Cooking Beans

Beans (Legumes, Pulses)


Soaking nuts, grains, seeds, and beans

Every whole seed has nutritional inhibitors and mildly toxic substances (phytic acid, tannins, and goitrogens) to prevent it from decomposing or sprouting in unfavorable conditions. When there is enough moisture to sustain a new plant, these inhibitors are removed naturally as the seed begins to germinate. By soaking any “seed”, even hulled and cracked grain for 12-36 hours at room temperature, the enzyme inhibitors and natural preservatives found in nuts, grains, seeds and beans can be minimized or eliminated. The soaking water from organic grains/cereals is nutritious and good in cooking, but soaking water from legumes is for house plants not humans.


Cooking with beans

Depending on which part of the world you consider, beans have had very different histories and reputations. In India, the Americas (among non-Europeans), and the Middle East dry beans were regarded as a wholesome and even holy food, and never developed the stigma they had in Europe of being the stuff for hard times and lower classes. In India, dal and rice is considered the gentlest, most digestible of foods suitable for all occasions and for anyone from young children to high priests. In the western world, except for some traditional Mediterranean dishes, dry bean recipes were almost never mentioned in ancient or modern European cookbooks (or in polite company!). So it is not surprising that most of the delicious varieties of beans (and great ways to cook them) are to be found outside of Europe.

There was never a social stigma attached to the consumption of beans in India – lack of competition with meat. Whereas in Europe beans were a lowly and polluting food, they were consumed avidly in India. (Beans, a history. Ken Albala)

By far the least expensive and healthiest option is to buy bulk dry beans rather than canned. Canned is fine in a pinch, but home cooked beans are tastier, cheaper by a factor of 2 to 4, and easier on the environment (less fuel used for transport and tin cans). They also freeze well up to 6 months, so if you need small batches at a time, cook up a big pot and freeze in small containers. Choose plump, even colored beans from a store with high turnover (like an Indian grocer or the bulk section of a supermarket or co-op). Although beans can be stored for years because they do not contain oils that cause whole grains like brown rice or wheat to go rancid, they will desiccate over time and take much longer to cook.

The trick to cooking whole, un-hulled beans quickly and making them easier to digest is soaking. The longer a grain or bean soaks, the quicker and more evenly it will cook. Split hulled lentils do not require soaking (they will cook in 20-30 minutes even without soaking) but cooking times will be shorter even after a brief 20 minute soak. Most beans expand to 2-3 times their size and weight when soaked, so rinse and soak beans in at least three times their volume of water. The simple soak method (uses less energy and allows the bean to start transforming its chemistry in preparation for life) is to soak in warm water for 6-10 hours before cooking. Try not to leave the beans soaking for more than 10 hours in the same water in a warm room or they will start to ferment. It’s fine to soak up to a day and a half to start them germinating, but you will need to change the water every 8 hours or so – there should not be any bad smells or cloudy water. If you can’t use soaked beans right away, just put them in the fridge in fresh water in a covered container. The quicker soak method is to bring dry beans with enough water and 1 tsp baking soda for each cup of beans to a boil for 2-5 minutes. Turn off the heat, put the lid on and let them rest in the hot water for 1-2 hours. Whatever soaking method you use, pour out the water and rinse. The soaking water will remove a lot of the hard-to-digest starches (such as the gas-causing oligosaccharides) from the beans and their skins, and should be poured out completely. But the soaking water isn’t all bad; if you have house plants or a yard it is terrific plant food (if no soda was used).

Note about using sodium bicarbonate (soda): there have been conflicting studies and theories, some showing that cooking beans for an extended period of time with soda reduces vitamin B content, and others showing that the cooking time is shortened by 1/3 with soda and the vitamin content in the fully cooked bean is the same. I have not been able to find a single scholarly article mentioning that soaking with soda and then cooking in plain water has any adverse effect on the vitamin content, while there are observations from cooks that the “gas” issue is improved and taste is not effected from just soaking with soda. My personal preference is to use the simple (8 hour) soak method in plain water and then cook in a pressure cooker, which produces the softest and easiest to digest beans. If you prefer a firmer texture just reduce pressure cooker time by 30% or so.

If you have a pressure cooker, it’s absolutely ideal for cooking beans. In fact, at high elevation (3000 ft above sea level or more) I would not even attempt to cook whole beans from scratch without a pressure cooker. Generating double atmospheric pressure (15 psi above sea-level pressure), the cooker will reduce cooking times and energy use six to ten-fold. If using one, please follow the instructions for your cooker; you’ll need enough water to just cover the soaked beans, salt and a tablespoon or two of oil. Otherwise, bring soaked beans to a boil in an uncovered pan with enough water to cover the beans by about 2 inches and enough room above the water line for the foam. As soon as the beans are boiling there will be lots of foam which is just dissolved protein from the beans. The foam is harmless and does not need to be removed, but if you put the lid on too early it may run over. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook the beans in plain water on low heat for 1-2 hours until very tender. The more tender the beans, the better their digestion and absorption; do not worry about overcooking – most beans hold their shape and taste great even after simmering for double the recommended time on the stove top, as long as there’s enough water. With a pressure cooker though, it’s best not to exceed the recommended times or the beans may become really soft and shapeless.

Seasoning beans while cooking: it is best not add acidic ingredients, like vinegar, wine or tomatoes, or sugar in the beginning as this will harden bean skins and slow the cooking process. Instead, add these and any other seasonings (including onion, garlic, etc.) when the beans are just tender, about 20 minutes before the end of cooking to allow flavors to permeate (or as soon as the pressure is released from a pressure cooker). Turmeric is an exception, and should be added right away as it actually reduces foaming and cooking times. To get mildly salty beans use 1 tsp coarse salt per cup of dry beans (or grains); whatever amount of salt you choose to use, for the best flavor add it in the beginning or at least 20-30 minutes before removing from heat to give salt a chance to enter all the way into the food.
Unlike animal sources of protein, and unlike seeds and nuts, legumes have basically no fat. A bit of oil (about a tablespoon per cup of dry beans) goes a long way to enhance the taste and digestibility of beans, as well as reduce foaming during cooking. It’s highly recommended, even for those on a diet, to add oil to beans in some way. Also, if you’re new to beans, it’s best to start with eating just a small serving a day to allow your body time to adjust.

Now these tasty, nutritious nuggets are ready to eat or be used in all sorts of recipes!
Here are the beans you will encounter in the recipes of this book (there are of course many other delicious ones not mentioned here). Cooking times assume full pre-soaking. The timer starts after the beans come to a boil on stove top or alternatively reach full pressure in a cooker. Times may vary depending on how old your beans are, how high the heat is, your model of pressure cooker, etc. Keep in mind that there are the additional 10-20 minutes once the heat has been turned off but the lid is closed and cooking process is completing.
Pictured (clockwise from top right) are chickpeas, adzuki, and mung (in dry as well as soaked or slightly sprouted form), and dry split mung dal and red lentils.
Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans, Kabuli chana) come in several varieties – white/tan, green, and brown. The plump white-tan variety pictured here cooks the fastest, is easier to digest and is the most versatile; it is also the only variety you’ll find canned in supermarkets. Great for hummus, curries, salads, stews and pureed soups, etc. Young fresh chickpeas are sometimes available in Indian markets in pods like green peas, and can be eaten in the same way. Mature cooked chickpeas hold their shape and texture remarkably well, making them easy to work with in any recipe. Like other beans, chickpeas are high in protein, low in fat and high in soluble fiber effective in lowering cholesterol. Try to buy plump, relatively smooth chickpeas without blemishes. The most common variety cooks in 90 minutes (8-11 minutes in pressure cooker).

Adzuki look like mung beans but red and a bit larger. They are related to, but not the same species as mung. Their skins are tougher and so they require a few hours longer soaking than mung beans. They are used in sweet (bean paste) and savory dishes in East Asian cooking. Rice with these red beans is considered a good luck dish in Japan. Chilled adzuki with a bit of sugar are considered a detoxifying/skin clearing snack in China. Cook for 55 minutes (4-8 minutes in pressure cooker).

Mung/Moong/Gram beans are green when whole. Soaking can be for as little as 4 hours. Mung dal (light yellow in color) is mung beans with their skins removed; cooks in 25 minutes. Cook whole mung for 40 minutes (3-5 minutes in pressure cooker).

Red lentils/Masoor are used extensively in Indian cooking for making quick and delicious dal soups. Red lentils cook to a very soft consistency in 25 minutes (pressure cooking not recommended due to foaming).

Brown lentils have a nutty flavor and a comfortingly soft texture, great for soups or side dishes. If you have time, it’s good to soak all lentils for 30 minutes to improve digestibility and speed up cooking. Cook 40 minutes (3-5 minutes in pressure cooker).

French/Puy/Green lentils – Popular for salads and in European cooking; unlike brown or red lentils, these retain a firm texture and shape. Flavor is much enhanced by cooked with a bit of onion, celery, and carrot (classic French stock flavor called mirepoix) and/or bouquet garnit herbs (parsley, bay, thyme & optional peppercorns). Cook 40 minutes (3-5 minutes in pressure cooker).

Pinto beans have pretty purple specks when dry (their name means painted/spotted in Spanish) but cook to a uniform pinkish/light brown color. These beans become quite soft when cooked and are ideal for mashed or re-fried beans. Cook for 75 minutes (5-9 minutes in pressure cooker).

Black (turtle) beans – a bit smaller than pinto beans and hold their shape better because their skins are a bit tougher. Same cooking time as pintos. Some people find these easier to digest than pintos or chickpeas. Very popular in southwestern cooking, but also make happy substitutes in other cuisines. 

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The goal of this blog is to celebrate delicious food that's also practical. Contrary to certain foodie trends, we believe there is no reason for amazing food to be expensive or complicated or time consuming.

Our hope is to bridge the ethos of the slow and simplicity movements (cooking delectable traditional foods from scratch, connecting with others, minimizing waste and clutter) with the everyday needs and constraints of “the 99%”.

Check out the recipe section for easy, healthy, authentic recipes from the world’s vegetarian traditions that ANYONE can make.