Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved dry beans with their myriad shapes, patters, and colours. Most are commercially unavailable, but you can find thousands of varieties if you go hunting among dedicated seed savers. I’ve grown a few dozen varieties, so I happily still have many varieties to try.
Admittedly, there is less diversity of flavour between dry bean varieties than their colour and pattern diversity would suggest. There are some differences in flavour and texture — Red Kidney beans, Black Turtle beans, and Pinto beans do have different strengths — but the differences are subtle. In a pinch, I’ll substitute pretty much any variety for any other while cooking.
Many of us simply love to eat beans, but it’s also worth noting their exceptional nutritional benefits. They are, of course, an excellent source of protein. They are also rich in a number of minerals, including potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. They are a good source of folate. They are high in fiber, and have a low glycemic index. For vegetarians especially, they are valuable for the amino acid lysine. They’re a good source of several antioxidants. Studies of different dietary habits of different populations have linked bean consumption with a lower risk of mortality. Most other people in the world eat lots of dry beans … maybe North Americans have something to learn here!
SEASON: harvested in the fall, but available year-round.
HOW TO COOK
Here’s the really simple version: throw the beans in a pot, cover in a couple of inches of water, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer until they’re done (adding water if needed to keep the beans covered).
People sometimes find cooking dry beans intimidating, but it really can be that simple, especially if you use relatively fresh beans of a small-seeded variety such as Peregion. The previous paragraph described what I do at least half the time I cook beans.
But there are reasons for sometimes wanting to add a step or two, and in some situations you pretty much have to add some steps. So here’s what you need to know in order to figure out when and what:
CLEANING: Depending on how beans are harvested, they can have the occasional bit of debris, e.g., small stones, in them, they can have the occasional bad bean in them, and they can be dusty. The first is quite unlikely with my beans, the second is a bit more likely, and the third is quite likely (dry beans are supposed to be, well, dry, so washing them prior to packaging is a tricky affair, and so I usually don’t).
The way to deal with the first two issues is to dump however many beans you need on a counter, spread them out, and sort out anything that looks bad. I’m often too lazy to bother with this step, but, if I have any reason to be suspicious of a particular batch of beans (for example, if I know that it was too rainy during the harvest season), I will sort them. It really doesn’t take that much time, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to give them a quick sorting.
The way to deal with the dust issue is to rinse the beans. This is easily done, and, given how often beans are dusty, you should just make it a habit to give beans a quick rinse before cooking or soaking them.
SOAKING: Soaking is not necessary if you’re using fresh beans. If you’ve bought freshly-harvested beans in the fall from me at the farmers’ market, this is one of the advantages: they should cook to a smooth, creamy texture without any pre-soaking.
But after six months of storage, soaking might start to become desirable. The longer they’ve been stored, the more desirable. Some of the beans I’ve seen in stores look to me like they are multiple years old; you definitely want to soak beans at that point. The main reason is that they are likely to dry out more and more with longer storage, and, even worse, are likely to have dried unevenly. The result is that some of them will turn into mush while others will still be little rocks needing another few hours of cooking. Soaking will start re-hydrating and, in particular, will have them more evenly hydrated by the time you start cooking them.
One other reason to soak beans: there is some evidence that soaking beans and then draining them reduces the amount of oligosaccharides in them, thereby making them a bit less gassy. The quick-soaking method has the greatest effect, but also results in more nutrient loss.
The easiest but longer way to soak beans is to soak them overnight (or at least 8 hours, but not more than 24) in cold water. Hard water with certain minerals in it can toughen bean skin; if you suspect that you have such water, add up to three tablespoons of salt per gallon of water in order to prevent the minerals in the water from binding to the bean skins. Even if you don’t have hard water, a little bit of salt in the soaking water is helpful (though not necessary). Expect the beans to at least double in size, so make sure you have them in enough water that the top beans will still be covered at that point. Otherwise, you have the unevenly hydrated beans problem again. After they’ve soaked long enough, drain them and they’re ready for use.
The faster way to soak beans is with the quick-soak method. This method is the same except that you bring the beans to a boil at the beginning, and then remove them from the heat and let them soak for only one or two hours. You do lose some nutrients with this method.
OLD BEANS: This should not generally be necessary with beans you buy from me, but, if you forgot a bag of beans in the pantry for a few years or if you bought some especially old beans at Kroger, there are things you can do to rescue even very old beans.
In the first place, use the quick-soak method. Bringing the beans to a boil first will make the beans more open to hydration.
Second, use some baking soda. After bringing the beans to a boil for the quick-soak method, add 3/8 teaspoons baking soda for each cup of beans. Cover and soak for an hour or two. If the beans are really old and/or stubborn, use a bit more baking soda. After soaking, drain the beans and rinse thoroughly before cooking them.
COOKING: The cooking itself is as simple as covering the beans in a couple of inches of water, adding a pinch of salt, bringing to a boil, and then lowering to a simmer and cooking them until they reach the desired texture. You can skim off the foam that appears on the surface of the water, but doing so is not really essential.
If you want your beans to really shine, add some aromatics to the cooking water. Don’t worry too much about the specifics. The classic method is to throw in some combination of onions, carrots, garlic, and celery, as well as a few sprigs of rosemary, sage, and/or thyme, but you might want to experiment with other vegetables and herbs.
Acidic ingredients, however, are best left until later, since they can prevent the beans from becoming tender.
HOW LONG TO COOK: There’s no easy way to say how long to cook beans, since it can range from as little as 30-40 minutes to several hours, depending on variety and age, so you really just need to check occasionally. Nothing terrible will happen if you leave them on a bit too long, so checking occasionally doesn’t mean watching them like a hawk.
In general, small-seeded varieties such as Peregion take less time, medium-sized ones such as Pinto take a bit longer, and large-seeded varieties such as Red Kidney take the longest. The other big factor is age: beans that have been stored longer take longer to cook (sometimes a lot longer). On the other hand, pre-soaking shortens cooking time.
I don’t grow all of these varieties every year and certainly don’t always have all of them in stock, but these are some of the varieties liable to show up on my market table sooner or later. Note: cowpeas get a separate page, so if you’re looking for information about those, check there.
BERWICK — I found a variant among a batch of my parents’ French Horticultural beans when I was a teen, and have been saving them as a new variety since then. Good creamy texture.
FORT PORTAL JADE — A beautiful small bean with an unusual colour. These beans are also unusually heavy for their size. A good soup bean. Originally from Fort Portal, Uganda.
KEBARIKA — Reportedly a Kenyan heirloom, though I haven’t been able to find much information about it or its provenance. It has a substantial feel similar to Red Kidney beans.
PEREGION — A customer favourite. The beans are gorgeous mixture of tan ones with dark stripes and all-black ones. Because of how small the beans are, they require significantly less cooking time than most other varieties. Good, nutty flavour that is somewhat “darker” than some (think Black Turtle beans but just not as much).
PINTO — Classic variety that perhaps needs no introduction. It’s better adapted to the drier climate of the Southwest, but most years I can get a harvest in Kentucky, too.
RED KIDNEY — Another classic variety. Firmer, more substantial texture than most varieties. Curious fact: most raw beans contain phytohaemagglutinin, which is toxic in higher doses, but Red Kidney beans contain more than other varieties. The FDA recommends boiling them for at least 30 minutes to ensure the toxin is removed, but you would normally cook them longer than that anyway. Slow cookers, however, may not get hot enough to destroy the toxin.
ROSSO DI LUCCA — A cherished traditional variety from the Tuscan region of Italy. Rosso di Lucca is a richly flavoured variety that is excellent for soups, stews, and pasta e fagioli. It pairs well with strong flavours such as garlic and sage.
TIGER’S EYE — Another customer favourite. A beautiful striped bean originally from Chile or Argentina. Wonderfully creamy when cooked and with tender skins that almost disappear.
- Cowboy Kent Rollins’ Refried Beans (I’ve used Pinto, Peregion, and Tiger’s Eye beans with good results, and, yes, these are really good even if you omit the bacon for a vegetarian version)