Beans are awesome things. They are an incredibly cheap, low-fat and low-calorie source of high-quality protein with lots of fiber; and because they’re a complex carbohydrate, they won’t send your blood sugar level spiking a couple of hours after your meal. There are hundreds of varieties, and with so many ways to prepare them, beans offer something for everyone. And did I mention hummus?
Now, I’ll cop to the fact that I occasionally use canned beans, which can’t be beat for convenience. But there are a number of good reasons to pass the cans at the grocery store and head to the bulk section for some dried beans.
The first is cost. Beans are grown worldwide, and in most places, they are likely to be the least expensive protein available. Buying them dried is quite a bit more economical than getting them in cans, which, along with the water they contain, are very heavy, and you pay for the cost of transporting all that weight in the price that you pay at the store. Dried beans generally require less packaging, too, so when using them, you’re also avoiding many hidden costs (to the planet and landfill).
There are also health considerations. Prepared beans are often loaded with sodium, so if you’re watching your salt intake, cooking your own beans puts you in control of how much sodium will be in the final product. Further, using dried beans lets you avoid additives, such as the sweeteners, preservatives, coloring agents and firming agents that are often found in canned beans. Finally, there is that pesky lining in the cans-not all of them contain BPA, but who knows what’s in the non-BPA linings? Wouldn’t it be nice to just avoid them altogether?
Fortunately, cooking dried beans is unbelievably easy, takes up very little time and requires no recipe. Win, win, win!
Once they’re done, you can use them in all sorts of dishes-stew, chili, soup, dip and so on-or just serve them as is, drizzled or tossed with a basic dressing (like a vinaigrette-see last week’s column!); sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint, basil, rosemary, tarragon, oregano); or flavored with onions, scallions, garlic, Sriracha, Worcestershire, soy sauce, miso, crumbled bacon or sausage.
I like to make big batches of beans and then use a bit right away while packing the rest up into can-sized portions for later (they’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to a week and in the freezer for months). Generally, two-thirds a cup of dried beans will yield the equivalent of one can of beans.
Start with a quick sort and rinse. Get rid of whatever looks funky and anything that’s not a bean, then give them a quick wash.
Next comes a soak. This lessens your cooking time and is optional-in fact, it’s not recommended for smaller beans that cook quickly (so if you’re cooking lentils, black-eyed peas, mung beans or split peas, skip this step). Soaking does reduce cooking time for larger, harder beans. Put your beans in a pot, and add enough water so that the beans are submerged with 2-3 inches to spare. To soak while you sleep, cover the pot and let them just sit overnight (no heating needed). To soak while you’re awake, bring the pot to a boil, let it simmer for a few moments before turning off the heat, then cover the pot and let the beans sit for an hour or two.
Then cook. Drain the beans and cover again with water; bring to a gentle boil before turning down the heat and letting the beans simmer very lightly. Don’t boil vigorously, or the skins will break. Peek at them once in a while, adding water if needed while checking to see if they’re done to your taste. Once they reach a texture that you like, drain (you might want to save the cooking liquid if you’re making a stock or soup, or just to store the beans in if you’re not going to use them all right away).
If you’d like to add salt while the beans are cooking, that’s fine. You also might consider giving your beans some flavor by adding other things to the cooking pot. Tamar Adler and Mark Bittman both offer plenty of possibilities: vegetable scraps (a piece of carrot, celery, onion, garlic, leek or fennel), herbs or spices (parsley, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, chili powder) or smoked meat (a ham hock, pork chop, bone or sausage). You also could cook the beans in stock, beer, wine, juice or other liquids instead of water.
Keep in mind that adding an acid (like vinegar or lemon juice) to the water helps keep the bean skins intact-a good thing if you’ll be using them in a salad or chili. On the other hand, adding something alkaline (like baking soda) can break down the skins, yielding mushier or creamier beans that might work well if you’re making something like refried beans or hummus. Adding either is entirely optional.
And finally, a note about beans and gas: If you’re not used to eating foods high in fiber, it can help to add them gradually to your diet so that your body has time to adjust, and you’ll be less likely to suffer from the rather infamous effect that beans might have on your digestive system. Some people think that soaking the beans before cooking helps with this, as well. Or try adding a strip of kombu (available locally at Whole Foods and at the Asian Market on Hixson Pike) to your cooking water, as it is supposed to make beans more digestible (you don’t have to remove it after cooking-when I use it, I serve my beans with the kombu mixed in, as I think it tastes quite good, and it has a lovely texture). You can also add other natural de-gassers, such as anise, coriander or cumin, to your dish. But whatever you do, know that the gas is probably a good sign.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.