Monday, May 17, 2010

cooking dry beans

If you told me a few years ago (heck, even one year ago) that I'd soon be passionately (or not) writing on the topic of cooking dry beans, I'd have laughed at you. Yet here we are. :)

I've been discovering lately that many of the staples of convenience, like canned foods, aren't always the best option. And I love eating beans and other legumes.  (Legumes definitely win the sexiest word contest, I think.) They're extremely healthy, and they provide lots of protein, especially when we don't eat acres of meat. Sure, it's easy to rinse a can of black beans and dump them into a burrito.  But for lots of reasons, I have been purchasing dried beans and cooking them up myself.  Come to find out I really enjoy it, and it's super easy, and there's not much reason NOT to do it this way.

Yep, this takes longer, at least the first time around before you have a nice convenient frozen stash. Most beans need soaking overnight or at least a few hours.  I usually put them in water when I go to bed, or when I get up in the morning and they'll be ready to eat by dinnertime.  I've really savored the realization that not all meals need to be made in twenty minutes flat, with no prior consideration. Sure, quick cookin' is a necessity sometimes, and my life isn't nearly as full as others' are, especially parents. I don't know how they do it.  But I decided to start doing this based on a few "mommy blogs" that recommended it. And if moms can do it, I should be able to find the time too.  Here are some of the reasons I've decided to go this route:
  • Canned foods almost always contain bisphenol A (BPA), the dreaded synthetic chemical that the FDA is even starting to "suggest" we minimize our exposure to. (It has to be pretty bad for the FDA to say something.)  I've learned that it's found in many plastics and also in the liners of tin cans, from whence it leaches into foods, especially under high heat (like in the microwave for your plastic containers, or as the food is being canned at the factory).  BPA is a hormone disruptor, shown to cause problems including recurring miscarriages, male infertility and other reproductive problems, insulin resistance, greater risk of prostate cancer, and breast cancer.  One of the ways to reduce exposure is to minimize the use of canned foods.  It's also recommended to stop microwaving and dishwashing your plastics, as this also causes the chemical to leach into your food, especially if they are acidic like tomatoes. This could be a post all on its own!  (BPA is especially toxic to small children and fetuses.)
  • Canned foods often contain preservatives, super high amounts of salt, and other random junk that isn't food.  So the food itself, apart from being contaminated by industrial chemicals, isn't always the most nutritious, either.
  • Not surprisingly, the fresh stuff tastes way better. Like, a hundred times at least.
  • Not that canned beans were ever cost-prohibitive, but dried beans are a fraction of the price of canned. I can buy organic dry beans for about half of what I was paying for off-brand, nonorganic canned beans.
  • There is less waste. Even though our cans get recycled, I'd rather not use what we don't need. I take my tupperware containers (retired from the microwave and dishwasher and general use) to the bulk bins, fill'em up, and create NO garbage at all.
So the first step, after you've chosen your dry beans, is to lay them all out and pick them over. Take out anything that isn't a bean and throw it away.

Then refer to this super handy chart to find out whether they need soaking. Soaking the beans isn't 100% necessary for any bean, but it will cut down several hours of cooking time.  Put them in at least 3x as much water as you have beans, and put the container in the fridge. (If you are trying to make an exact amount of cooked beans, sorry, I can't help you. Cooked beans will usually be 2-3x the size of dry ones.  I never measure them though...I just use as many cooked beans as I need for that night's meal, and the rest get to be in leftovers or they go in the freezer.)

When the soaking is done, the water should be dumped out (don't use it to cook the beans in). The beans release a chemical into this water...the one that causes indigestion problems in humans. So this step can reduce your, ah, more sheepish moments related to bean consumption.

Then, after they've been drained, you put your nicely soaked (or not) beans into a pot of water for the proper amount of time (look at the chart again to see how long), and you will have the tastiest, least-gassiest, cheapest, least-waste-iest, BPA-free-est beans you ever ate. And isn't that what we all want, deep down?

At least with black beans, you can definitely keep the cooking broth after you've taken out the cooked beans. Taste it, and reduce it down in the pot if you think it's too watery. Black bean broth is very dark and black and tasty, and you can use it to make a killer black bean/Mexican soup base. (I freeze broth in plastic ziploc bags, laid flat. Then when the broth is frozen, the bags can all stack upright like books, and take up less room.)

Those listed cooking times are very rough. Sometimes I soak the beans all night AND all day, which reduces the cooking time. Just eat a bean when it's getting near the time.  It's done when you can mush the bean into the top of your mouth with your tongue. And depending on what you're using it for, this will vary too. The last time I made chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans, which got second place in the super sexy word contest), I couldn't stop eating them fresh out of the pot. Beware!

Since beans take a while to cook, don't be afraid to make a big batch and freeze the extras! Use a flat tray so they don't all freeze in one lump.  Freezing this way makes everything really easy the next time around, like canned-food easy. And no annoying can opener that never works. Especially when you take freezing into account, there is very little convenience lost over canned beans. Almost all your cooking time is passive (you don't have to be at the stove the whole time). A very tiny sacrifice for a lot of return. I've read they'll keep in the freezer for 2-3 months, but mine never last that long. :)

And in case your appetite still isn't too excited, here are some recipes using your delightful freshly cooked beans! (I've used some of these, but not all of them.)

Traditional refried beans
Coconut rice with black beans & fried plantains (wow this looks amazing)
Spicy roasted chick peas
White bean/olive/basil spread
Baked beans
Black bean soup
Hummus! (this one got an exclamation point because I love hummus and it's SO easy to make and so much better than that premade junk from the stores)
Chipotle chili
Classic minestrone

Of course, you can use them in many other soups, stews, fajitas, or enchiladas/burritos. yum.


  1. thank you for this post! i have been a little apprehensive about soaking beans and cooking them, but i know this definitely needs to be my next step. thanks for the push!

  2. This post came in so handy for me (I saw it on the Simple Organic site) -- I was just planning to go cook a pot of black beans, and have never felt very secure in my method. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Hannah - do you mean you clicked on my blog from a comment over there? Because when I read your comment, I just had this moment of panic like I'd accidentally copied someone else's post about beans (I know I've read about it before but didn't remember where) and so I did some searches of the site, then realized what you meant. ha!

    Amy - I hope you will give it a go! It's really very simple once you get the hang of second nature. It feels so good to eat fresher food too.

  4. I enjoy cooking my own legumes too! My mom taught me this handy little trick if you don't have time to soak them overnight - boil the dry beans for 15-20, then let sit in the hot water for another 30 minutes. Drain, rinse well, and boil again until tender, adding some salt towards the end. This ends up taking about 3 hours usually, though I've never timed it exactly. Great when you remember at lunch time that you wanted beans for supper!

  5. Yup. Everyone seems to talk about how hard it is to prepare dried beans, but all you do is dump them in a pot and walk away for 12 hours! If college kids can cook it, anyone can cook it.