of the price.
To make canned beans, a processor buys dried beans in large quantities. The beans are then hydrated. Some processors might do this through a long soak at room temperature, but usually, they are usually given a quick, hot-soak because that reduces time, and helps shorten time windows during which any bacterial growth might happen. The beans are then blanched in very hot water, and packed into cans along with water and salt. Other ingredients might include a firming agent such as calcium chloride, and sugar. The cans are then sealed, and put into a huge steam-powered pressure cooker called a “retort” to actually cook the beans right in the can, which is why canned beans have that thick “gunk” on them.
Canned Beans contain a lot of salt. The food processors aren’t adding all this salt for no reason; they’re trying to prevent botulism, basically, so that they don’t kill off their customers because beans are a low-acid food and as such would be susceptible. Still, it typically works out to be about 400 – 600 mg of sodium per half-cup (as of 2011, The British Food Standards Agency recommends an adult maximum of 2.4g of sodium a day; the American Heart Association’s daily maximum is 1.5g sodium), so even that “so small as to be fictional” portion size works out to be a hefty chunk of your daily allowance. Draining and rinsing canned beans will help to rinse some of the salt away.
Don’t try to save the juice from tinned Beans; it is full of salt. Rinse the beans well in a colander before use.
If you are using the opened, drained Beans in a solid recipe such as a Pâté for instance, bear in mind that the canned beans will be soggier than beans cooked from scratch, so unless the recipe called for canned beans, you’ll need to compensate for that by adding a bit less liquid.
See separate entries on Soaking Beans, and Brining Beans.
Ideally, use dried beans within six months of buying them. Some say use them within one year of harvesting, but realistically, most of us have absolutely no way of knowing when this was. But with any luck, your store will have a quick turnover of stock, and the six month figure should easily be a safe margin to go by. If the dried beans are much older, you can have a devil of a time trying to soften the skins, even if you boil them for weeks on end: in this instance, an overnight soaking is definitely non-optional. As well, there is an old trick of a few pinches of baking soda in the simmering water — this can ruin dried beans in other circumstances, but it might be the way to go here for very old ones. You can cook up beans that you have been using for blind baking. But you’ll have to soak them forever, boil them forever, and you’ll end up with beans that have next-to-no nutritional value or taste, so it’s not worth the effort and cooking fuel cost.
Dried beans are best simmered in a wide pot, so that they cook evenly. Dried beans have to be cooked until they are soft. Don’t even think about applying the “al dente” thing to them.
- Pitch a bay leaf in, if you have one handy;
- Use lots of water. Whatever else you believe or don’t believe about water and vegetables, it doesn’t apply to beans. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook until tender. Don’t boil the Beans, it will cause the skins to split. Check occasionally to make sure the Beans are still covered with water, if not, add more from a boiling kettle — if you didn’t pre-soak, be prepared to do this relatively soon;
- An old trick to tenderize Beans was adding baking soda to the water, but use this trick with caution; it can make beans mooshy and destroy nutrients in the Beans. (Some older Baked Bean recipes use this trick, but then, those recipes have taken the softening factor into account and rely on it);
- Dashes of something acidic such as vinegar, lemon juice, beer or wine added after cooking and draining heighten the taste of beans, and of legumes in general. In doing so you are addressing one of the four taste areas of the tongue. See separate entry on Adjusting Taste.
The most common complaints around the cooking of dried beans — besides the “gasiness” after eating them — are to do with their degree of doneness. Just as some people seem jinxed when cooking rice, some seem jinxed when cooking up dried beans. The beans either end up too “crunchy” or too “mooshy.” Mooshy is not a problem if you are aiming for mashed-up refried beans, but it’s a problem if you are making Baked Beans, as everyone is going to compare the texture to the perfect texture of canned baked beans.
The foam that you see during soaking and sometimes during cooking is, apparently, owing to the indigestible sugars leeching out.
Beans absorb the flavour of what they are cooked with. You can add to the cooking water chunks of celery, onion or carrot, or a few bay leaves. Some kind of meat added to the cooking water, such as a pork bone or piece of pork, will both flavour the Beans and add fat to the water, which helps to tenderize the Beans. For a vegetarian approach, add a tablespoon of olive oil to the cooking water instead. Fat seems to go well with beans: the New Englanders added pieces of pork saltback, the Tuscans added olive oil; the Mexicans added lard.
To flavour beans, smoky ham hocks work great. Use 1 ham hock per 1 pound (450g) of Dried Beans.
Pressure Cooker Beans
Some people feel that the jury is still out on whether it is worth cooking beans in a pressure cooker. In terms of how long the burner on the stove has to be actually on, the active cooking time is about half or less, depending on the dried beans you are cooking — but then you have to let the pressure cooker sit off the heat for a while longer. It’s no extra work to do that, but at the end of it even if you don’t actually save any time, you will save on cooking fuel.
When pressure cooking beans you have to put lots and lots of water in (remember, you can’t peek in.) When adding water, keep under the safety limits prescribed in your pressure cooker manual (many manuals seem to say no more than a third full of water and dried beans.) Beans rehydrate while cooking, and soak up a lot of the water, especially if they haven’t been pre-soaked.
Certain Beans such as black beans, lima and soya beans can clog the steam vent with foam, which you won’t want to happen. Some pressure cooker manuals give these guidelines:
- Don’t fill more than 1/3 full to keep the foam well away from the rocker at the top;
- Add a tablespoon of oil — this prevents loose skins from floating free and clogging up the cooker’s valve;
- Don’t leave the pressure cooker unattended until it is off the heat and in the resting stage. If the rocker stops jiggling or emitting steam, you have foam or bean skins blocking the valve. Remove from the heat immediately, and cool it right away in a sink of cold water. When the pressure cooker can be opened, do so and finish cooking the beans in a normal pot of water. If a valve is blocked, it has to be thoroughly cleaned or it will just block again.
There are many converts to cooking beans in a pressure cooker, but just as many people still prefer a pot of boiling water because it gives them more control. With a traditional simmering method you can see if the beans want more water, you can mash one from time to time to see if they are ready and then when they are, stop cooking them right away. And as for the time savings of simmering versus pressure-cooking, well, while the beans are simmering away in a regular pot you can do whatever you please. However, the savings on cooking fuel are disputed by no one.
Beans and farting
Beans contain complex sugars called oligosaccharides that normal digestive enzymes in the upper intestine can’t process. The sugars pass unprocessed into our lower intestines where there is a bacteria population that can eat these sugars, in effect fermenting them and producing carbon dioxide gas as a waste product.
Mature dried Beans contain the most oligosaccharides. Young fresh peas and snap beans are the least offensive legumes to eat. Some say that lima beans and navy beans — as in good old baked beans — produce the most gas. The gas itself is odourless. But other foods that you eat along with them have their own aromas as they are digested, and this is what you smell. Members of the onion family including leeks and garlic contain sulphurs that can transform the odourless gas into something different altogether.
Some people say that soaking and changing the soaking water several times, and then cooking in fresh water, and then replacing the water half-way through cooking helps to leach out the gas-producing sugars. The science is that the oligosaccharides hydrate more quickly than other compounds in the beans, so are more quickly and easily drawn into the water than those. Most people, however, say that in actual practice this makes no appreciable difference; you’re just as well to don a grass hoolah skirt and dance around the stove. And you won’t want to do this if you were planning on saving the flavourful, nutrient-rich stock from the Beans.
In Indian cuisine, it is believed that adding garlic and ginger helps reduce the gas. Some people say that when Beans are a regular part of your diet, gas tends to be less of a problem because your stomach develops enzymes to process the oligosaccharides. They advise that starting out with 1/2 cup of cooked Beans a day for a few months helps your stomach to get used to them. If you stop eating Beans daily and don’t have them again for a long interval, you apparently have to start developing the enzyme all over again. It’s difficult to know what the truth of this is: whether your stomach gets used to the Beans, or if you get used to being “windy”. Some people say they have tried this daily Bean eating routine for up to a year, but never progressed past the stage of getting kicked out of bed at night by their nearest and dearest.
Bean products which are already fermented, such as black bean sauce, tofu, tempeh, etc, lose their oligosaccharide sugars during processing and so don’t cause this flatulence.
As a rough rule of thumb, 1 cup of beans, either dried, or cooked and drained, weighs 6 oz / 170g (if you’re wondering how 1 cup of both dried and cooked beans can weigh the same, given that cooked beans have absorbed water and are heavier, it’s because the cooked beans have expanded with the water, meaning that fewer of them can fit in a cup. The amount that does happen to fit into a cup happens to weigh the same as the greater number of dried beans that will fit into the cup.)
1 cup dry beans = 2 1/2 cups cooked
1 pound (450g) dry beans = 2 1/2 cups dry beans = 6 cups cooked
2 cups cooked beans, drained = 14oz = 400g
When you cook beans from dried, you’re best to cook far more than you need for the current meal. Cooked beans freeze really well. Freeze them in deli-sized containers so that you have control over how much you thaw at once. They thaw really quickly in a dish or sink of hot water, or if you are putting them into a soup or stew, you can just throw them in half-thawed and let the heat of the stew do the rest.
Freezing beans lets you have beans ready whenever you want, without having to resort to tinned beans.
Beans will clump when they are frozen, though they thaw back into individual beans. If you want to prevent this, toss them lightly with a very small amount of oil.
Bittman, Mark. Rethinking Canned Beans. New York Times. 22 July 2009.
Clarke, Melissa. A Good Appetite; Secrets of the Bean Pot. New York Times. 30 March 2011.
Harold McGee on Salt. New York Times. 9 August 2009. Retrieved May 2011 from http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/09/harold-mcgee-on-salt/
Rastogi, Nina. How To Buy the Greenest Beans. Slate Magazine. 16 June 2009. Retrieved July 2012 from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2009/06/how_to_buy_the_greenest_beans.html
Riley, Gillian. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Oxford University Press. 2007. page 47.
|↑1||In large-scale, commercial growing operations, matured bean plants are cut down near the ground, and left to dry out in the fields in the sun. They are then gathered, and sent to a threshing machine that separates the beans out of the pods. Processing machines then wash, mill, polish and pack the beans into large bulk bags for wholesale. Brand-name purchasers of the large bulk-bags then rebag the beans into smaller bags for sale to consumers.|