Beans are quickly becoming the new it-food of the new millennium; high in protein and fibre, low in fat and nutrient-dense, beans are inexpensive, accessible, sustainable and good for the environment. For so many reasons, beans could be considered the ultimate food. They have been used for centuries in cuisines worldwide, and yet we North Americans tend to shy away from cooking them, intimidated by the soaking process. In truth, cooking your own beans couldn’t be simpler, and whether you’re trying to eat healthfully, save on your grocery bill, protect the environment, or all of the above – dry legumes, in hundreds of varieties, are the perfect choice.
You don’t need to be able to identify a bean to be able to cook it. They come in so many varieties – from cannellini to kidney, black-eyed pea to lentil – their cooking and soaking time will be determined by their size and age. (Good news about lentils: you won’t need to soak them at all before cooking; brown, green and du Puy lentils will cook in boiling water in about 40 minutes, and split red lentils, which are half the size, cook in about 10 minutes.)
The rest of the legume family – if you start with them dry – will benefit from a head start by soaking in water for a few hours or overnight. This kickstarts the hydration process, shortening their cooking time. No matter what variety of dried beans you’re cooking – white beans, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas – the process is the same. Sort through them quickly in case there are any small pebbles among them (pretty rare, but it happens), cover them with water by about two inches and let them sit for 6-8 hours, or thereabouts.
The quick-soak method will shorten your soaking time: cover your beans with plenty of water, bring them to a boil, take them off the heat and set aside for an hour or two.
When you’re ready to cook your beans, drain off the soaking liquid and cover them with fresh water by about 2 inches – your bean:water ratio should be about 1:3. If you like, add fresh herbs or a clove of garlic to flavour your beans as they simmer, but never add salt to your cooking water, as it can make your beans gritty and tough. You can go ahead and add salt at the end of their cooking time.
Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or two, or according to the directions on your package of beans. Presoaked beans typically take this long to cook, depending on their size, age and density/dryness, the latter two being a bit difficult to determine by sight. An average bean takes an hour to get tender, but give yourself extra time – you never know when you’ll need it. Test them once in awhile, and when they’re done to your liking, take them off the heat. Let them cool in the cooking liquid if you have time, to prevent the skins from splitting.
Once cooked, your beans, chickpeas or lentils can be stored in their cooking liquid in the fridge for up to a week, but they also freeze very well, so you can simmer a big batch and freeze a stash to keep you in beans indefinitely. This is the number one complaint about dry beans – that you don’t think of cooking them early enough.
Freezing them solves this problem, and they take up very little space when frozen in Hefty Slider Bags. Flatten each bag and stack them in the freezer. When you want some beans, take a bag out and leave it at room temperature to thaw, or place it in a bowl of warm water to speed up the process. (If you’re really in a hurry, open the bag and run some warm water inside, straight from the tap.) I open the bag and pour off the liquid (I like to pour it off into my garden, so the plants benefit from those nutrients!) and voila – the beans are ready to go in any recipe.
Enjoy your beans in good health!