People who know me well have called me a snob about all sorts of things, mostly related to food. When they do, I usually give a smart retort like, “Piss off”. But when it comes to beans, I say, “Damn straight.” Learning to cook with dry beans, instead of canned, has turned me into an unapologetic, preachy, overbearing bean geek.
Since we eat meatless meals so often in our house, beans are a staple. We like them in soups and stews, salads, pastas, and served over rice. In terms of texture and flavor, canned beans can’t come close to dry beans.
My husband recently admitted that he used to think that all beans tasted the same out of a can. Kidney beans tasted like pinto beans tasted like black beans. It wasn’t until we started exploring dozens of dry bean varieties that we truly appreciated the subtle differences in their flavor. And, if you’re making something that requires slow cooking, like a soup, dry beans have the opportunity to become infused with flavor as they cook. Canned beans start soggy and bland and don’t typically improve with cooking.
I have enough diet vices already. I don’t need to unknowingly eat extra sodium. Most canned beans have added salt and are packed in BPA-lined cans. Instead, I buy the best quality, dry heirloom beans available from Rancho Gordo. A pound costs about $5.50 and will yield about 6 cups of cooked beans. You would need about four cans of beans to yield six cups. I’m not interested in doing exhaustive price comparisons, but if you are, you can run the numbers using this conversion.
There’s no need to be intimidated by dry beans, it’s really hard to screw them up. With a little planning, you’ll also find that they are not the endless time suck you may have thought. I would argue that because preparing dry beans is mostly a passive endeavor, they are actually just as convenient as their canned counterparts.
Success with dry beans
The freshness of dry beans will affect cooking time. The beans I get from Rancho Gordo are often less than one year old, while some supermarket beans might stay on shelves for years. Fresher means less soaking and cooking time.
While not always necessary, according to some, I recommend soaking dry beans for a few hours prior to cooking. If it’s a day when you’re home, dump a one-pound bag into a big bowl first thing in the morning, cover with water by several inches, and go do something else until lunchtime. Then, chop up one onion, smash one peeled garlic clove and combine with the beans and soaking liquid. Add more water so so the beans are again covered with water by several inches, and bring the pot to a vigorous boil. Turn the heat down to a very gentle simmer, and go away.
The bean cooking liquid, or pot liquor, is very flavorful. Use it in soups and stews in combination with meat or vegetable stock. You can even poach eggs in it!
The beans will take anywhere from one to four hours to cook through, depending on their freshness. You can test them periodically during cooking. When you’re satisfied with the texture, you can drain the beans (save the liquid!) and use them in recipes as you would use canned beans keeping in mind that one can equals about 1 ½ cups of cooked beans.
Do not add salt, sugar or anything acidic like tomatoes or vinegars to the pot while the beans are cooking since they can affect the texture of the beans. These ingredients should be added once the beans are fully cooked.
To avoid the soaking time, dry beans can be cooked all day in a slow cooker while you’re away. Just add them with a chopped onion, smashed garlic, and plenty of water. Because water cannot evaporate from a slow cooker with the lid on, the pot liquor can’t reduce and won’t be very flavorful. It’s best to discard it in this case. Beans can also be cooked very quickly in a pressure cooker, although I have not personally tried.
As a time-saving tip, cook a whole pound of dry beans at a time. If you have leftovers from a recipe, you can use them for days to make quick meals. For example, make a salad with mixed greens, leftover beans, shaved Parmesan, fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon and the best olive oil you have. Combine reserved pot liquor with chicken or vegetable stock, leftover roasted chicken, wild rice and seasonal vegetables for a quick soup. Puree leftover beans in a food processor with a little pot liquor, caramelized onion, and garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and top with fresh parsley for an easy bean dip or sandwich spread.
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