Okay, beans!! I love beans so much that I once read an entire book about the history of beans. They are cheap. They are tasty. They come in about a billion varieties. They show up in basically every regional cuisine on earth.
They are also a bit more involved to cook than some other things, like lentils. And there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there in internet-land about what you should do with them. I have cooked, and eaten, a LOT of beans since I started cooking for myself, so I feel qualified to weigh in on the topic.
Here is the Culinary Cheapskate’s Very Authoritative and Official Guide to Cooking with Beans™, with an emphasis on doing beans on the cheap while still keeping things (relatively) quick and simple.
1. Use dried beans.
Canned beans are super quick and convenient, but they’re about twice as expensive, as well as bulkier to store, and they lack the cooking liquid of home-cooked beans that adds flavor and nutrients to soups and stews. Canned beans are fine in a pinch, but I recommend getting in the habit of cooking your own dried beans over the long run.
Depending on the type of bean and age, dried beans can take anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours to cook. If you stick with the quick-cooking types (including black/tuttle, kidney, lima, adzuki, canelli, and navy beans, all of which should cook up in under an hour if relatively new, assuming they’ve been soaked) and spend the time during which they’re cooking to get your other meal prep done, cooking with dried beans won’t take that much longer than using canned.
I’m a big advocate of soaking beans. It’s not necessary with beans that cook extremely slowly (such as chickpeas and pinto beans), because the beans will absorb enough water as they cook. However, quick-cooking varieties will generally not absorb their full capacity of water during cooking (particularly if cooked in a pressure cooker), and can turn out dry and mealy.
It might be tricky at first, but if you get into the habit of remembering to throw beans in a bowl to soak in the morning when you’re planning on cooking with them in the evening, soaking your beans is pretty much no harder than not soaking your beans. (If you end up not using your beans that day, you can toss them in the fridge until you’re ready to use them.) Dried beans need four to six hours to fully rehydrate.
However, if you do find yourself making a quasi-last minute decision to use beans in a meal and don’t have any soaking, the quick-soak method is a big help. Wash and sort your beans, and put them in a pot covered by two inches of water. Bring this to a full boil and keep it there for one minute, then shut off the heat, cover, and leave your beans to soak for one hour. They will absorb water more quickly this way.
3. Use a pressure cooker and/or a slow cooker.
If you’re going to cook a lot of beans, particularly the slow-cooking varieties (chickpeas, pintos, and anything that’s been sitting around in your cupboard for ages), then it might be worth investing in a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers cook food at a higher-than-boiling-point temperature, which results in the food cooking faster. The upshot of this, for beans, is that you only need to cook your beans for maybe 20-30% of the time required by regular stovetop cooking. This makes a huge difference when cooking slow kinds of beans like chickpeas and pintos. I recommend soaking beans before you pressure cook them (even though a lot of sources say you don’t have to), as they tend to come out dry and mealy otherwise.
Slow cookers provide another potential way to simplify the process of cooking beans. Most slow cookers reach about 300 degrees on the high setting, which is plenty hot enough to cook beans. However, the food in a slow cooker does take quite a while to reach this temperature, so beans will still take several hours to become fully cooked this way. In my experience, fast-cooking varieties of beans cook in about 3-4 hours in a slow cooker; if you leave them cooking all day, however, they can get overcooked and fall apart completely. Slow-cooking varieties of beans can take from 6 to 8 hours to cook fully in a slow cooker, making this a nice option for cooking slow varieties of beans during the day while you’re at work. Generally, you don’t need to soak beans before cooking them in a slow cooker, which makes this a bit simpler as well.
4. Freeze ’em.
Beans freeze and defrost beautifully, so a good way to simplify your life as a bean-cooker is to cook more than you need and freeze the excess in small containers (1- or 2-cup sizes). I generally just cook as much as I can fit in my pot/pressure cooker/slow cooker and freeze what I don’t use in the meal at hand.
5. Don’t be finicky.
I often encounter recipes that instruct you to keep a close eye on your beans, lest they tragically begin to break apart. I think that this is the kind of finicky nonsense that makes cooking a chore rather than a fun activity. There’s nothing wrong with beans that are breaking up a bit, and in soups and stews, this adds thickness and texture to the dish. (Plus, in my experience, beans that are cooked enough to start breaking apart are less likely to result in epic farting.) So don’t sweat it too much.
Okay. I love beans so much that I actually made a flow chart about how to cook beans. Click for the full-sized image.