Friday, February 25, 2011

How to cook beans

I have a dirty little secret to tell you -- I often use canned beans.  Most chefs and cooking instructors would find this to be an unforgivable sin, considering that fact that my job is to teach people how to cook.  Surely, I am supposed to tell you to stop buying beans in cans and to start cooking your own -- not only is it cheaper, but a lot tastier too.  At least that's the theory.  Unfortunately, I can't bring myself to give you a lecture on the virtues of cooking your own beans even though I hope to solve your bean cooking problems by the end of this post.  Beans are one of the most temperamental ingredients I've ever dealt with.  They often turn out either too chalky, or too mushy, or their skins burst making their insides taste all watery.  The worst part is that all three problems can happen in one batch making them very difficult to solve.

You didn't expect such an encouraging introduction, did you?  Well, here is the good news.  It is possible to cook perfect beans at home, but it takes lots of patience and precision.  First, let's talk about when you should bother to cook beans yourself and when you can use canned beans with very good results.

When I need 1-2 cups of beans for a salad -- they are great tossed with tomatoes, or blanched asparagus or green beans -- I usually open a can.   I always keep 3-4 cans of cannellini beans (my favorite type) on hand for just this purpose.  The brand of a can makes a big difference.  Whole Foods generic brand "365" is great.  Just avoid any "No Salt Added" cans.  Beans need salt not only for the purpose of seasoning, but also for even cooking.  Rinse the beans thoroughly in a colander, drain, and serve.  Yes, you'll probably spend $1 on a cup of cooked beans instead of 25 cents if you were to buy them dry.  But when you take your time into account, canned beans will beat home-cooked by a huge margin.

Soups and Stews
When cooking a bean soup or stew, I usually cook my own beans because I want their lovely cooking liquid. The liquid surrounding canned beans is starchy and unpalatable.  But when you cook the beans yourself, you end up with a very flavorful broth that can be used in soups, stews, and sauces.

When using beans for a pureed spread (hummus, cannellini rosemary spread, or bean walnut pâté), I often cook my own to have the cooking liquid on hand to adjust the consistency.  Of course, you can also use canned beans and simply add a little water or olive oil.  Pureed bean spreads are also a good "recovery" dish for those cases when your beans refuse to behave.  Just make sure they aren't chalking and crunchy, but don't worry if they burst or end up mushy.  Once you puree them, no one will notice the difference.

If you are going through the trouble of cooking beans, cook a big batch and use them in different dishes.  They'll last happily in the fridge for 1 week when stored in their cooking liquid.

Now that you know when to bother cooking your own beans, let's talk about how.

Bean types
You can use this method for all kinds of white beans (cannellini, navy, great northern), pinto beans, black beans, cranberry beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chick peas), and kidney beans.  This method does not apply to lentils.  Although they are also of the legume family, they don't need soaking, and taste best when cooked al dente, while the beans taste best when cooked till completely soft.

Buying beans
Try to buy your beans in stores with a good turn around.  Old beans will not cook evenly and sometimes will refuse to get tender.  Whole Foods usually has a better turn around for beans and grains than most supermarkets.

Soak in salted water (8-24 hours)

To soak 1 Lb of beans, use 2 quarts of filtered or bottled water and 3 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1 Tbsp and 2 tsp of table salt). If you can't cook the beans after soaking for 24 hours, drain, put in a zip lock bag and refrigerate for up to 4 days. If you have a scale, here is a much easier way to measure salt that doesn’t depend on the salt type. Basically, you need a 1.5 – 3% brine by weight. I prefer to use 3%. So for 1 Lb of beans, you need to weigh 1500 grams of filtered or bottled water and 45 grams of salt (any salt is fine, just avoid Table salt since it contains iodine).

Picking through the beans
After the beans have been soaked, drain and rinse them. Drop them onto a hard surface, like a ceramic plate, a handful at a time. Any that make a “ding” sound should be discarded when cooking thin skinned beans like cannellini.  If they are hard as rocks after soaking, they won’t soften after cooking either. Any that make a hollow sound are fine.

1 Lb dried beans, soaked as described above, drained, rinsed, picked through
3 quarts filtered or bottled water
1 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1.5 tsp table salt) – skip if using a 3% brine

Optional aromatics:

1 onion, cut in half
1 carrot and 1 celery stick but into large chunks
Bay leaf
A few sprigs or rosemary, sage or thyme

Put beans, water, salt, and any optional aromatics in a large, heavy pot. Bring the beans to a simmer over high heat. As soon as the bubbles break the surface of the water, turn down the heat to very low (if using an electric stove, temporarily move the pan off the burner to let it cool off). Skim off the foam that rises to the top. From here on, you want to keep the liquid around 200 - 207F (that's just under a simmer). No, it's not too anal to use a thermometer every so often to make sure you are in that zone.

I wish I could give you some nice chart with cooking times for different bean types. Unfortunately, I'd be just setting you up for failure. Each batch of beans has a mind of its own, so you have to taste, taste, and taste some more. I start tasting 45 minutes after the beans come to a simmer. Usually, they are done 1-2 hours after they come to a simmer. If they are not done after 3 hours, you are dealing with old beans and it’s time to give up on this batch.

Don't be alarmed if the bean skins blister and break when you remove them from the cooking liquid to taste. That's not an indication that they are overcooked. Once the beans have cooled, the skins will become much more stable. Test the beans whose skin looks intact. The ones that broke down a bit are definitely done. If the bean you tasted is completely tender, taste at least 5 more beans to make sure they are all cooked. When working with cannellini and a few other white bean varieties, don't get alarmed if about 10-20% of the beans break slightly. That's usually what happens by the time all of them are tender. Just let them sit in the fridge overnight and their texture will become much more pleasant.

Never drain and use the beans immediately after cooking. Their skins often blister and burst unless you give them a chance to cool first. Cool and store the beans in their cooking liquid. Once they cool off to room temperature, refrigerate for up to 1 week. They always taste better the day after they were cooked.

Pressure cooker method
Put 1 Lb soaked, drained, rinsed and picked through beans in a pressure cooker. Add 1500 g filtered or bottled water (that’s about 7 cups). Cover, lock, and bring to pressure on high setting (15 psi). Turn down the heat and cook for 5 minutes for most beans (10 minutes for chickpeas). Take off heat and let sit exactly 10 minutes. Release the steam, unlock, and test for doneness as described above. If not done, continue to cook without pressure uncovered at a bare simmer until done. For more info, consult the Hip Pressure Cooker bean chart.


Anonymous said...

I've cooked from dry all my life, as did my mother and her mother and probably her mother. More often than not, when the skins burst it yields a nicer bean-based dish. True if you do want to use the beans in a salad or something like that you would want the skins intact. I find if you just don't screw with it to much you can keep the skins mostly intact. Which means don't stir and prod at it every 10 minutes. Let them hang out together very slow and low and don't butt in too much.

edie said...


I am a real promoter of beans! I like to cook a big batch and freeze in 2 cups portions in freezer bags - yes, the texture changes a little - but I use the 'frozen beans in stews, soups.
Have you had any luck with freezing?
It is hard to fin d Cannellini beans in Nova Scotia for some reason....

Thanks for post!


Helen said...

I've never frozen beans before. They last happily in the fridge for a week and somehow we always end up eating them all :) maybe we really like beans... but I am guessing freezing would work fine for beans that are destined for soups and stews, even if they end up too mushy to use in salads.