Basic beans

Today’s a work day, the first one of the year. I was out of the office for most of the past two weeks, spending time with my mother over the holidays and enjoying Chicago, leisure. Which was awesome but also means that I have a lot to catch up on and therefore won’t have much time to cook for the next few days. I have the cabbage rolls from yesterday (they turned out well!), but I’m not crazy about eating the same thing more than twice in a week. So. What to do? I’m going to cook a pot of beans, chickpeas, in the crock pot. That will give me several options: chickpea gratin, hummus, arugula salad, and/or some soup.

While one could use canned beans, I prefer to use dried. First, canned beans don’t taste as good or have the same texture as beans you’ve cooked yourself. Second, the environmental impact of canned beans is far greater than that of dried. Finally, there’s something satisfying about dried beans. Many years ago, well before I had any clue how to care for myself, I had a friend who was far more together than I and who had a kitchen with mason jars that were filled with dried beans and grains. In my mind those jars epitomized the life I wanted. Now I’m all grown up, or at least as much as I’ll ever be, and I still don’t have neat rows of mason jars in my kitchen. But I do have a line of plastic containers from IKEA, six of them, which are filled with beans. The varieties rotate. And sometimes a few are empty. Other times, like now, a few plastic bags of beans and various grains from the bulk section are snuggling with their more formal friends. At all times, however, I derive enormous satisfaction out of the simple sight of dried beans. Which is nice.

To soak or not to soak. According to Steve Sando’s The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, which I heartily recommend, beans are high in antioxidants and B vitamins. It seems to me that a lot of those vitamins will be washed away by presoaking. I also try really hard to waste as little water as possible. But there is a school of thought that presoaking helps digestion. I haven’t found any difference, but that may be because my digestive system has adapted since I started eating so many beans. Or it may be because I cook the beans with the sea vegetable “kombu.” In Clean Food, Terry Walters explains that kombu infuses legumes (and grains) “with minerals, improves digestibility, reduces gas and tenderizes.”

So. How to cook a pot of beans. Believe it or not, the best way I’ve found to cook dried beans is to use a crock pot. Indeed, I can’t recall where I read it, but apparently the crockpot was designed specifically to cook beans. The original name was something like “The Bean Cooker.” I think. One of these days, when I have some time and get a bit more savvy with WordPress, I’ll research and link to that information. For now, back to cooking a basic pot of beans.

2-1/4 c dried beans
1 thumb-sized piece of kombu

Pick over the beans to remove any that are broken, as well as stones or other debris. Cover with about 2 inches of cold water (or, if presoaked, about 1 inch). Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Remove the condo and salt to taste.

Note that cooking times vary depending on how old your beans are and the ph of the water. According to Harold McGee, in Keys to Good Cooking, “[h]ard water high in calcium can keep seeds firm.” I’ve never tried it, but if you have this problem, Mr. McGee recommends cooking with distilled water. Also, if this is your first time cooking beans in a crock pot, you may want to choose a day when you’ll be able to check on the water level after a few hours. Some beans absorb more water than others. You don’t want to cook the beans in a ton of water, as that will dilute both the nutrients and the flavor. But you do want them to remain submerged.

I’m off now. Have a good day!

p.s. After I posted this, a friend pointed me to this post by Michal Ruhlman, which provides a great explanation about how to cook dried beans.

5 comments on “Basic beans

  1. Jessica B. says:

    Hi Bean Lady! I have not heard of nutrients being washed away in the soaking of beans. Generally, it’s the opposite as soaking beans makes them more easily digested and nutrients more bioavailable. Beans (nuts, seeds) have a hard exterior shell because their goal is to prevent digestion so they can be replanted in the earth to grow. By soaking the beans, you are breaking down some of that phytic acid (tannins, carbs, etc) and encouraging full absorption of vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Better yet? Soak beans in warm water with a bit of acid (lemon juice, vinegar) for 24 hrs+ and the beans will start to sprout. This means the tough exterior is breaking open PLUS enzymatic activity increases in the (now) living plant. In my experience, this takes at least a few days (switching out the water occasionally to re-warm/re-acidify) and is harder to do with tight beans (ie: black). Most grains will also sprout but American nuts won’t as they are pasteurized. Yay, beans!

    • Thanks, Jessica! I’m so happy to have a friend in nutrition school, especially you, a smart, generous writer. This information is super helpful. Question: how much does the acid bath affect flavor? And I’m assuming it cuts down significantly on cook times, but, well, you know what they say about the word assume. Please enlighten me!

  2. I just read something interesting in Keys To Good Cooking, by Harold McGee. If you presoak beans in salted water, it will speed cooking. However, if you don’t presoak the beans salting actually slows cooking by slowing water absorption. Mr. McGee also says that unsoaked legumes should be cooked in 2 parts water to 1 part legumes, or, as he refers to them, “seeds.” Soaked legumes should be cooked in 1 part water. But you should check the water level during cooking. I’ll probably continue to go with the 1-2 inches unless I’m home to monitor.

  3. […] first learned about the great bean controversy from my friend Jessica, who commented on this post in which I considered whether to soak or not to soak dried beans. Basically, she explained that […]

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