All about beans
Whether stacked high in plastic bags or lined up in cans in your pantry, beans are about as nutritious and economical as dinner gets — they can also meet a variety of dietary needs. They are gluten-free and high-fibre, and many bean recipes are inherently vegan and vegetarian, which is a boon whether you don’t eat meat at all, you’re trying to eat less meat or just don’t have any around.
Whether you’re cooking canned beans for the first time or are an old hand at soaking and simmering dried ones, the guide below will help you along on your journey to the perfect pot.
Before you start
Check for a harvest date: Dried beans last up to two years, but are best cooked within a year of harvest. If you’ve ever cooked beans for hours without their softening, it’s probably because you used old beans. (Hard, or mineral-rich, water or an acidic ingredient in the pot can also slow cooking.) Always rinse beans before cooking, and check for rocks, twigs and leaves.
Leave time for soaking and cooking: If you’re short on time, choose lentils, which cook quickly and don’t require soaking.
Consider your beans: Different beans do different things: Some, like lentils and split peas, are great for falling apart into a soup or dahl. Others, like black-eyed peas, chickpeas and kidney beans, hold their shape, making them ideal for salads. As a general rule, 1 cup dried beans makes about 3 cups cooked.
Soaking your beans
Soaking helps beans cook faster and more evenly, and it can also make them easier to digest. You can soak beans overnight, quickly, or not at all, just choose the method that best fits your schedule. And keep in mind that you never need to soak legumes like lentils or split peas.
Soak overnight: To soak beans the traditional way, cover them with water by 2 inches, and add 2 tablespoons kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon fine sea salt) per kilo of beans. (Salting the soaking water helps break down the beans’ skins, helping them cook even faster.) Let them soak for at least 4 hours or up to 12. Drain the beans and rinse before using.
Soak quickly: Another option is quick-soaking, which yields a pot of beans in a few hours without sacrificing flavour or texture. Put the beans in a pot on the stove, cover with water by 2 inches, add salt if you like and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let them soak for an hour. Drain, rinse and proceed with your recipe.
Or don’t soak at all: Here’s a secret — you don’t actually have to soak your beans. Simply add them to the pot and plan to cook your recipe for another hour or two beyond the usual cooking time. Keep an eye on the level of liquid, adding more if the beans look dry. There should always be liquid covering your beans as they cook.
Cooking dried beans
Once you’ve soaked your beans (or not), they’re ready for some heat. Simmering them on the stove is the time-honoured cooking method, but you can also prepare them in a slow cooker.
On the stovetop: Place your beans in your pot and cover them with at least 2 inches of water, and turn the heat to low. Stir them gently and occasionally, never letting them hit a strong boil, which can burst their skins and make them mushy or unevenly cooked. Depending upon the variety, dried beans will cook quickly (about 15 minutes for red lentils) or slowly (up to three to four hours for un-soaked chickpeas or lima beans).
In the slow cooker: Cover your beans with 2 inches of water or broth and salt to taste, and toss any aromatics you like into the pot. Set the machine to low and cook until the beans are done, usually three to six hours. If you are cooking kidney beans, you need to boil them on the stove for 10 minutes first before adding them to the slow cooker. This makes them much more digestible.
You’ll know your beans are done when they’re tender and cooked through to the centre (but not mushy). Let them cool in their cooking liquid.
Preparing canned beans
If canned beans are what you have on hand, there’s little faster or more convenient.
Many canned beans lack the depth of flavour of dried beans. If you can, buy canned beans that have salt in the ingredient list. They’re a lot more flavourful than unsalted beans, which can taste flat and bland. Ideally, the ingredient list should be just beans, water and salt. As always, the fewer ingredients on a label, the better.
After you’ve opened them, give the beans a rinse. (If you’re using chickpeas, you may want to save the bean liquid.)
When using canned beans add plenty of seasonings and flavours, and enough salt to taste. (Be judicious if you’re starting with those salted beans.) You’ll also want to use less liquid, since you’re cooking them for a shorter amount of time. Cooking time will vary, depending on your beans and whether you use a slow cooker or stovetop, but, in general, canned beans take about 20 to 30 minutes to absorb all the flavours in the pot. Taste whatever you’re making as you go. When the beans taste tender and delicious, they’re done.
Storing your beans
How and where you store your beans, both before and after cooking, can drastically affect flavour and texture.
Keep uncooked dried beans in a dark, cool cabinet for up to a year. They really go downhill after two years, so throw out all your old beans, especially if you can’t remember when you bought them.
Cooked beans are best stored in their cooking liquid in the refrigerator for up to five days. Or drain the beans and toss them with a little oil, salt and pepper (or a vinaigrette) before chilling. This both preserves them and flavours them. Beans can turn mushy in the freezer, but if you do want to try to freeze them, do so in their cooking liquid.