Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Basic cooking skills, part 2: Beans

If you've been living on your own for a while, you probably already know that not all cheap food is good, and not all good food is cheap. But a few foods are both. Dry beans and other legumes fall into this category. They've got all kinds of great nutrients, they're super cheap (as I write this, you can buy a pound of dry beans -- which cooks up to about 6 or 7 cups of rehydrated beans -- for less than $2), they can be paired with rice or corn to make a complete protein, they feature in all kinds of recipes and they're absolutely delicious.

So if dry beans are so awesomesauce, why don't more people cook them from scratch? Well, because most people are clueless about dry beans. They don't know where to start, or they think it's going to be super-difficult and take a long time, or they worry about the heartbreak of flatulence, and they have a complete mental meltdown. None of these things are going to be an issue if you know what to do. And you will know what to do by the time you finish reading this!

You will need:
  1. 16 oz. or about 2 cups of dry beans, any type you like (or whatever's on sale)
  2. a place to spread them out, such as a clean countertop
  3. a source of clean drinkable water
  4. a colander or sieve
  5. a large cooking pot with a lid
  6. a stove or fire
  7. savory additions (optional; see below)
  8. a lazy weekend to cook your first big mess o' beans

Sorting it out

The first thing you gotta do is sort your beans. Find a clean countertop or tabletop and spread the beans out on it, sorting through them bit by bit to get rid of any rocks, dirt clods, seeds, sticks and other non-bean objects that were lurking in the bag. (Don't think you can skip this step. Once when I was a kid, my mom took a chance with dry beans that looked "ehhh, clean enough" and proceeded to make a big batch of homemade chili flavored with rocks and dirt chunks. YEARS of therapy, people.)

Watch and learn, grasshopper. It's not difficult, but it takes time. About four minutes, in fact.

Washing it up

Once you're done sorting, dump the beans into a colander or sieve (anything that will hold beans, but won't hold water) and rinse them thoroughly under clean running water -- under the tap of a sink is ideal. By "rinse them thoroughly" I mean turn all the beans over in the sieve with your fingers, getting them completely wet. You're looking to get rid of any lingering dust and dirt, which if you're wondering is not delicious at all.

Prepping and cooking

Pour your washed beans into a large cooking pot and cover them with water, several inches above the level of the beans. (They're going to soak up water and expand as they cook, so you need to give them enough water and enough room.)

If you have beans that don't require pre-soaking, such as Anasazi beans, you can skip right to cooking, but most dry beans must be pre-soaked before they're cooked. You can do this one of two ways: the lazy method or the fast method. The lazy method involves just putting the lid on the pot and letting the beans soak about 6 hours. The fast method involves putting the beans over the stove or fire, letting them come to a boil, IMMEDIATELY PULLING THEM OFF THE HEAT, clapping the lid on and letting them soak for an hour. (This one time I started quick soaking a pot of beans and went off to run some errands, forgetting to take them off the heat. Did you know that burned beans smell like really bad coffee? Well, our entire apartment complex knew it by the time I got home. Pull them off the heat. Please.)

On to cooking! Drain the soaking water from the beans and top them up with fresh water. It's not crucial, but if you can find an herb called epazote at a Mexican market or in the Hispanic food aisle of the supermarket, add a little bit to your beans now. Put them over the fire, bring them to a boil, drop the heat down to a simmer, put the lid on slightly tilted for ventilation, and let the beans cook until they soften and become tender enough to mash between your fingers, about 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours depending on the type and age of bean and your kitchen's height above sea level. (Soybeans take FOREVER to cook; don't bother.) Stir the beans every now and then so they don't stick to the bottom of the pot, and check to make sure they're not running out of water, adding more if it looks like they need it. Notice there's no mention of putting salt in the beans. That's because beans take longer to cook if you add salt or acid to them. Oh, and fish out the epazote before the beans are done.

Jazzing it up

Now you have a whole pot of basic beans, without any additions or spicing. Right now they're dead boring. So here are some ideas for jazzing them up:

Salted and/or smoked pork products and beans love each other. Leftover ham, pork hocks, salt pork, cooked crumbled bacon, smoked sausage -- they're all yummy with beans. They're also salty, so let the beans cook on their own for a while before you add the pork. If you can't get enough of the smoky flavor of Babe, pick up some liquid smoke seasoning at the supermarket and add about a quarter teaspoon or so to your pot of beans. (WARNING: This stuff's concentrated, so go easy with it until you know how much you like.) Also, here's my mom's super secret addition: in the last half hour of cooking, add a can of evaporated milk (NOT sweetened condensed milk) to the pot of beans, and mash up about a cup of beans and add them back in. It makes the bean broth thick and velvety and super delicious.

For a basic vegetarian mess of beans: chop up an onion, sauté it until it's translucent, and throw it into your beans. Throw in some pressed cloves of garlic or some garlic powder (or both! Why not?), and a teaspoon or two of dried thyme. Near the end of cooking, fling in some canned tomatoes or a combination of tomatoes and diced green chilies. Taste to check for seasoning. Eat with cornbread. (Yes, if you're interested, I can teach you how to make cornbread.)

Drain most of the liquid off the beans, mash the beans up with a potato masher, fry them in a little lard or bacon drippings (adding some liquid back if necessary), and you've got homemade frijoles refritos. Sprinkle with Mexican white cheese and eat with gusto and a spoon, or spread on a tortilla as part of the filling for a bean burrito.

Make yourself some red beans and rice. Sing praises to the glorious gods of New Orleans cooking.

Cut up some bell peppers and a red onion, mix it with a cup of corn kernels and a cup of drained home-cooked beans, pour some Italian dressing or vinaigrette over the whole thing, stir and marinate in the fridge a few hours, and you've got a delicious bean salad.

It's time to explore some chili recipes. Or, if you're from Down East, baked bean recipes.

You can even make desserts with beans. No kidding. This awesome flourless chocolate cake recipe features blended black beans (say that three times fast), and black bean brownies have gotten popular with moms who are trying to sneak some nutrition into their kids' desserts.

Silencing the musical fruit

The biggest problem most people have with beans is the dreaded Fart Factor. Beans contain a sugar that humans cannot completely digest, and the result is usually post-meal tooting. I've already identified two ways to cut down on the musicality of beans: change the soaking water before cooking, and add a little bit of epazote to the beans. You can also cook the beans until they're soft (al dente texture is not a virtue with beans) and make sure you chew them well to cut down on flatulence. If you eat beans regularly, your body will adjust to digesting them. And if you're still consumed with social anxiety, buy a bottle of Beano and take a few pills before eating your beans.

Finding time to cook

"Cooking beans takes too long," I hear you whine. (Really, you've got a carrying voice.) Well, yeah, it takes longer than fast food, but most real cooking does. More than time, though, what real cooking takes is a small amount of planning ahead -- and adults know how to plan ahead. With that said, there are ways to cut down on bean-cooking time.

Divide the labor between days to make it easier. You can cook your basic beans on a lazy weekend day (as suggested up top) and refrigerate or freeze them in small containers. Then they're prepped and ready to use whenever the urge to sling hash happens to hit you. Frozen beans tend to break down, so it's best to use them in recipes where the beans don't have to be whole, like cream soups and bean-based desserts.

Beans can become fast food if you have a pressure cooker. The time needed to cook beans under pressure drops from hours to minutes -- five to eight minutes at 15 pounds pressure, to be precise. NOT ALL BEANS PLAY WELL WITH PRESSURE COOKERS, however, so read your cooker's directions first or you could end up with beans all over your ceiling.

If working with a pressure cooker scares the beans out of you, try the other end of the spectrum and use a slow cooker. You can load it up with soaked beans and liquid and other goodies in the morning, plug it in, set it and go to work or school or Disneyland or whatever else it is you're doing for eight hours. Come home and you'll have a hot meal waiting for you.

Beans are glorious! They are delicious! They are dead cheap! And they don't have to be musical! Mastering the art of dry bean cookery sets you free from oversalted, overpriced cans of beans -- and it also makes you a magnet for the honeys. Really. Try it if you don't believe me.

(More basic cooking skills to come. As always, send in your requests for the next installment.)


  1. Slow cooker: one 1-lb bag of small red or white beans, a package of smoked ham hocks, 1 Tablespoon dried thyme and a bay leaf. Let it cook on low for 8 hours. Remove ham hocks from slow cooker, and add collard greens, swiss chard, or kale torn into bite size pieces. While that cookes, let hamhocks cool enough to handle and remove meat. Chop the meat fine and put it back into the slow cooker. Serve beans-and-greens broth over rice. Put bowls of toppings on the table so everyone can doctor up their own: chopped sweet onion, chopped tomatoes, chopped sweet bell pepper, chopped Italian parsley or cilantro, finely chopped celery, shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese. Pass the Tabasco around for those who want heat. One of the fave meals at this household.

    1. Sounds delectable! Thanks, Carrie.

  2. Great article. For "de-farting beans" - Google returns many hits for this phrase - the longer you soak and the more often you change the water, the better.

    Going a couple of days and letting the beans sprout slightly also helps, and adds to the flavor and nutrition.

    1. Thanks for the pointers, Jim -- that's good to know.