Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, we walk you through the basics of bean cooking.
We've all heard the same tips for cooking dried beans: you must soak your beans. You must refrain from salting them until at least half-way through their cooking time. Neglect to follow these directions and you'll be left with undigestible, tough-skinned disappointment. All of this pressure is enough to drive the most dedicated of home cooks to the canned foods aisle.
But don't go there -- cooking beans isn't as high-maintenance as it might seem. Today, we're walking you through the basics of bean cooking.
First things first: the beans.
Quality ingredients will yield quality results; old, stale beans will result in tough skins and a lack of flavor. So choose your beans wisely. Buy from a store you know restocks frequently, or better yet, order some heirloom Rancho Gordo beans.
Once you've got your beans, be sure to pick through them and rinse them thoroughly. You don't want any pebbles in your Pasta e Fagioli.
To soak or not to soak?
Bean cooking is quite the divisive topic. As Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo explains, "It's like martini drinkers! They all insist their way is the best way!" Traditional wisdom tells us to soak beans overnight in order to reduce cooking time and increase digestibility. However, this means that if you want fresh beans on the table tonight, you need to start prepping them...yesterday.
Luckily for us, beans cooked without a pre-soak will turn out just fine. In fact, according to Russ Parsons of the LA Times, unsoaked beans yield a richer, more flavorful result. Soaking beans can actually draw nutrients and flavor out of the beans. So for reasons of taste and nutrition, throwing your dried beans in the pot may be your best bet.
A few words on salt:
If you choose to soak your beans, you'll want to add salt to the soaking water. The salt prevents magnesium and calcium from binding to -- and, subsequently hardening -- the cell walls. You have two options here. The first is to add about one teaspoon of salt for each pound of beans, and simply cook your beans in the soaking water. The second is to "brine" your beans, a la Cooks' Illustrated, with three tablespoons of salt for each gallon of water; just be sure to rinse your beans and change your water before cooking them.
If you don't choose to soak, feel free to add salt to your pot at the beginning with everything else. Adding salt will marginally toughen the skins, but not enough to make a difference when you use small quantities of salt.
The good news? Once you've made your decisions on whether or not to soak, cooking your beans is almost all hands-off. Cook your beans in a heavy-bottomed pot, with enough cold water to cover them by an inch. Add onions, garlic, a bay leaf, or a few sprigs of fresh herbs; the beauty of cooking your own beans lies in the ability to flavor them any way you wish. Bring everything to a boil for five to ten minutes, then reduce to a simmer; too much boiling will break the beans' skins. Check on them intermittently, and if you need to add some extra water, do so from a kettle, rather than the tap. Be sure not to stir them too much, lest they become mush.
This is important: do not add tomatoes or other highly acidic ingredients to your beans while they are cooking. High acidity will keep your beans from softening and likely result in your yelling at a pot of beans, which nobody wants. Just wait to add the tomatoes until later. Your beans will thank you.
The safety test:
When you think your beans are done, test at least five of them to ensure they are fully cooked. One soft outlier can mask a pot full of undercooked beans.
No article on beans is complete without at least a side note on digestion. There are two issues at play here: first, beans contain oligosaccharides, a type of sugar that our bodies are incapable of digesting alone. Soaking beans reduces these sugars, so if digestion is a big concern for you, give your beans a good soak before cooking. However, another way to break down oligosaccharides is to add a strip of kombu to your beans as they cook. This dried sea vegetable contains the enzyme needed to properly digest oligosaccharides. It will also add vitamins, minerals, and a hint of umami to your pot of beans.
The second reason that beans can cause discomfort is their high fiber content. If your diet is low in fiber, high-fiber foods will cause what Russ Parsons calls a "shock and awe affect": your body isn't used to such a high dose, and therefore, well, it's going to protest. So while we want you to embrace bean cooking with reckless abandon, try gradually increasing your daily intake rather than immediately following the advice of that childhood rhyme inviting you to eat beans at every meal.
Beans may not be a fruit, but they truly are magical. With just some salt and a pot of simmering water, you'll be left with an end result so delicious that you'll find yourself picking them out of the pot. They're incredibly easy once you discover your preferred method, and a big batch cooked up on a Sunday will find endless iterations throughout the week: smashed in burritos for lunch, simmered in soups for dinner, and pureed into a dip for easy entertaining. Now go throw a pot of beans on your stove.
Do you have any bean-cooking tips or tricks you swear by?