The FoodPrint Guide to Cooking A Delicious Pot of Beans

by Katherine Sacks

4/02/20

If you’ve spent any amount of time cooking multiple meals — as an everyday economical meal prepper, or sheltering at home during an emergency — you know that beans are an essential pantry staple. Easy to store, relatively inexpensive, and extremely nutritious and versatile, beans are the ideal ingredient to stash away. So it’s not surprising that during the current coronavirus pandemic, when millions of Americans have been advised to stay home, that a lot of people are stocking up on and cooking beans. But do people understand how best to cook them?

As Goya Foods, the nation’s largest Hispanic food brand, told the New York Times last week, sales of black beans, pinto beans, and other canned goods have recently spiked by roughly 400 percent. Big-box store Costco saw massive spikes in purchasing of staple goods including beans, reporting that sales in February were up 12 percent from the previous year. And even the much smaller company Rancho Gordo, known for their colorful heirloom beans, has seen sales quadruple from 150 to 200 orders per day to 1,400 to 1,700 orders per day. 

Beans were already pretty popular; consumption has risen by 73 percent in the past five years. The rise in vegetarian and vegan diets helped boost bean popularity, as did the Instapot craze. Food writers Samin Nosrat and Lukas Volger both hosted popular online bean cooking challenges in the past few years, and in 2019, food publication Eater declared beans were the go-to ingredient of the year. There are cookbooks devoted to bean cooking, Facebook groups and Reddit channels dedicated to them, and a membership to Rancho Gordo’s quarterly bean subscription currently has an 8,000-person waitlist.

The strange thing is, with all those bean lovers out there, there are also some people struggling to cook delicious beans. The internet is rife with stories of cooks who end up with hard beans, no matter how long they cook them. A pot of bad beans often leads to thrown away beans, and food tossed away is not only a lost meal, but also lost money. In order to cut back on the potential waste, first you must cook delicious beans. Then, since a pot of beans can yield a seemingly unending amount of food, you must use them before they spoil. Luckily, we’ve got everything you need to know about how to cook beans well and avoid bean waste.

Rancho Gordo
Photograph by Steve Sando

Buying Quality Beans 

The first step in cooking delicious beans is buying quality beans. An inexpensive bag of beans that has sat on supermarket shelves for ages, then in your cupboard for months, is likely to yield stale, bland results. When shopping for beans, pay attention to the packaging date. High-quality bean brands will sell their beans within a year or so of harvest, while larger brands may sit on the shelves for years. Dried beans are technically good for up to two years, but according to Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, younger beans are easier to cook, and more flavorful and tender. You can find high-quality and heirloom beans at farmers’ markets and specialty stores; Rancho Gordo, Elegant Beans, Zürsun Beans and Alma Gourmet provide online options for sourcing great quality beans. 

Dried beans generally have more flavor than canned, and starting with dried beans allows more flexibility in the cooking process. But canned beans do provide a faster, more convenient approach. When shopping for canned, the same quality rule applies here: inexpensive canned beans taste bland and waterlogged, but there are canned heirloom and organic bean options. For either dried or canned, purchase the best quality your budget allows. If you aren’t able to find or access higher-quality beans, use the tips below — including soaking and adding aromatics to dried beans — to help improve the flavor of supermarket beans. 

Soaking versus Not Soaking Dried Beans 

In the age-old battle over do-or-don’t soak beans, you’ll find everyone thinks they know best. Many people insist that soaking reduces cooking time and increases digestibility. (It also requires a cook to think ahead, leaving out any possibility of last-minute dinner planning.) Others say you can totally skip the soak. New York Times food writer Alison Roman recently kicked up the conversation on Instagram, stating: “I don’t soak my beans, and you can’t make me!” The slightly more eloquent Russ Parsons of The Los Angeles Times finds that unsoaked beans are deeper and richer in flavor. As a former Epicurious food editor, I myself tested many methods and found that soaking wasn’t really necessary, but that if you have time, a quick soak (bringing beans and water to a boil, then letting them soak for 1 hour before cooking) can boost the final flavor.

In truth, you can go either way. For thin-skinned beans, such as black beans, black-eyed peas, adzuki beans and split peas, you can skip soaking entirely. Heirloom beans and high-quality beans that are relatively fresh also don’t need to be soaked. If you think ahead, soaking the beans does reduce cooking time, but, depending on the variety, not substantially. If you are using older or lower quality beans, however, soaking is a good idea to help ensure even, thorough cooking.

A note on the salt: although using salt during soaking and cooking is another greatly contested step in bean cooking (some insist salting during soaking and cooking makes the beans tough), we agree with the experts who say, if you soak the beans, salt them. You should also salt the beans at the beginning of cooking. And don’t be afraid to be heavy-handed with the salt. Remember, salt equals flavor.

How to Cook Delicious Dried Beans

If you start with good quality beans (see above!), then cooking delicious dried beans is pretty easy. Here’s a step-by-step process for how to cook dried beans:

  1. Pick through dried beans, removing any small stones or beans that are off-colored, shriveled or damaged, and rinse under cold water. One cup of dried beans makes roughly 3 cups of cooked beans.
  2. Soak beans (if desired) by covering them in salted, cold water and storing at room temperature for 4 to 8 hours. Add more water if necessary to keep beans submerged. Do not soak for more than 24 hours (or beans will begin to ferment and sprout).
  3. Transfer beans to a heavy-duty pot and add cold water to cover beans by at least 3 inches. Add salt and aromatics, such as onion, garlic, celery, thyme, leek, rosemary, sage or bay leaf. Spices like cumin, cinnamon, coriander, ginger and chiles can provide depth and a richer flavor to your bean pot, as can meat — such as a ham hock or smoked sausage — or stock. But don’t add tomatoes, lemon or other acidic ingredients to the beans at this point; acid will keep your beans from softening, so add these ingredients later. 
  4. Bring beans to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer. 
  5. Cook until done, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary. The timing depends on the variety (roughly 3 to 4 hours for unsoaked chickpeas or lima beans); follow packaging directions and check regularly for doneness. Beans are done when the skins start to curl and wrinkle, and the beans are tender and cooked through completely, but not mushy. Check several beans to account for variation in doneness. 
  6. Beans can be used immediately, for a simple preparation, like bean toast, or as an ingredient in a larger recipe, such as chili.
  7. To store, let beans cool in cooking liquid. Store beans in cooking liquid for 4-5 days refrigerated, or for up to 6 months in the freezer.

How to Cook Delicious Canned Beans

Canned beans have been pressure-cooked inside the can, which means they will likely have a bland, slightly metallic taste. If you use canned beans in place of freshly cooked dried beans, here’s how to cook canned beans so they taste better:

  1. Drain and rinse beans in cold water. While some cooks argue the canned liquid can be used, this step helps freshen the beans and washes away the starchy, salty liquid they’ve been cooked in.
  2. Place beans in a heavy-duty pot, cover with good quality olive oil, salt and aromatics (see above). Season the beans for how you plan to use them — add chili and spices if the beans will be used for a chili, keep it simple with crushed garlic, bay leaf and cracked black pepper for something like salad or toast.
  3. Heat to medium and simmer until liquid has reduced slightly to coat beans, 10-15 minutes.
  4. Use immediately, or let beans cool in liquid and store chilled in an airtight container for 3-4 days, or 1-2 months in the freezer.
support sustainable food systems with dried beans
By Alp Aksoy / Adobe Stock

10 Ways to Use Beans

Now that you’ve mastered how to cook beans, making both dried and canned beans delicious, you’ll need to find some ways to use them. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

6 Bean Books

Want more bean inspiration? Flip through these cookbooks for an adventure through the world of bean cooking.

“Bean By Bean” by Crescent Dragonwagon

James Beard-award winning writer Crescent Dragonwagon was talking about heirloom beans way before heirloom beans were a thing with her “Bean By Bean” cookbook. Packed with more than 175 recipes, the book covers fresh, dried and canned beans with hot, cold, savory and sweet recipes. Fans appreciate the detail level and specificity Dragonwagon brings to the subject, offering a table of cooking times for many varieties, accessible recipes and the charming, witty stories she weaves throughout the text.

“Heirloom Beans” by Steve Sando
Steve Sando helped turn heirloom beans into a cult with his Rancho Gordo beans. His first cookbook, “Heirloom Beans,” came out in 2008, before the recent bean trend turned everyone onto his company’s delicious bags of beans. The book is a primer for all things beans, with descriptions of 30 heirloom varieties, and includes 90 of Sando’s favorite bean recipes for cooking heirloom beans. If you can’t get on the list for his bean club, at least you can get this cookbook. For even more Rancho Gordo, we’ve got bean-cooking tips and recipes from Sando’s other cookbook, “The Rancho Gordo Vegetarian Cookbook.”

“Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy” by Judith Barret

Beans are as fundamental an ingredient in Italian cuisine as is pasta, from the Tuscan classic Ribollita, to the traditional Sicilian fava bean soup. In food writer Judith Barret’s “Fagioli,” that Italian love of beans is on display with 124 recipes that span the regions of the Mediterranean country. Although many cookbooks focus on Italian cuisine, Barret is devoted specifically to beans here, discussing the most common varieties in Italy (along with their American counterparts), sourcing and cooking information about other Italian ingredients used in bean cookery, and sharing a wide variety of antipasti, soups, salads and hearty entree recipes.

“The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” by Diana Kennedy

Often called the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy is widely regarded as an authority on authentic Mexican cooking. “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” combines her three bestselling cookbooks, “The Cuisines of Mexico,” “Mexican Regional Cooking,” and “The Tortilla Book,” into one volume. While this book isn’t specific to just bean cookery, her regional Mexican recipes offer plenty to inspire your cooking, and plenty of bean recipes.

“Cool Beans” by Joe Yonan

This new cookbook, out February 2020, jumps on the bean trend at just the right time. Author Joe Yonan, award-winning food editor for The Washington Post, wrote the book as an ode to “my favorite ingredient, one I think could be important in helping feed a growing planet.” Yonan was inspired by traditional bean recipes from his travels all over the world, and the book features more than 125 vegetarian recipes, including Ecuadorian Lupini bean ceviche and spicy Ethiopian red lentil dip, as well as tips for buying, storing and cooking with beans.

“Beans: A History by Ken Albala

While not a cookbook, Ken Albala’s book, “Beans,” can help you dive way into the world of beans. Follow Albala as he explores the fascinating details of the history of beans, a foodstuff that has been cultivated for over 10,000 years. Reading this award-winning book, you’ll learn random factoids of the history, science, legend and folklore of beans  — Greek philosopher Pythagoras thought beans held human souls, who knew? — and see how the legumes have been both revered and disdained in different cultures throughout their complicated history.

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