India is a food-industry insider who enjoys cooking, eating, and sharing food-related insights with others.
A Little Attention to "Bean" Detail
Beans may not be gourmet food, but they can surely be really good food. Everyone has eaten beans. But, not everyone has eaten really good beans. The ones that have nice texture aren't mushy, and the skin is tender, making for a welcomed mouthful in every bite. Did you know that all of these good qualities begin at the local grocery store? That's right, how you choose your beans is as important as how you cook them—which we will find takes just a little attention to bean detail.
How to Buy the Best Quality Beans
Finding the freshest beans solves many of the frustrations that come with cooking them. A little known fact is that you should cook your beans within a one year period from the time they are harvested. But, how do you know how old a bean is when it is sold in bulk? It is as simple as taking a look at them. Beans that have been around for too long will be cracked, chipped, and can even be split open.
Finding local beans, or, at least, beans grown as close as possible to where you live, is the obvious solution to finding the freshest batch. You will discover that any of the odd or musty taste some older beans offer will be absent from the more local choice—a difference you can only detect by tasting. Remember, just like anything you buy to eat, the longer it sits on the shelf, the more flavor slips away.
However, finding local fresh dried beans could be a bit of a chore. Some areas may not have bean farms or don't provide a great local environment to grow the legumes we seek. But, if you familiarize yourself with when they are picked (harvested), buy right from your local farmer, or read packaging that offers information as to where and when your beans were processed, then you can enhance your bean experience significantly.
When none of the fresh bean options seem to be optimal for you, a simple way to find the freshest beans in your day could be to buy in bulk. But, only buy from a grocer with a high turnover. The more beans the grocer sells, the more often he has to purchase them, which means they are always fresh.
The Importance of Adding Fat
The bean is a carbohydrate ninja that is high in fiber and protein. These powerhouses of cholesterol extraction can taste a bit bland if left to their own flavor profiles, therefore, it is best when we add a little fat to the mix. To choreograph the most flavor into your bean recipe, use a couple tablespoons of lard or extra-virgin olive oil (I prefer olive oil because it will help your body extract bad LDL cholesterol with the help of the fiber in your beans). Simmering your beans in fat causes the starches to smooth out and makes for a great flavor enhancement!
What are some other ways to infuse flavor into our bean dishes? A very common way to add a rich smokey base is by dropping a couple of smoked ham hocks into the water while your beans cook. This method is very inexpensive and you can build a very flavorful broth.
Crispy-cooked bacon works beautifully as well, but add the bacon after the beans have cooked. (Bacon contains a lot of salt which can toughen the bean skins as they cook.)
Add Caramelized Vegetables
Another great flavor adding technique is to sauté some diced onion, garlic, celery and carrots (and mushrooms on occasion) in a separate pan until they are good and caramelized. Once the onion mixture is nice and dark, deglaze the pan with a bit of water (or sodium free broth). Scrape the bottom of the pan to get all of the brown bits off and bring to a boil again. Now, turn off the heat and add the sautéed vegetables and liquid to your bean pot and cook the mixture with your beans. The brown bits that are created by the sauté add a super tasty punch of flavor. Remember, don't add salt until your beans are cooked through (this includes your sautéed vegetable mixture).
Reduce Gas by Slow Cooking
Along with our carbo ninja comes a less comfortable condition: gas buildup. Beans can cause some difficulty with digestion. When they pass through our lower intestine, bacteria breaks down what our digestive enzymes cannot, causing gas. But, the temptation to over soak our beans to combat this gas problem will remove much of the nutrients and flavor.
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Instead, slow cook your beans. This breaks down the carbohydrates into digestible sugars. I have discovered over many years that it is important to cook beans completely and thoroughly over a very low heat.
What You Think Really Does Matter!
Herbs That Reduce Gas
Digestion concerns have been dealt with in some cultures with the use of herbs. For example, East Indians add turmeric or ginger, and Mexicans cooks use epazote, an herb that is used in Mexican cuisine for cooking, as well as for medicinal purposes. Epazote is poisonous in large quantities, but it is used in moderation to help relieve abdominal discomfort (gassiness) that can come from eating beans. A few other choices to consider:
- Basil (the king of herbs)
- Asafetida: a pungent herb used as an antidote for flatulence and is also prescribed for respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough.
You can dice, julienne, or chop your herbs. But, leaving fresh herbs on their sprigs during cooking renders a much higher level of flavor.
6 Tips (Reminders)
- Cook on a gentle simmer and cook thoroughly.
- Cook in a wide pot.
- Each bean needs room to cook without being crushed.
- Hard boiling your beans will cause them to over-expand and split open.
- Peel and add whole carrots, celery, onions, garlic and fennel (rough chop your fennel).
*Do not pre-soak lentils. They are an exception because they cook very quickly.
The ABCs of Cooking the Best Beans
a. Sort beans on a baking sheet. Pick out clumps of dirt, small stones, and discolored split or cracked beans.
b. Rinse them in a colander under cold running water.
c. Soak dried beans in cold water, covered by at least three inches, for a minimum of six hours or overnight. (The longer beans soak, the less time they take to cook. But remember, if over-soaked, you will loose some of the flavor, and more importantly, the nutrients).
d. Discard soaking water, rinse, and drain beans again.
e. Put beans in a heavy-bottomed, oven-safe pot. A wide pot, not a deep and narrow one, is the best pot for cooking beans because you want them to cook evenly without getting crushed.
f. Add cold water to cover the beans by two inches. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn down to a low simmer. Add seasonings. (I do not recommend adding salt until the beans have cooked through because it can cause the outer skin to become tough and the texture is unpleasant on the tongue).
g. Either simmer very gently on the stove top, or cover and bake in a 300°F oven until the beans are tender. Sample several beans before you make this determination because they may cook unevenly. I do a 5-bean test that has proven effective. Beans may take anywhere from 40 minutes to 2½ hours to cook, depending on the type and how old they are. Check them as they cook. If the water level has fallen below the beans, add boiling water until they are covered again.
h. Remove them from the heat and remove the lid from the pot. This is when I add salt (the beans are cooked through so the salt won't cause any toughening of the bean skins). Allow beans to cool in their liquid. As they sit, the beans absorb the salt slowly. Check the salt level again after about 30 minutes. As they cool, the beans may swell a little more and their texture may improve.
Do not presoak lentils because they cook very quickly — sometimes in as little as 20 or 30 minutes. For lentils, proceed with the basic cooking method outlined, while omitting the soaking step. When the lentils have finished cooking, drain them immediately. Do not allow lentils to cool in their cooking liquid because they will continue cooking and become very mushy.
NOTE: The above method, which employs soaking before cooking, works well for dried beans that require a long cooking time, such as black-eyed peas, kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, cannellini beans, cranberry beans, and pinto beans. (Not lentils).
- Uncooked, packaged dry beans can be stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry area.
- If kept for more than 12 months, packaged dry beans will lose moisture and may require longer cooking times.
- Canned beans may be stored up to 12 months in their original sealed cans.
- Cooked beans may be refrigerated, in a covered container, for up to five days.
- Cooked beans may be frozen for up to 6 months.
One 15-ounce can of beans
One and one-half cups cooked beans, drained
One pound dry beans
Six cups cooked beans, drained
One pound dry beans
Two cups dry beans
One cup dry beans
Three cups cooked beans, drained