Kitchen DIY: Cooking Dried Beans
Though I’ll greedily inhale multiple bowls of plain pintos in their “pot liquor,” beans are generally regarded as not so special on their own, and therefore find their way into other dishes. Spanning the spectrum of colors, shapes, and sizes (peep the beauties from Rancho Gordo), beans are literally the foundation for a world’s worth of incredibly tasty recipes.
And if there’s one simple kitchen technique to have in your back pocket, it’s cooking a pot of beans.
Why should I do this?
In my opinion, beans — on their own or in a mixed dish — taste better cooked from dry. They need only a bit of forethought to soak several hours during the day or overnight, plus the time to boil. Truly low and slow makes for the ultimate pot of beans, and while the prep is predominantly hands-off, I occasionally can’t wait. Or I forget to soak. The pressure cooker is huge in this regard; though, I’m still finding my groove since you can’t readily open the lid to check for doneness. My secret to simple dried bean cookery: the “Parsons Method” a la Rancho Gordo — no pre-soak, a short stint on the stove, then into a hot oven for an hour or slightly more. The result is perfect every time. (Details in the recipe below.)
To call dried beans affordable is an overstatement. Let’s compare: canned beans (14 oz) cost you at least $0.79 each when not on sale; dried beans on the other hand can be as little as $0.97 for a 1-lb (16 oz) bag. Each bag, however, yields approximately 6 cups (48 oz) of beans after cooking — almost 3 1/2 cans worth. All tabbed and tallied, canned beans come out to $0.05 per ounce, whereas dried beans come out to $0.02 per ounce. So in a sense, dried beans would cost less than $0.25 “per can” — remember, that’s as opposed to $0.79.
Packed with protein, fiber, iron and B vitamins, research shows remarkably little nutritional difference between dried and canned, save one glaring exception: sodium. Some canned beans contain upwards of 600 mg of sodium per 1/2-cup (roughly 1/4 of the daily recommended limit for those without hypertension/high blood pressure).
Combining cost benefit + number of mouths this ludicrously cheap bag’s 8 cups of beans can feed + savings on sodium + better flavor and texture + a kind-of-shout-out from Bogey in what’s considered one of history’s top cinematic features… well, dried beans more than make their case.
Besides, there’s something almost magical about the transformation of a lowly dried bean into one that’s rich, plump, and amazingly flavorful with only water and time.
What’s in them for me?
In the company of split peas and chickpeas, chana dal and lentils, beans fall into the pulse category. Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family, and are considered some of the most nutritionally complete among all plant foods. Pulses, including beans of many varieties, have been cultivated by humans for thousands of years, and probably grew wild for hundreds of thousands of years before that.
All beans — canned or dried — are low in calories, contain zero cholesterol or trans fats, and are virtually free of saturated fat. A good source of plant-based lean protein, beans range from about 7 to 9 grams per serving. Given this fact, a 1/2-cup serving of beans counts as 2 servings: 1 vegetable + 1 protein. With the exception of edamame, aka green soybeans, most beans lack 1 or 2 of the 9 essential amino acids. Consuming beans with another plant protein* (e.g., rice or other whole grains, quinoa, seeds, nuts or dairy) provides the full complement of amino acids and results in nutritional balance.
In general beans are rich in zinc, copper, phosphorous, magnesium, and manganese, with similar amounts across the varietal spectrum. One mineral that differs dramatically is iron. Black and pinto beans have less than half the amount of iron found in white beans, while kidney beans find themselves roughly in the middle. On the vitamins side, think B for beans. They’re excellent sources of the B vitamins thiamin (B1) and folate — the latter being good for the heart and extremely important to pregnant women for development of a healthy baby; and good sources of vitamin B6 and riboflavin (B2).
Beans are a rich source of complex carbohydrates, mainly in the form of soluble fiber and resistant starch, which acts similar to insoluble fiber in that it’s not digested by the intestines. Research shows that regular intake of beans — all pulses, actually — may lower cholesterol levels, reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, and may improve mood for menopausal women. Looking at total dietary fiber, beans on average provide more than 30% of your recommended daily value, helping regulate digestion, stabilize blood glucose levels and potentially decrease insulin resistance, and also improve cardiovascular health. In conjunction with all that fiber, each serving’s fair amount of protein promotes sustained energy plus satiety, making it a smart choice for those looking to maintain or lose weight.
In general beans have high levels of antioxidants. Beans are also good sources of polyphenols called lignans, which offer antioxidant protection, may play a role in the prevention of osteoporosis, and can also act as phytoestrogens — beneficial plant-based compounds that may enhance lactation for breastfeeding mums. Dark colored beans in particular, including black, kidney, and other similarly hued versions, contain rich concentrations of plant pigments called anthocyanins that promote further antioxidant activity, and have beneficial effects on cardiovascular function and inflammation.
Let me use this space to re-emphasize: there is nothing wrong with canned beans. They’re an incredibly convenient staple to keep stocked in your pantry, and I always have a few varieties on hand. With nearly equal nutritional benefits to dried beans (excepting sodium), canned beans are great in a pinch to whip up delicious, healthy, well-balanced recipes and meals easily and quickly. Make it a point to choose those labeled “low-salt/sodium” or “no-salt/sodium added,” and if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, you may also want to look for “BPA-free.” Thought studies are ongoing, the FDA and other research groups have expressed concern about BPA leached from a can into its contents into the womb through a mother’s bloodstream, potentially disrupting normal fetal development. Regardless of a can’s claims, your best bet is always default to rinsing all canned beans in a colander or sieve under cold water until the liquid runs clear.
The most recent release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015) promotes beans as part of a healthy eating pattern, recommending adults aim for a 1/2-cup serving of cooked beans 5 to 6 times each week for maximum benefit.
That’s a total of 2.5 to 3 cups, and that’s a lot of beans. Even this dietitian falls short. Well short to be perfectly honest. We get maybe 1 to 2 of the 1/2-cup servings weekly, a couple more if leftovers become hummus or another bean dip. If you’re like us, there’s room for more beans on the menu. Scroll to the end of the post for how to cook a pot of dried beans both the traditional and “Parsons” methods, then check out the links below for novel ways to test your new mad bean skills!
+ Frijoles de olla — pinto “pot beans” with their incredible liquid, aka “liquor”
+ North Indian/Punjabi rajma — kidney beans (rajma) masala stew
+ Pintos and peaches come together in cast-iron skillet summer chilli cornbread cobbler
+ Short-cut Italian wedding soup with greens, chicken sausage and cannellini beans
+ Nigel Slater’s coconut-y chickpeas with pumpkin, lemongrass and coriander
+ Totally snackable crispy baked chickpeas
+ Mung beans get some love in Heidi’s aromatic spinach and coconut stew
These days I’m craving a return to simplicity in a too cluttered world. A pot of beans is about as simple as it gets in the kitchen — nutritious, hearty, and soul-satisfying to boot. Now that’s worth a hill of beans.
Tell me… What’s your favorite bean, or favorite bean dish?
- 1 cup (1/2 lb) dried beans (see HGN Notes)
- 2 fresh or dried bay leaves, optional
- 1/2 tsp salt
- PARSONS METHOD: Preheat the oven to 350° F with a rack in the middle.
- Place the beans in a colander or sieve, and pick through to remove any broken beans, stones or other foreign matter. Rinse well and drain. Pour the beans into a Dutch oven or medium-sized oven-safe saucepan with a lid, and add 3 cups cold water. Over medium-high heat, bring the contents of the pot to a rolling simmer, then immediately turn off the heat, cover, and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake until the beans are tender and creamy, but not falling apart, 1 to 2 hours -- cooking time can vary depending on the age and quality of your beans.
- At the 1-hour mark, remove the pot from the oven, stir in the 1/2 tsp salt, and begin testing for doneness. The aroma should be heady, but the true test is to sample. Cooking can be uneven, so give the pot another stir and snatch a couple beans, which should be tender and creamy, but not falling apart.
- When the beans are done to your liking, drain (reserving the liquid if you like; see HGN Notes), and use immediately or set aside to cool. Store any leftover cooked beans in a sealed container in the refrigerator up to 5 days. Beans also freeze well in sealed containers or freezer-safe zipper top bags for upwards of 6 months.
- TRADITIONAL METHOD: Place the beans in a colander or sieve, and pick through to remove any broken beans, stones or other foreign matter. Rinse well and drain. Pour the beans into a large, non-reactive bowl, and add cold water to cover by at least 2 inches (giving them room to expand) -- discard any beans that float to the surface. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the beans sit at room temperature for at least 4 hours, up to overnight. If your kitchen is quite warm, consider refrigerating the beans during the rest.
- [If you forget to soak/don’t have time, you can do a "quick-soak." Place the beans in a Dutch oven or medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid, and pour over 1 1/2 cups cold water. Bring to a rolling boil, and cook 2 minutes. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand at room temperature 1 hour before cooking.]
- If you completed the overnight soak, transfer the beans with their liquid into a Dutch oven or medium-large heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid. If you completed the "quick-soak," keep the beans where they are and proceed to the next step.
- You will notice that the beans plumped up significantly, so add enough additional water to cover the beans by 1 inch. Add the bay leaves, if using. Bring the contents of the pot to a rolling boil over medium-heat; cook 5 minutes, then reduce the heat as low as necessary to still allow for the occasional simmering burble. Cover the pot, and gently simmer until the beans are tender -- as little as 1 hour or as long as 3 or even 4 hours, depending on the freshness and quality of your beans. If at any time the liquid in the pot gets too low or evaporates entirely, simply add a bit of warm water (cold water is said to toughen the skin).
- At the 1-hour mark, add the 1/2 tsp salt and begin testing for doneness. The aroma should be heady, but the true test is to sample. Cooking can be uneven, so give the pot a stir and snatch a couple beans, which should be tender and creamy, but not falling apart.
- When done, drain the beans (reserving the liquid if you like; see HGN Notes), and use immediately or set aside to cool. Store any leftover cooked beans in a sealed container in the refrigerator up to 5 days. Beans also freeze well in sealed containers or freezer-safe zipper top bags for upwards of 6 months.
Consider saving the cooking liquid, aka bean broth, aka "pot liquor." (I prefer the latter because it's the most fun.) If you drain the beans, this pot liquor most easily becomes the base of soup. Alternatively, it can replace some or all of the water when cooking vegetables or grains, and to thin hummus or other bean-based dips and spreads. And then there's always that infamous classic: refried beans -- a mash of beans and their broth, fried with onions and oil or lard until slightly dried and crisping at the edges.
+ Bring extra flavor to the pot with aromatic veg and herbs, such as quarters of a peeled onion, 1 to 2 whole garlic cloves, a halved jalapeno, chopped carrot and/or celery, sprigs of fresh herbs, etc. Add these when you begin the final cooking phase.
+ Meaty items are classic add-ins in some areas of the world, and can include a ham hock, or chopped bacon or pancetta. Again, add these when you begin the final cooking phase.
+ Acidic or sugary ingredients like tomatoes, citrus fruit/juice, vinegar, or sweeteners like molasses or honey should go in closer to the end of cooking, as they can negatively affect the cooking time, flavor, and/or texture of your beans.
Recipe adapted from Heirloom Beans: Recipes from Rancho Gordo.
*Contrary to previous thinking, complementary proteins do not actually need to be eaten together within the same meal — only within the same day. To make a complete protein with beans and other legumes, pair with grains, nuts or seeds (great matches) or dairy foods (good match).
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