Dried beans are one of the most frugal items at the grocery store and healthiest forms of protein. Dried beans also can help many of us succeed at those New Year’s resolutions to save money and eat better.
The problem is, dried beans scare home cooks. They require forethought because most recipes call for soaking them overnight. Plus, there’s a lot of conflicting advice. To soak or not to soak? When to add salt? To cook in the soaking liquid or start with fresh water?
We contacted experts to sort through confusion: Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of half a dozen cookbooks focused on Mediterranean cuisine; Megan Lambert, a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C.; and Steve Sando, owner of Rancho Gordo, an heirloom bean company based in Napa, Calif.
Two cooking methods
If you are a home cook who plans ahead, you should soak the beans ahead of time. Place the beans in a pot covered by 3 inches of water, and let sit for 6 to 8 hours. The next day, bring the beans to an initial boil and then turn down to a simmer. Depending upon the age and type of bean, it can take an hour and a half or longer to cook the beans. You may have to add water from time to time if the beans absorb it all. Do not salt the beans until they are tender because salt can turn out mealy beans instead of creamy ones. (Chick peas and runner beans need to be soaked.)
If you are a procrastinator, beans may need to be a weekend meal or one enjoyed on a day when you are working from home. Or you can make a basic pot of beans one day to use in a recipe the next day.
Sando suggests a method from Russ Parsons, food editor at the Los Angeles Times. Place 1 pound of beans and 6 cups of water in a Dutch oven and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, put a lid on the pot and place it in a 350-degree oven. Cook until the beans are done, 1 to 2 hours; you want a tender bean, but dried beans produce a firmer end result than canned. The bean’s skin can split, but you don’t want the beans to be disintegrating.
Add 1 teaspoon of salt halfway through the cooking time. Parsons swears the beans taste better this way.
Consider doubling the beans that you need for a recipe and freezing half. That way you have them on hand to make soups, baked beans, salads or purees to spread on toasted bread.
This Turkish dish has a lot of ingredients but it’s easy to cook and delicious. Drained yogurt is made by draining the yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined strainer for several hours. This dish keeps well for a few days in the refrigerator and benefits from being made ahead. From “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World’s Healthiest Cuisine” by Martha Rose Shulman (Rodale, 2007).
Chick Pea Stew
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon brown sugar or 2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, or lemon juice
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped; or 1 (14-ounce) can of tomatoes, drained and chopped
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or ¼ teaspoon sweet paprika and ∂ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 ounces leaf spinach
½ pound dried chick peas, cooked and drained; or 2 (15-ounce) cans chick peas, rinsed and drained
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs, preferably a mix of flat-leaf parsley, dill and mint
Drained yogurt (see headnote)
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and add onions. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes, and add garlic, cumin and fennel seeds. Cook until onion has colored slightly, 5 to 8 minutes. Add sugar and stir together for a minute, then stir in the vinegar, tomatoes and Aleppo pepper or substitutions. Cook, stirring, until the tomatoes have cooked down a bit, about 10 minutes.
Stir in spinach, chick peas and about 1 teaspoon salt. Add enough water so the dish can simmer. Simmer uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, about 20 to 25 minutes. The stew should be saucy but not watery. Add salt to taste and stir in the herbs. Serve with lemon wedges and yogurt.
Makes 4 servings.
Down-East Baked Beans
1 pound (2 cups) Maine yellow-eye beans (acceptable substitutes: Great Northern or white navy beans)
¼ pound salt pork
½ cup dark, full-flavored molasses
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 teaspoon mustard powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Pick over the beans, removing any debris or pebbles. Place beans in a nonreactive pot, cover by 3 inches of water and let sit for 6 to 8 hours.
Place beans and what remains of soaking liquid into a large pot, adding more water if necessary to ensure the beans are covered. Bring this to a simmer, and after 15 minutes, check every 5 minutes until a sharp breath will split the skin of a bean. Then drain the beans into a colander, sitting on top of a bowl to catch the cooking liquid. Return cooking liquid to pot and let simmer on the stove while preparing beans for baking.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Cut salt pork into bite-sized pieces and pour boiling water over to cover well. Drain after several minutes, discarding the liquid. Mix the salt-pork pieces into the prepared beans and pour them together in a 2-quart bean pot. Stir in the molasses and rum. Dissolve mustard powder in a bit of water and mix this in well. Add seasoning to taste, starting with about ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Pour over just enough of the simmering bean liquid to be visible through the beans.
Turn off the heat under the pot of simmering bean liquid. Reserve to add to baked beans as needed.
Cover baked bean pot and put in the oven. Bake beans for 5 hours, tasting occasionally, noting texture and seasoning, and adding more of the remaining bean liquid – or else water – as necessary. When beans are soft and succulent, stir them well, uncover and bake ½ hour more to thicken the liquid into sauce.
Makes 4-6 servings.
– Adapted from “Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots,” by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne (North Pointe Press, 1996).