Update, February 2013: It’s fun to go back in time and read some of these early posts on the blog. While I can think back to the time when I didn’t cook with dried beans, I had forgotten that I didn’t “cook with beans all that often.” It seems crazy to me now, when rarely a week goes by without a pot of beans simmering away on my stove, but I think that’s the beauty of learning to cook with dried beans: it opens up whole worlds of possibility, in taste, texture, variety, beauty: it’s so much more exciting to cook with beans when your options go beyond, black, white, or kidney. Once you start looking for interesting, heirloom dried beans, you’ll find them: Rancho Gordo is one of my favorite sources, but I also find local beans at farmer’s markets and shops, online from Cayuga Pure Organics, at Seed Savers (as noted below); I’ve even found local Maine dried beans at my favorite little whole foods shop in Ellsworth, John Edwards. Another factor in my bean love affair has got to be Steve Sando’s excellent Heirloom Beans cookbook: I’ve made many of the recipes and none disappoint. I highly recommend it if you are looking to get more beans into your diet. A quick look through the heirloom beans archive should convince you: I’ve definitely made good on that New Year’s resolution!
Growing up in and around Boston, when I think of “beanpot” my first thought is hockey. But this year, as a New Year’s resolution, I resolved to try to use dried beans more often, if not exclusively. I don’t cook with beans all that often to begin with, but when I do, I shamelessly used canned beans: in fact, I’ve never used dried beans! Pretty ridiculous for someone who cooks a lot and is dedicated to not only local food, but heirloom food. So recently, in doing some seed shopping at Seed Savers Exchange (seed starting season is right around the corner, you know!), when I saw their eating bean sampler, I figured I had to buy it in order to force myself to try cooking with dried beans and to test out potential varieties for my back-deck garden.
I got six heirloom varieties: Painted Pony, October, Jacob’s Cattle Gasless, Boston Favorite, Dutch Bullet Bean, and Lina Cisco’s Bird’s Egg. The names alone fascinate me but the provenance of these beans is equally fascinating: Lina Cisco’s grandmother carried Bird’s Egg beans with her on a covered wagon trip to Missouri in the 1880s; Boston Favorite have been grown in the Boston area since 1885 and are the famous “Boston Baked Beans” bean; October beans are a Native American variety dating to the 1830s from the Cherchei Nation in Tennessee.
Before you can start enjoying heirloom beans in all sorts of delicious recipe, you need to cook them. So: a primer on cooking dried beans.
- 1 lb dried beans (equals about four 15-oz cans when cooked)
- 2 tsp sea salt, or to taste
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the same can be said for cooking dried beans. The basic idea is to keep enough liquid over the beans so that none dry out, apply heat, and cook slowly. I like to cook a pound at a time and then freeze whatever I don’t need to use right away.
- Overnight soak. In a medium bowl, cover beans by at least 2 inches of cool water, cover bowl with a clean kitchen towel and allow to soak overnight. Transfer beans + soaking water to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or bean pot, add additional water (if necessary) to cover by 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to the lowest setting, cover and simmer until tender, anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the variety and age of your beans. Add salt in last 30 minutes or so of cooking.
- Quick soak. Pour boiling water over dried beans for the initial soak and let beans sit for 1 hour.
- No soak. Alicia has a No Soak Beans recipe up on her blog. Rumor has it you can also simply pour cold water over beans and start cooking them on the stovetop: they will simply take much, much longer to cook.
- Soup/stew bean. Many soup or stew recipes will call for an initial soak and then simply a rinse, with the beans actually cooking in with the soup. This produces a thick, beany broth that can be quite delicious, or can overwhelm the other flavors in the dish, depending on the recipe. Best to experiment and see which you prefer.
- Baking. Sugar, acid and calcium all slow down the cooking of dried beans. Classic Boston Baked beans, cooked with molasses, can therefore cook for a long time. Elise explains on Simply Recipes.
- Pressure cooker. I don’t have one, but Laura at Hip Pressure Cooking does. Lots of bean & legume recipes over there.
- Crock pot. I’ve tried this a couple of times, but honestly never been happy with the results. My beans have turned out mushy every time. I don’t recommend it.
- I typically like pure, unadulterated beans, as I nearly always am adding them to another recipe. However, many people add flavorings to their pot of beans: a basic mirepoix of sautéed onion, garlic, celery, carrot and other aromatics; bay leaf and other dried herbs or whole spices; olive oil, salt pork, ham hock or other fatty flavorings. I find that fresh heirloom beans need little in the way of flavor, but you should experiment to find out how you like them best.
- Some people swear that adding salt to the cooking water before beans are tender will toughen them; others swear that it’s a myth. I follow Steve Sando’s advice and add my salt towards the end of the cooking time, but I haven’t made a comprehensive side-by-side comparison. Maybe someday.
Refrigerated, for up to 3 days. Frozen, for up to 3 months. I find that they store best frozen with their soaking liquid, in or a soup or stew.