Beans 101 (Return of Bean Friday!)

bowl of cooked beans

Simple is good.

As a follow up to the “Dollar Supper” post,  this post is about is the simple act of making a pot of beans. I make beans about once a week, the goal being to always have beans in the fridge. For us, they’re an essential staple.

(Readers new to Root Simple should note that we’ve done a lot of posts about beans, and have gathered favorite bean recipes from our readers. So if you’re looking for recipes, look for the Bean Fest tag. Check the recipes tag, too.)

A pot of beans, I’d argue, is one of the keystones of cheap eating. A big pot of beans costs little, and can morph into many meals over the course of a week. This not only saves money, but it saves time. It rescues you from the dreaded “what’s for dinner?” question. Beans got your back.

Skeptical? Here are a few very simple dishes you can throw together if you’ve got cooked beans in the fridge:

  • Tacos, of course. Keep a big pack of corn tortillas in the fridge and deploy for fast, cheap eating. Cheapo corn tortillas taste best if they’re toasted in skillet before serving. Fancy them up by chopping up whatever fresh vegetables and herbs you happen to have on hand (radish, cabbage, carrot, green onion, parsley, cilantro etc.) and sprinkling that on top. Add cheese and hot sauce and you are good to go.
  • Warm the beans up and toss them with hot pasta. Any kind. Sauced or not. If you throw some chopped broccoli or other veg into the pasta water and let it cook along with the pasta, then you’ll have something green in your bowl, too.
  • Toss together beans, chopped vegetables and cooked pasta to make a cold pasta salad. Add dressing and you’re good to go.
  • Straight beans tossed with oil, vinegar and maybe a little parsley or green onion can make a nice cold /room temperature salad, too.
  • Heat up your beans in all their wonderful juice and ladle this over cooked rice. Or polenta. Or couscous. Or whatever grain you’re eating these days.
  • Or wrap the rice and beans in flour tortillas and you’ve got burritos.
  • Eggs are good on top of beans. We tend to forget this, outside of huevos rancheros. If you like runny yolks, poach an egg and put it on top of a bowl of hot beans and let that yolk mix with the bean broth. A fried egg with a more solid yolk is good, too. Or even chopped hard-boiled egg.
  • Add cooked beans to soup. Maybe to a ready-made soup, to beef it up. Or maybe you’re cooking a soup from scratch. Just drop the beans in at the end, so they have long enough to warm up.
  • Pour off the cooking broth from your homemade beans and drink that as soup.
  • Or puree cooked beans into a nice thick soup, adding water if necessary.
  • Put your beans on toast. Sound unappealing? Then change the name: Crostini. See how marketing works?  Toast up some stale bread. Rub it with a piece of garlic. Drizzle with olive oil. Then put a spoonful beans on top.
  • Beans are a great side, of course. If you eat meat, you can use beans to help round out your plate. Beans and sausages. Beans and chicken breast du jour. Pork chops and beans. Last week Erik and I had a rare, fancy meal out and I had a magnificent piece of honey-cured salmon on a mound of white beans. The beans were swimming in the salmon’s sweet cooking juice. I’m still thinking about that dish.
  • A pile of cooked leafy greens, a bowl of beans drizzled with olive oil, and a crusty loaf of bread to share. Nothing is better, really.
  • Mash or blend a cup of the beans into bean dip or hummus. Mashed beans become tasty dip when you add strong flavors. Hummus may or may not require garbanzo beans, but it definitely requires tahini (sesame paste). Lacking tahini, you can make the dip tasty by adding, say, roasted garlic and lemon juice. Or maybe a spoonful of something in a jar, some little jar malingering in your fridge, like pesto or sun dried tomatoes in oil or olive paste.
  • Stuff beans into pita pockets along with some salad stuff for lunch.

Okay, you get the idea.

Oh, and you might ask why you can’t use canned beans from the store for all of the above. The reason is that they’re terrible. To make them taste decent, you have to flavor them and cook them, so you may as well start from scratch.

Now on to the how-to.

How to Make Yourself a Big Pot of Beans

Beans after an overnight soak

Beans after an overnight soak

It’s easy to make a pot of beans, and while it takes time to make beans, it doesn’t take effort, or even brains. Prep time probably totals around 5 minutes, and add to that whatever time it takes to keep half an eye on the pot. What it does require is a small amount of pre-planning. You need to remember to soak beans. That’s the tricky part.

Yes, there’s speed soaking techniques and pressure cookers but…whatever. I can only hold so much information in my head. I pre-soak my beans.

Beans need to soak about 8 hours. You can put beans out to soak at breakfast, and then make a pot of beans in the evening. Not for dinner– they won’t be ready in time (unless you eat late, like they do in Madrid.) But you can let them bubble away while you prep, eat and clean up dinner and they’ll be ready to be transferred to the fridge by the time you want to go to bed. Or you can start soaking them at bedtime and cook them the next morning.

Soak your beans: Pour your beans into a very large vessel and cover with lots of water. Beans swell like crazy. There’s no need to be stingy with the space or the water.  Just leave the bowl on the counter. No need to refrigerate it, or even cover it.

If you soak your beans and find you don’t have time to cook them after all,  just pour off the water and put the beans in the fridge. They’ll keep a day or two, until you find the time. Don’t leave them in the water, or they’ll get nasty.

How many beans?:  I never bother cooking less than a pound, which is about two cups of dried beans, give or take. Two cups of dried beans equals about 6 cups cooked, broth included.

What kind of beans?:  All dried beans may be cooked with this generalized method. Smaller beans cook a little faster than big beans. (Lentils are an exception: they don’t need pre-soaking or long cooking–so are good for last minute meals.) Flavor-wise, I find beans really flexible. I cook all kinds, and don’t distinguish between them much in terms of how I’m going to use them.

Drain and rinse your beans.  After the soak, be sure to drain and rinse your beans. You don’t want to cook in the soaking water.

Crafting a flavor base (aka “Throwing a bunch of stuff in the pot and hoping for the best”):  You can cook beans in plain water, but they can be a little dull. You could cook beans in pre-made stock, but what I like to do is toss the makings of stock into the pot with the beans.

In the picture below you see the gleanings from my fridge and garden, ready to go into the pot. An oldish carrot, a couple of stalks of celery, half of an onion leftover from something, a garlic clove (I like more, but ran out), some red chile flakes, and a bundle of herbs. The herbs are just what is in my garden now: fennel, parsley, thyme and sage, all tied together.  I’d use dry herbs if these weren’t available. I usually end up putting some cumin (seeds or powder) into most of my bean pots.

(I’m not salting them now because there is a belief that early salting makes beans tough. I don’t know if it is a myth or not, but I add my salt when they’re almost done. I add some olive oil then, too. I’ll come back to that later.)

vegetables and herbs

Stock stuff ready for the pot

Note I’m leaving the stock vegetables in big chunks because I intend to take them out later.  I want my final product to be plain beans, not vegetable bean soup. Leaving the pieces big makes them easy to fish out at the end. The herbs are tied in a bundle with a piece of string for the same reason. The added benefit of this is that you don’t have to chop or peel to getting this together. Note I didn’t even peel the onion.

Now, of course you don’t have to add all this stuff. You can add whatever you like. That’s the magic of beans. Whatever you add will work out fine. Make them spicy. Make them rich. Make them green.

Speaking of rich, you can also add meat or meaty bones or chunks of fat or bacon or pancetta at this point.

Or a Parmesan rind!

Okay, now put everything in a big pot.  Transfer your drained, soaked beans to a big pot and toss in your vegetables and any spices. Cover it all with fresh water. The beans will sink and the fresh stuff will float. You should have about 2-3 inches of water above the beans.

adding water to beans

Add water to cover the beans by 2 or 3 inches

Here ends your work. Now you’re just waiting.

Bring the beans to a gentle simmer. If you see any brown scum forming on top of the water, skim it off. Keep the beans at a low simmer until they are tender.

Finishing: When they are close to done, add salt to taste. I add quite a bit. At this point I also add a big splash of olive oil. And pepper!  The salt and the olive oil really punch up the flavor, turning the cooking water into tasty broth. I let everything cook a little longer after this, so these flavors meld. It should smell good.

Cloudy cooked goodness

Cloudy cooked goodness

But how long do I cook them? There’s no solid answer. Older beans take longer than fresher beans. Smaller beans cook faster than larger beans. Figure on this being a two hour project, but let your senses be your guide. Sometimes I let them stew until I’m ready to eat. They’ll sit on the stove for hours. Which brings up…

Bean aesthetics.  Some people insist that beans must be firm yet meltingly tender, with delicate but intact skins. Achieving this perfect consistency–and perfect look–is a matter of close observation and perfect timing. And it’s nothing that I strive for. I cook the crap out of my beans. I like well-stewed beans. I don’t care if they’re not perfect looking. They taste better when they cook a good long while. I like to cook them until the broth they’re in gets rich and cloudy. And besides, I’m always forgetting about them.

To cover or not to cover?   The cover question goes hand in hand with the liquid question. How much liquid do you want in your beans? It’s up to you. The only thing I’d say that they drier they are in the pot, the easier it is to burn them. I’d recommend cooking them with with plenty of water, evenadding water if you need to, just to be safe. You can always cook some of the liquid off at the end.

Which brings us to the lid. Keep the lid on if you want to hold in moisture and heat. With a lid and the lowest possible heat setting on your stove, you can keep beans simmering safely for hours. But like I said, if you want to boil off some liquid to condense the flavors, take the lid off and turn the heat up.

Storage.  Transfer your beans to a covered container or to Mason jars. They’ll keep in the fridge for a week or so.

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21 Comments

  1. I like to soak my beans for about 12 hours and then let them sit for another 24-48, rinsing periodically. The sprouting will soften them up even more than soaking and greatly reduce cooking time.

  2. I do beans in my crockpot–2 or 3 cups dry at a time. Cannellini, pinto, peruano, garbanzo, or something new. Not kidney beans, because I have read a crockpot doesn’t get hot enough for them.

    But 6 hours on high and I am good to go! I don’t have to remember to soak them, and I don’t have to be home! I am doing this today, for chili and extra beans for the fridge.

    My favorites:
    *mash small white beans, add good olive oil and a touch of kosher salt. Great as crostini or a dip.
    *beans and greens–cook up a green of choice (swiss chard, spinach, bok choy, whatever) in a pan with some olive oil. Add beans til beans are warm. Add a touch of kosher salt and red pepper flakes. Then make a well in the middle and fry an egg. yum yum yum.

    • I cook kidney beans in my crock pot all the time. I think it’s soybeans you are referring to. They take forever in a crockpot and never quite cook all the way through.

    • i cook kidney beans in my crock pot all the time, they turn out lolvely. what are peruano beans by the way, they sound intriguing!

  3. Don’t forget to sort through the beans as a first step! Beans often have small rocks, bits of twigs, chunks of mud along for the ride.

    Then rinse and proceed to the soak.

  4. Reader James had trouble leaving a comment, so emailed this advice:

    If you have a slow cooker, in four hours (on high, unknown on low), one can produce excellent results without pre-soaking (albeit not blown-out stewed beans, if that is one’s preference). I find this works so well, I’d say it was worth getting the crockpot even if this is all you use it for.

    I also wanted to note that people with hard water may find using bottled water will greatly improve their beans. h/t Cook’s Illustrated.

  5. If you can find one, I highly recommend an earthenware bean pot. I have a Mexican one I found in a second hand shop, and it adds a certain earthiness to the beans that I’ve really come to savor.

    Beans and greens with olive oil are probably one of my favorite things ever. Especially in the tail end of winter when it’s just raw outside.

  6. This is one of the most oomprehensive bean posts/guides I have ever read. It annoys me to no end when I hear people lament that they ruined their beans by cooking them to mush. I like your tolerance and tastes. Of course, beans and water are my choice! Beans are good! I don’t eat nearly as much as I would like. Cooking them in cast iron is the only way for me. I think it gives them flavor or I am just impressionable.

    Oh, wash and sort beans first. I just put them in a colander and lower that into a bowl, picking them up by the handful to examine them, rinsing and dumping them into the pot by the sink. I find rocks, chunks of mud, hard as rock old beans, and this is in expensive beans not just no-name beans.

    Great Northern beans taste just like garbanzo beans in hummus. My friend from Jordan approves.

    Now, I am going to wash and put on Navy Beans to boil for three minutes and soak for an hour. (I never got into the overnight soak thing. I learned from my mother and just never changed.)

  7. I feel inspired to do this now! I’ve tried soaking and then cooking beans several times but they’ve always ended up too crunchy, so I’m guessing they did not cook enough. But your instructions are well laid-out enough that I think I will try again. Thank you!

  8. Yay Bean Friday!

    I also love the crockpot (soak before bed, set cooking before work, food ready when home). Bonus- it doesn’t heat up the house in the summer.

    Also I have not seen you meantion bean patties! Old beans + bread crumbs + spices = bean burger.

  9. Love this post! Hooray for beans. We’d lived in the dark ages of canned-beandom too long, but reading Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal” totally changed our perspective and now we can’t go back to the canned stuff.

    We always cook ours in the slow cooker with veggies and a bit of kombu for its supposed digestive enhancement qualities. We add olive oil at the beginning of cooking, so that its lovely richness gets incorporated into the beans. Looking forward to checking out the Bean Fest recipes!

  10. I just want to thank you very much for your bean cooking ways. For a guy that can get something done with what is around very well, beans have always baffled me, I could never remember all the steps. I am cook top challenged I guess. I feel confident I can do this now. Can’t wait to apply myself to the task.

  11. I have been cooking beans regularly too recently to cut down on kitchen costs and can say have perfected my version of kidney beans. I, too, soak them over night until the next afternoon when I cook.

    I’ve found a secret ingredient that literally turns them into ‘baked beans’ making them our favorite dish. If you can get your hands on some ‘pomegranate sour’ or ‘pomegranate sour sauce’ (which is actually thickened pomegranate juice and is NOT molasses), cooked with a mix of tomato and pepper paste (and grated carrots to add texture and gooeyness to the broth), it is delicious!

    It cooks in about 1,5 hours in a pressure cooker with checking at intervals to maybe add some water. It does become mushy, but we actually like it that way. Bon appetite!

  12. Thanks for a great post. But I can’t believe you cook all those beans without using a pressure cooker. It takes ten minutes to cook a pot of beans in one. Love you blog, thanks.

    • Funny you should say this. I’m a big fan of the pressure cooker–Mrs. Homegrown, not so much. I’m going to try to convince her–energy wise it makes a lot of sense.

  13. I still soak them overnight too and change the soak water a couple of times, I heard it gets rid of the gas and it seems to work. It also helps them be done even quicker.

  14. I have had problems with crunchy beans in the past. I can cook them to death and still I have crunchy beans. I asked my step mother and she said to boil the beans for 10 min then turn them down. I have well water maybe its a hardness problem. I will try again soon.
    On a side note I once made beans without pouring off the water. It was very bad. I got gas so bad it Hurt. I’ll never do that again. Changing the soak water a couple times sounds like a great idea.

    • Possibility #1: Really old beans may never soften up properly, so it’s good to clean out the pantry once in a while. The fresher the dried bean, the faster it cooks.

      Hard water is also a possibility. I found this great site,

      http://www.usdrybeans.com/recipes/recipe-facts/

      and this is from their FAQ:

      I soaked and cooked some dry beans that I had left in the pantry, but they didn’t soften after cooking. Why?

      …Hard water may also cause hard beans. If the cooked beans still seem tough, add a 1/4 teaspoon sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) for each pound of beans to increase tenderness. While adding baking soda is an old trick, remember that the ingredient also may over-soften fresher dry beans, causing mushiness.

  15. I’m surprised you didn’t mention this one small but important fact: acid while cooking beans makes them stay tough. When I didn’t know this, I added tomatoes and onions to some kidney beans and boiled them for hours and hours, and they didn’t soften up at all. SO add any neutral vegetables while cooking, but not tomatoes or anything acid. Add those afterwards. A pinch of baking soda helps old hard beans soften up while cooking.

    If you want to really reduce your use of fuel, overnight soaking and then cooking in a pressure cooker is great.

  16. Just throwing this out there but I don’t like tahini so I have always used peanut butter in my hummus. It works great, has great flavor and I cannot recommend it enough as a base.

  17. Pingback: Seeds of Hope Farm CSA Newsletter, Week 26, November 8, 2013 | Seeds of Hope Farm

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