Of all the basic cooking skills you might acquire, learning how to cook beans is the easiest and it’s also among the most valuable. Beans are cheap, delicious, and super nutritious. They’re rich in fiber, and one of the best vegan protein sources available. Plus, most beans are nearly fat-free.
No food is more versatile. Bean-based dishes take endless forms: whether baked, refried, added to soups, or blended into hummus, you’ll never run out of recipes to try. And no matter how you prepare your beans, they’ll really fill you up.
You Don’t Know (Most) Beans
Beans come in a multitude of varieties, each with its own color, flavor, and texture. What a shame that most people don’t try more than a few types. But you have to start somewhere, so let’s look at three of the most popular varieties: black, pinto, and garbanzo.
Black beans and pinto beans appear in countless Mexican dishes. They make a fantastic burrito filling. You can also serve them alongside rice, guacamole, and salsa on a Mexican-style supper plate.
These beans also make the world’s best leftovers. In many Mexican households, leftover beans are refrigerated and then fried up the next day. To make Mexican style refrieds, just mash the beans and then mix in some water. Then heat them in a frying pan with some browned chopped onions and some minced garlic that’s been quickly sautéed in vegetable oil. If you’re not a cilantro hater, stir in some chopped cilantro just before serving and you’ll really have something special.
While black beans and pintos dominate Mexican cooking, Garbanzo beans are wildly popular in India. Also called chick peas, garbanzos might be the tastiest bean variety of all. They’ve got a distinctive flavor and an incredible texture. One reason garbanzos stand out among beans is that they contain significant amounts of fat, which delivers a rich texture and a nuanced flavor unobtainable elsewhere.
One of the most popular Indian entrées in is chana masala, a delicious curry comprised mostly of garbanzos. This dish usually accompanies either rice or samosas.
Black beans, pintos, and garbanzos are the perfect starting point for your exploration of beans, but don’t stop there. Your local grocery or natural foods store sells dozens of other varieties
Buying Beans: Canned, Aseptic, and Dried
Beans are available either canned or dried. Canned beans maximize convenience. Since they are pre-cleaned and fully cooked, they need only be drained, heated, and spiced as desired. Additionally, some canned offerings—such as vegetarian baked beans and refried beans—come ready to heat and eat. When buying canned refried beans, always check the ingredients for lard (pig fat). Since Mexican refried beans were traditionally cooked in lard, many canned varieties still contain it. Fortunately, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding vegan canned refried beans.
Prepared beans are also increasingly available in foil-lined plastic aseptic pouches. Many companies use this packaging for Indian-style bean entries like chana masala, and bean-based soups such as dal. You can also buy refried beans in aseptic pouches, but again check the ingredients for lard. Because the packaging weighs practically nothing, aseptically packaged beans are often considerably cheaper than canned varieties when purchased online.
While less convenient than beans sold in cans or aseptic packages, dried beans carry three advantages:
- They can cost half the price of canned beans, especially when you consider that cooking more than doubles the weight of dried beans.
- They offer superior flavor and texture.
- They carry a smaller environmental footprint.
The best place to purchase dried beans is in the bulk section of a good natural food store. When purchased in bulk, dried beans are among the cheapest and healthiest foods you can buy. A well-stocked bulk section will carry a dozen different bean varieties.
How to Cook Dried Beans from Scratch
Preparing dried beans admittedly takes time, since the beans can require hours to soak and to cook. But now matter how you cook them, the actual effort involved is next to nothing.
Rinsing and Soaking
Start by pouring your dried beans into a mixing bowl. Comb your fingers through them to make sure no pebbles lurk within (never skip this step; you’ll find a pebbles far too often, and any pebble can crack a tooth!) Next, pour enough water into the bowl to submerge the beans. Swish the beans around a bit and then discard the water.
Now it’s time to soak the beans. Since the beans absorb lots of water, be sure to use plenty of water so they’ll stay entirely submerged. Cover the bowl to keep dust out, and soak for at least four hours. Many people start soaking the beans before bedtime so they’ll be ready to cook in the morning.
Note that soaking isn’t required but doing so will cut your cooking time significantly, while saving time and energy. But even soaked beans can require two hours or more cooking in a pot or slow-cooker.
Instant Pots are the Easiest Way to Cook Beans
I used to hate cooking beans, since it entailed babysitting a kettle clattering on the stove for hours on end. An Instant Pot put a end to that nonsense. It cooks beans in half the time, does it silently, and automatically powers off and sounds a chime when finished. If you cook beans from scratch even occasionally, I regard an Instant Pot (or a clone “multi-cooker” from a no-name brand), as practically a necessity.
You could instead buy a simple stove-top pressure cooker, which cooks beans as quickly as an Instant Pot. But if you take that route, you’ll miss out on the timer and automatic shut off. Plus, won’t get the variety of features an Instant Pot delivers, such as slow-cooking, steaming, and functioning as a rice-cooker. On top of all this, I’m certain that an Instant Pot is vastly safer than an old school stove-top pressure cooker, since the sensors all but eliminate the possibility of explosions caused by overheating. In short, the minimal cost savings of a stove-top pressure cooker don’t justify everything you lose. I’d only choose a stove-top unit if funds were tight and I found a great deal second-hand.
Proper Cooking is Vital
The cooking time for beans differs by variety, cooking method, and whether the beans were pre-soaked. Garbanzos, white beans, and kidney beans take the most time to cook—up to a few hours for un-soaked beans simmering on a stove-top. The bigger the bean the longer the required cooking time. Soaking dried beans in water overnight cuts cooking times by perhaps a third.
You’ll know your beans are properly cooked when you can easily use your tongue to smoosh one against the roof of your mouth. As Moosewood Cookbook author Molly Katzen memorably put it, “crunchy beans don’t make it.” That was true in the 1970s when Katzen wrote those words, but it’s even more true today, as it is now known that many beans contain a toxic sugar-protein called lectin. Thorough cooking destroys lectin, so it’s important to thoroughly cook varieties of beans that contain this substance.
This is especially true with red kidney beans, which are loaded with a type of lectin so toxic that it’s even hazardous to pronounce: “phytohaemagglutinin.” Red kidney beans contain so much of this substance that it’s wisest to soak them for at least five hours prior to cooking, and to discard the soaking water. The same warning applies to cannellini beans and broad beans, but those varieties are far less popular than red kidney beans. Please don’t let this warning frighten you away from eating these delicious bean varieties, since proper soaking and cooking renders them as safe as any other food.
I recognize that all this soaking and simmering can sound daunting. So keep in mind that tiny dried beans like split peas, lentils, and mung beans cook quickly with no need for soaking. Split peas are of course the main ingredient for split pea soup. You’ll want to simmer them until they mostly break apart—mixing with the cooking water to form a thick and creamy base. You can alternately simmer yellow splits or mung beans and before serving add roasted cumin seeds, curry powder, and salt to make dal—the most popular Indian soup.
Beans and Flatulence
Beans are impossible to beat when it comes to being a food that’s cheap, delicious, and healthful. About the only thing that stands in their way of world domination is their tendency to cause intestinal gas. Fortunately, various measures can mitigate or eliminate this problem. Beans cause flatulence because they contain oligosaccharides, a type of sugar that your stomach acid doesn’t readily break down. When this undigested sugar reaches your intestines, bacteria feed on it to form gas.
The good news here is cooking dissolves a substantial portion of your beans’ oligosaccharides into the cooking water. So after your beans finish cooking, pour the cooking water down the drain. Then use fresh water as needed to finish preparing your recipe. This easy step makes your beans much more digestible. The same thing goes for the water used for canned beans—discard it and use fresh water and your meal will become far less gas-producing.
Blending or mashing your beans for dishes like hummus or Mexican-style refrieds is another way to substantially improve digestibility.
While thorough cooking will further improve digestibility, don’t overdo it or your beans will become mushy.
More Ways to Better Digest Beans
Many people plagued by chronic indigestion can easily improve or resolve matters. Your body’s digestive powers peak at mid-day. So if you’re going to eat beans and other hard-to-digest foods, early afternoon is the best time to do it. Eating these foods on an empty stomach when you’re truly hungry will further improve digestion. Obviously the longer that hard-to-digest foods take to pass through your intestines the more gas will form, so being genuinely hungry before you eat beans will help ensure they don’t hang out in your digestive tract for an undue amount of time.
Relatedly, and this shouldn’t even need to be said, but avoid eating late at night and sleeping on a full stomach.
If all these tips fail to solve the problem, don’t give up until you’ve experimented with split peas and lentils. Many people who can’t tolerate a black bean burrito will find a thin yellow split pea dal creates no digestive problems whatsoever.
Finally, there are various enzyme-based products that break down the oligosaccharides present in beans. Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear that it’s miraculous, totally ineffective, or somewhere in between. Consider buying a small bottle to see if it helps, and if it’s a game-changer you can then get a much better deal on a large bottle.
Beans Are an Ideal Vegan Food
Moving gracefully towards a plant-based diet depends on discovering delicious vegan foods to crowd out the meat, milk, and eggs you grew up eating. Bean-based dishes can play a key role here, especially since they are among the most filling and protein-rich meals available. So give yourself every possible advantage when exploring the world of beans. Venture beyond pinto beans and lentils to explore the delicious, colorful, and tasty lesser-known varieties.
If you want to increase your bean consumption, there’s no better purchase than an Instant Pot. Beans cost so little compared to other foods that you’ll quickly earn back this investment. And by incorporating more beans into your meals, your diet will become healthier and more satisfying than ever before.
Most general-interest vegan cookbooks will offer plenty of bean recipes. And since beans play a huge role in Mexican cooking, you may want to pick up a vegan Mexican cookbook to explore that cuisine. Any Indian cookbook will likewise feature loads of bean-based recipes. On top of that, there are two different vegan cookbooks devoted entirely to bean dishes: The Great Vegan Bean Book and Vegan Beans from Around the World.
I’ve already offered a ton of vegan cooking ideas to consider, and have been saving this for last: tofu, tempeh, and TVP are all bean products. These foods offer greater convenience than cooking with dried beans, and bring new flavors and textures into the mix. So don’t forget that these foods will open up countless new cooking possibilities even after you’ve thoroughly explored cooking with whole beans.
Although beans are one of the most basic foods in existence, there’s a great deal to know about them. There’s likewise a lot to learn about rice, which offers the ideal complement to beans where protein is concerned. That’s because the lysine provided by beans helps to make up for the less-impressive amino acid profile of rice. Since these two foods pair up perfectly, learning more about rice will take your enjoyment of beans to new heights. So please check out my guide to rice, which will teach you how to provide your beans with a match made in heaven.