Bean There, Do That: Legume Lore, Why They Should Be In Your Kitchen and How to Cook Them
Beans, also called legumes or pulses, are the seed of the flowering plant family Fabaceae that produce fruits and seeds inside a pod, which also includes peas and lentils. With the pandemic disrupting normal life and reducing regular supply chains, a lot of my fellow herbivores have noticed that the bean aisle at the grocery store is a lot more bare than it used to be. It’s not just in our imagination. With beans being an excellent and affordable source of protein as well as folate, copper, zinc and other nutrients, it’s no wonder that a world in chaos is starting to come around to them. There could be worse things! In a way, we are returning to them. Beans were promoted as an accessible protein source in the United States during the Great Depression and World War II, but in some ways, this has served to cast them as a lesser food to only turn to when meat is less available. In addition to affordability and limiting the food-borne illnesses associated with flesh and animal products, not to mention the benefits to our heart and gut health as well as a reduction in Type 2 diabetes, beans should be in the very top spot for protein.
Just as lots of people are learning how to bake bread these days, people are experimenting more with beans. As convenient and easy as canned beans are, many of us with a little extra time on our hands these days are exploring dried beans: not only are they a bit easier to source these days, they are even more affordable and delicious than the canned kind. For a humble food associated with peasants — so-called peasants happen to be the best cooks around the globe — dried beans are still a bit mysterious. How do you prepare them? How do you improve the flavor, texture and digestibility? Don’t worry: we’ll get to that.
First, though, indulge me in a little deep dive down the beanstalk.
Fava beans, also known as broad beans or faba beans, are one of the most ancient cultivated plants, dating back to at least 6,000 B.C.E., where it was an important part of the Mediterranean diet thanks to its hardiness and ability to adapt to extreme differences in climates as well as capacity for growing in different kinds of soil conditions. The hearty beans were — and still are — revered in Sicily for helping Sicilians survive a serious drought and famine in the Middle Ages, and they are still celebrated in March for St. Joseph’s Day (yes, that Joseph, the famous carpenter) who is credited with sending the rains that helped the fava plants to thrive and keep people from starving. The holiday is celebrated with feasts starring fava beans and carrying the legume in your pocket or wallet is considered good luck. (By the way, Cyamites, a deity of the Eleusinian Mysteries and frequent consort of Demeter, is the demi-god associated with bean cultivation.)
Oddly, despite being considered the father of vegetarianism (enough that abstinence from meat was called the Pythagorean diet until the 19th century), Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras was not a fan of beans of any variety but fava beans were especially verboten. Pythagoras’ adherents were forbidden to eat or even touch beans as they believed that beans and humans were made of the same material and eating beans was tantamount to cannibalism. Fava beans were especially off-putting to Pythagoras and his followers as it was believed that the souls of the dead could travel up the hollow stems from the Underworld, enter the beans and then the person eating them via transmigration. Pythagoras’ mandate against beans — including the dreaded fava — was lifted shortly after his death, which one legend has it happened when he refused to run through a bean field to evade tormentors. Who knows? In any case, the edict was lifted.
Superstitions aside, fava beans are popular around the globe, used in traditional recipes from Algeria to Vietnam and found in everything from falafel and ful medames to stews, soups and snacky street foods.
Aside from the most famous folk tale about Jack (thieving and murderous but for some reason, the hero) with his beanstalk, stories around the world abound with supernatural beans. Native American tribes, most notably the Iroquis, included beans as one sibling of the Three Sister crops alongside winter squash and corn, hugely important agricultural products that filled bellies and benefited the soil with their ingenuous companion planting technique. In Japanese folklore, azukiarai is a ghostly phenomenon where an eerie sound reminiscent of adzuki beans being washed or ground by a goblin-like creature with a pail of the legumes can be heard near a body of water. How weirdly specific! Of course beans factor into New Year’s superstitions about good luck: in the Southern U.S., eating black-eyed peas on January 1 is a tradition thought to bring about prosperity and good fortune in the year ahead.
Rumblies in Tummies: Cause and Preventions
As every grade schooler knows thanks to a memorable rhyme I don’t need to repeat here, beans are pretty well-known to cause, um, gastric distress due to the sugar molecules they contain called oligosaccharides, which can cause gas and bloat as they move from the small to the large intestine and the intestinal bacteria in the gut creates a carbon dioxide response.
So how can you make beans more digestible? First, by eating a smaller amount than you might normally to build your tolerance, making sure the beans are pre-soaked and fully cooked, or enjoying ones that sprout easily, like lentils and chickpeas. Increasing your complex fiber in general might also be helpful for building your body’s tolerance. Other tips: cook with kombu, a sea vegetable that improves digestibility (be sure to remove the kombu before eating); cooking with bay leaves also is an old method for making beans easier to digest; skim off the frothy foam from the stovetop pot after the beans have been boiled and before simmering as this has many of the difficult-to-digest compounds; and pre-soak in plenty of water overnight or up to 24 hours before cooking.
Before Soaking Dried Beans, Read This First
Make sure you sort the legumes, removing any pebbles, stones or other debris as well as shriveled or discolored beans before you soak them. Rinse and then cover in ample soaking water.
Pre-Soak and Quick-Soak
You can soak for eight to 12 hours or longer, remembering that a longer soak is thought by many people to boost digestibility and reduce cooking time. If that isn’t in the cards, and you don’t have issues with bean digestion, many people love the quick-soak method as a convenient option: Put the dried, sorted and rinsed and drained beans in a pot and over with about two inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, cook for one minute, remove from the heat and cover. Allow this to soak with the cover on for one hour, drain, and cook until ready. If you are able, though, pre-soaking is recommended for tender beans that cook faster and more evenly. Discard any soaking water before cooking and start fresh.
It depends on the cooking method and the bean variety. That said, here is a list of cooking times for stovetop beans, but keep in mind that fresher beans that haven’t been sitting around for years may cook quicker than older ones.
No Soaking Necessary
Lentils, mung beans, split peas (all kinds), adzuki beans and black-eyed peas can go straight into the pot for cooking without a pre-soak.
There are multiple methods for cooking dried beans, all with their enthusiasts. You will be amazed at how good a humble pot of beans can smell and even more impressed by the taste. Here are the most common ones:
After a pre- or quick-soak, cook on the stovetop, using about three to four cups of fresh water per cup of dried beans. After bringing to a boil, keep them at a simmer, tempting though it might be to cook under a higher flame, to avoid bruised beans with tough skins and exploded insides. Creamy beans on the stovetop require a simmer and some patience. Check the chart in the “how long” section above for reference, but cooking time varies depending on the kind of bean, how big it is and how fresh it is; taste as you go about every 30 minutes to determine when they are tender enough. My favorite way to cook beans on the stovetop is with sliced yellow onion, smashed garlic cloves and a bay leaf of two, which are removed after cooking. Other seasoning options can be dried chile peppers and fresh herbs. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, start adding salt when they are almost finished cooking because if you add it at the beginning, this can prevent the starches from being broken down and result in tougher beans.
Slow and steady heat is kind of the name of the game for perfect beans, so while slow cookers may feel like a relic compared to some of the fancier pieces of kitchen machinery, they are perfect in this role. (And I am a huge slow cooker fan: pour in ingredients, set the timer, cook, ignore and before you know it, the house smells phenomenal and dinner’s ready.) Add pre- or quick-soaked beans to a slow cooker with plenty of water (aim to cover by about two inches) as well as any seasonings, cover and cook on low for six to eight hours, add more seasonings and enjoy as is or prepare according to a recipe.
Totally contrary to the above method, pressure cooking enthusiasts love the speed, convenience and reliable results it lends to cooking beans. I am specifically talking about the Instant Pot, or IP, brand here because there are different pressure cookers but the IP is by far the most widespread these days. Do a little digging and figure out how long the beans will need to cook as it will vary widely from ten minutes for lentils to 40 minutes for chickpeas as well as how fresh the beans are. Once you have determined what time to enter, add the drained pre- or quick-soaked beans to the Instant Pot with two to three cups of water per cup of beans, as well as any seasonings. Snap on the lid with the vent sealed, enter your time, and allow for the natural pressure release after it has cooked. You’re done or continue to the rest of the recipe.
There are different brands, but La Chamba Cookware from Colombia makes handmade and unglazed pots using local clay and they have a huge fan base that loves the creamy, flavorful and tender beans that result from cooking in this traditional vessel. Enthusiasts say heat and moisture circulate better throughout the pot, improving the texture of the beans, and the mineral composition can impart richer, smokier flavors. Clay pots can be used on stove tops or baked in the oven, but each brand will have its own instructions for best use.
Still need some persuading? Well, remember that cocoa and coffee are both technically beans. Beans can be tasty and addictive and like some other kitchen staples, it is about what the cook brings to the table. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some bean recipes, both canned and dried, look no further.