Beans are one of my favorite foods. They are easy to make, they freeze well, there are diverse varieties, you can make a wide range of foods with them, and they are extremely good for you. Beans are high in protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, folate, thiamin, iron, magnesium, and potassium. Many beans such as black beans are also rich in antioxidant phytonutrients such as anthocyanins. It is hard to imagine a food that delivers more than beans.
As amazing as beans are, many people feel intimidated by cooking them. There are a few steps involved, but the overall process is relatively simple. People also have concerns about the time involved. Most of the time required is spent passively waiting for the beans to soak which can be done while you are sleeping or out of the house. Continue on and I will teach you just how easy it is.
The first step to cooking beans is sorting and rinsing them. Sometimes, in the harvesting process, small rocks can get mixed up with your beans. It is important to sort through the beans and pick out any rocks you might find in there. Nine times out of ten I do not find any rocks in my beans, but it is always good to look (you do NOT want to bite into one while eating, ouch). Once you have finished sorting the beans you will need to rinse them in a colander with water.
The next step in cooking most beans is soaking them. The only beans that don’t really need to be soaked are lentils and split peas. Most beans need to be soaked for 8-12 hours prior to cooking. This time varies with the size of the bean, but I think a good baseline to start at is 8 hours. Try to not let your beans soak for longer than 12 hours though because they might turn sour. If you are worried you will not be able to get to them for more than 12 hours just soak them in the fridge. There are quick-soak methods out there that you can use in a pinch, but I have found that they don’t work quite as well as the classic long soak method.
I like to cook my beans in the same liquid that I have soaked them in. That way all I have to do is move them from the fridge to the stove. I have heard that if you dump out the soaking water and use fresh water to cook with it cuts down on the digestive side effects that some people experience. I have not tried this myself so I can’t say, but I think dumping out the soaking water also gets rid of some of the flavor and water-soluble nutrients in the beans. However, if you are going to dump your water, be sure to use water for the soaking and stock for the cooking. You do not want to dump out your delicious stock. If you do not have stock on hand, you can use water for the whole process. For soaking, you should have the beans covered by at least a couple inches of stock or water. It may seem like a lot, but the you will find that the beans will soon be doubled in size and a lot of the liquid is gone. If you would like to cook your beans in stock, check out our blog post on how to make it easily at home.
After a good long soaking it is now finally time to get to cooking. It is best to cook your beans in a thick walled pot. This helps to insure that the heat is evenly distributed throughout the surface of the vessel so your beans cook evenly and do not burn on the bottom. They make ceramic bean pots just for this purpose but a nice dutch oven works equally as well. If you do not have one of these don’t worry though, any pot will do, you will just need to keep an eye on the beans a bit more as they cook.
With the beans in the pot, be sure that the liquid level covers the beans by about an inch before you begin cooking. You can add more water to achieve this if needed. If the beans are covered by more than an inch don’t worry, much of this will be absorbed by the beans and evaporate while cooking.
The key to cooking beans is long and low. It is a process that can not be rushed. Set your burner as low as it can go and let the beans simmer for at least an hour. After an hour taste one to check its texture. It should be soft and smooth. If it still feels grainy in the middle then let the beans cook a bit longer. Depending on what you plan to do with your beans, you may want to prevent them from getting too mushy. The best way to do this is to cook your beans with a bit of acid. This can include throwing in a can of tomato juice, a few tablespoons of tomato paste, or the juice of a lime, when you cook your beans. I also recommend cooking your beans with salt instead of seasoning them afterwards. This allows the salt to cook into and penetrate the whole bean instead of just dissolving in the liquid around it.
There are plenty of other flavors that you can include when cooking your beans. Try mincing up garlic and onion and tossing that in there, or you could try adding some cumin and oregano. I personally like to chop up cilantro and stir that in with the beans once they have finished cooking. The possibilities here really are endless. Go with what you like, or you can keep them plain if you are not sure what you will be pairing them with later.
Once the beans are cooked through, remove them from the heat. Ladle them into freezer-safe containers and, leaving them uncovered, allow them to cool to room temperature. Once they have cooled, cover and freeze them.
Photo from cookbookman17’s Flickr.