Do you ever find a recipe that you really want to try, and you end up not making it because it calls for crème fraîche?
I've been there.
It's gotten easier and easier to find crème...
Beans are an elemental food. We take them for granted because we usually buy them in a can, drain and rinse them, and then add them to other things where they fade into the background--little more than a pleasing texture or a cheap ingredient to add bulk.
But beans, along with some other stalwart foodstuffs such as rice, are an integral part of almost every culture. From the soy, mung, and adzuki beans of Asia to the cannellini beans of Italy to my grandmother's October bean patch, beans are a plentiful, inexpensive, and greatly varied source of protein and fiber.
While it is appealing to rely solely on canned beans, being able to cook them from their dried state is more than worth knowing how to do. Not only will you be able to find a greater variety of dried beans than canned, and not only do they taste better, but there's just something homey and warm about a pot of beans bubbling away on the stove. It brings a sense of security and wholesomeness to your kitchen that canned beans just can't compete with.
You may have heard all sorts of things about cooking dried beans--that they take hours to cook, that you need to soak them, that you shouldn't salt them before cooking. Don't let these rumors keep you from enjoying the frugal and rewarding results of cooking dried beans.
Myth number one: dried beans take hours to cook. The truth is that every bag of beans is a little different. Some beans take very little time to cook--30 minutes or so. Lentils take even less time. But even the toughest beans, such as chickpeas, don't take "hours" to cook. Sometimes, you may want a thick, soupy consistency--my favorite way to have cranberry beans--in which case you can let them stew over low heat for hours. However, most beans are perfectly amenable to an hour to two at the most. There are other variables that impact cooking time--bean size, how old the beans are, how hard your water is--and so cooking beans is more of a "by feel" technique than others, but there's no need to chain yourself to the stove in order to serve beans at your next meal.
Sometimes, when beans have been stored in a warm, humid place for too long, they become so hard that they are no longer fit to eat and are difficult, if not impossible, to cook. This is why it is best to buy only the beans that you know you will use within six months to a year.
Myth number two: you must soak dried beans before cooking them. I don't want to promote the idea that soaking beans is a bad idea. If you have time and can remember to do so, soaking is actually a great thing to do. Soaking will decrease your overall cooking time and make the beans slightly more digestible. In fact, if you soak beans in salted water, it can actually substantially decrease the cooking time and help season your beans in the process (thank you Harold McGee for that fun fact). My trouble is, I can never remember to soak beans.
There is the famous "quick-soak" method, which works well: rinse and pick over your beans, then put them in a pot and cover them by 2 inches of water. Bring the water to a boil, boil for one minute, then remove the pot from the heat, cover it, and allow it to stand for an hour. At this point, you're ready to cook the beans to completion.
Many cooks also swear by this method to help reduce the, ahem, musicality of beans, and discard the soaking liquid. This is a large price to pay nutritionally, however, as doing this leaches out nutrients, color, flavor, and antioxidants.
I've found that most beans don't need to be soaked, and I almost always dispense with this step for sanity's sake. Slowly simmering dried beans or cooking them in a pressure cooker seems to do the trick.
Myth number three: don't salt beans before cooking. The idea is that salt prevents beans from cooking as quickly. This is somewhat true--if you add salt to a pot of simmering beans, it will initially prevent the outer hull from absorbing water and softening. However, if you salt beans during the soaking phase, they not only cook faster, but will be better seasoned, the salt penetrating to the core of each bean. I prefer not to salt beans before cooking for the simple reason that I feel like I have a better handle on the seasoning after the beans are cooked. But if you like, salt away!
My basic method for cooking beans:
-Rinse the beans. Beans are dirty. They are often covered with dust and dirt and can have little pebbles or twigs mixed in. Don't be tempted to skip this step.
-Cover the beans with just enough water to cover in your favorite Dutch oven or pot. Don't let your beans dry out in the pot--they will become hard and leathery.
-Add any flavorings you want. I always cook my beans with at least a bay leaf thrown in. I also love onions and whole garlic cloves. If I'm going to be serving beans as part of a Mexican or southwestern style meal, I'll add dried epazote, avocado leaf, and a dried and seeded guajillo pepper. For southern-style beans, add a ham hock.
-Simmer the beans until they're done. I realize how vague this is, but as I said earlier, there are many variables that determine how long beans take to cook. I usually start with 30 minutes on my timer, and then I taste them. If the beans are still hard or chalky inside, set the timer for 10 more minutes or so. Keep checking them at regular intervals until the beans are tender but still firm. You don't want them falling apart. A great way to tell that beans are done or almost done is to blow on a spoonful of them. If the outer skins of the beans peel back (it's very noticeable), keep a very watchful eye on them--they're pretty much there. The key word here is "simmer." You should never boil beans--it can affect the integrity of the bean (they may fall apart), and it can cause the exterior of the bean to overcook before the interior is fully cooked. The one exception to this rule is kidney beans. Raw kidney beans contain the toxin phytohemagglutinin (not lethal by any means, but may cause gastrointestinal discomfort and symptoms similar to food poisoning) and must be boiled for 10 minutes to destroy it. Always boil kidney beans for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer until cooked. If using a pressure cooker to cook kidney beans, you do not need to pre-boil for 10 minutes as the very high temperatures reached inside the pressure cooker are adequate to destroy the toxin. If using a slow cooker, you MUST pre-boil the kidney beans.
-Season the beans. Add salt and pepper to taste and a healthy glug of olive oil. You may be surprised at how delicious beans are on their own.
To pressure cook: my average time for cooking dried beans in a pressure cooker is 20 minutes. Some smaller beans such as black eyed peas take less time, but the average bean in my kitchen gets 20 minutes in the pressure cooker. Sometimes, I have to cook them more after their stint in the pressure cooker, but I save a lot of time by using this method.
There is, however, a very detailed chart that I would be remiss not to show you. What's really great about this chart is that there are cooking times given for both soaked and unsoaked beans.
I hope, at the very least, that this inspires you to cook up a big pot of beans. They are everyman's food--inexpensive, plentiful, healthy, filling, and delicious. And cooking them, once you know the basics, is so easy it's almost instinctual.