10 Things I Learned from Writing a Whole Book About Beans

updated Sep 15, 2020
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Credit: Aubrie Pick

Long before a global pandemic had us all stocking our pantries, I thought beans were due for their moment in the spotlight. The makings of a trend were lining up. There was a growing interest in plant-based eating; more and more research showing beans’ benefit to our health and the health of the planet; the cult popularity of California bean purveyor Rancho Gordo; skyrocketing sales of Instant Pots.

Before Cool Beans, my cookbook devoted to them, was published in February, the moment seemed to take shape: In December, an Eater headline read, “Everyone who loves to cook was making beans this year.” For once, my timing seemed spot-on. And then the pandemic locked many of us in our homes, forced us to make much fewer frequent visits to the supermarket, and had a new wave of people wondering what the heck to do with all those beans they had stockpiled. 

As much as I wish I could turn back time to our pre-mask-wearing days, I have been happy to help answer that question, and many more. My mission with Cool Beans, after all, has been to help demystify them, help cooks understand their versatility and range, and inspire people to make beans part of their weekly — even daily — kitchen routine. 

My own year of recipe development and research (in which I cooked and ate beans at virtually every meal) taught me important lessons — lessons that I hope can help any cook love beans as much as I do.

Credit: Aubrie Pick

1. Beans don’t need much.

I’ve heard it time and time again: Beans “need help” to taste good. Most of the time, when people say this, the help they mean is a big piece of smoky pork. I’m not going to deprive anybody of their ham hock, but the fact is, when you cook beans right and season them sufficiently, they are so flavorful — nutty, creamy, sometimes a little sweet — that they require little to no enhancement to make your meal delicious.

One of my favorite recipes in Cool Beans is also the simplest: Cranberry (aka borlotti, aka cacahuate) beans cooked gently until tender, then boiled down for a half hour with a sofrito of onion, garlic, tomato, and chile. The dish, from Mexico City chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia, is a stunning reminder of just how complex beans can taste when you do very little to them.

2. Cook beans from dried, and you get two products in one.

The broth dried beans create is pure liquid gold — wonderful in stews, to add body to pasta sauces (just like pasta water), to sip on its own, to thin out purées, and, perhaps most importantly, for storage. The liquid keeps the beans tender and infuses them with flavor in the refrigerator, and also seems to prolong their life. It also protects them in the freezer, making this an ideal option in households that won’t go through a pound of beans in a week.

3. Beans are good for so much more than soups and stews.

Look, this is how I started on my bean journey, too, and for good reason: That broth is so delicious, you want to take advantage of it. But beans are so versatile you can work them into any part of the meal: dips and spreads (and the crackers used to scoop them), salads, sandwiches, tacos, pizzas, casseroles, pasta dishes, even drinks and desserts.

That’s because beans are truly unique, as the only food that the USDA categories as a protein and a vegetable. They’re also a little starchy, meaning they don’t have to always play the part of “meat” in a plant-based dish. Sometimes they’re the grain, sometimes the binder, sometimes the sauce! Once I realized this, I knew I could work beans into almost any previously bean-less dish I could think of. Example: Tabbouleh, the Middle Eastern parsley salad traditionally made with a smaller-than-Americans-usually-think-is-right amount of bulgur. When I wanted to make a beany version, I didn’t just add cannellinis: I substituted them for the grain, keeping all the proportions intact.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Beans are beloved around the world.

Millions upon millions of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, African, Central and South American, Asian and American cooks can’t be wrong.

When I first started working on Cool Beans, I thought, “How am I ever going to come up with 125 recipes featuring beans?” By the end, after talking to chefs and home cooks all over the world about their favorite treatments, and collecting recipes from them and developing so many of my own, I thought, “How am I going to stop at 125?” From south Indian dosas and Ecuadorian ceviche de chochos to Georgian lobio and Egyptian foul mudammas, seemingly every country has its favorites. And many of them are plant-based.

5. You don’t have to soak beans, really. 

As bean purveyor Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo says, “Cooking is faster than soaking.” What he means is that it can be folly to think that because you didn’t start prepping tonight’s dinner last night, you can’t get beans on the table. The truth is, soaking doesn’t really save all that much time — and the tradeoff of advance planning involved makes it a deal-breaker for too many home cooks. 

Soaking, in fact, saps some beans — particularly thin-skinned ones like black beans _ of flavor, so if you want the best-tasting beans possible, skipping the soak is often a good idea. No matter how you’re cooking beans — in a pot on the stovetop or in the oven, in an Instant Pot or a slow cooker — you can do it without soaking, although doing so can alleviate flatulence.

I find the “quick soak” particularly silly. This is the method where you bring a pot of beans to the boil, then turn them off and let them sit for an hour, then resume cooking. To me, that’s an hour of soaking that could have been an hour of cooking.

6. Age is everything.

One of the best reasons to soak is when you’re cooking beans of an unknown provenance and age. Too many supermarket beans give no clue about how old they are, and the older they are, the longer they take to cook. Soaking, in that case, can function as something of an insurance policy; I find it causes older beans to behave more like younger ones, and cook more quickly and evenly.

A better bet is to get in the habit of buying beans from sources like Rancho Gordo, where the beans are sold within a year of being dried. When people cook Rancho Gordo beans for the first time, it’s a revelation.

7. Don’t fear the salt — or the tomatoes.

A longstanding theory holds that you shouldn’t add salt to beans until they’re tender, and that seasoning them earlier toughens them and causes them to take longer to cook. In fact, salt extends the cooking time of beans only by a few minutes, and you can’t beat the effect on flavor that seasoning them from the beginning will get you. And if you do want to soak your beans, adding salt to the soaking water, creating a brine, is the best way to do it.

Related to the salt myth is the acid myth, that you shouldn’t touch the cooking liquid with even the slightest amount of tomato or citrus or vinegar, or the beans won’t soften. It takes a lot more than a few tablespoons of such an ingredient to have an effect on the beans. If your beans aren’t getting tender after an hour or two, I bet it’s the hardness of your water, not any other ingredients in it, that is the culprit, and that can be fixed with a pinch of baking soda — or the use of distilled water.

8. The gas is worth getting used to.

We all sang some version of the song as kids, right? The one about the musical (or magical) fruit? I loved it then and I love it now, but — surprise, surprise — it’s not entirely accurate. The more you eat, the more you toot? Not so fast. One 2011 study in Nutrition Journal showed that half the participants, true, reported experiencing more flatulence in the first week of adding 1/2 cup of beans a day to their diet, but stick with me: Almost three-quarters of those said the symptoms dissipated by the second or third week. 

There are plenty of things that can help reduce the flatulence, which occurs because of oligosaccharides that our bodies don’t have the enzyme to fully digest. Soaking and pressure cooking can help. So can such additions as the Mexican herb epazote, the Indian powder asafoetida (hing), and such spices as cumin and ginger. 

I like to cook my beans with a strip of kombu, a variety of dried seaweed, which helps soften the beans as much as soaking — and also contains that enzyme we lack (the same one in Beano) that helps us digest beans. Win, win.

Most importantly, nutritionists say beans are good for our gut health, meaning we should feel free to break out into song anytime beans live up to their musical reputation.

9. There’s no shame in canned.

As much as I like to get in the habit of cooking a pound of beans from dried every weekend, and then storing them in that “liquid gold” for use in all sorts of weeknight recipes, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. And I’m not afraid to open a can. Canned beans are up there with the world’s greatest convenience products (alongside canned tomatoes), and I always have at least 3 or 4 cans in my pantry. 

If you’re making a recipe that doesn’t depend on that liquid, they’re such a time-saver: I throw them into salads, purée canned chickpeas into hummus, and spice them up for tacos and tostadas. 

And here’s the thing: Canned beans do some things better than those you lovingly cooked from dried. Why spend time plumping dried chickpeas with moisture if your goal is to roast them until they’re crispy, a process of getting rid of all that moisture? For that, canned is your best bet.

10. Beans might just help you live longer.

If you remember, the aforementioned song also included lyrics about beans’ benefit to your heart. This time the lyricists were right. In fact, the list of beans’ health benefits is long: They’re nutrient-dense, rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants and heart-healthy fiber, and they have been shown to help stabilize blood sugar and possibly even lower cholesterol. 

Consider the “Blue Zones” project, in which Dan Buettner and his fellow researchers identified and studied the habits of people in five populations around the world who live significantly longer than average. They share many habits in common (daily exercise, strong social connections, family commitment, moderate alcohol intake), but the one that jumped out at me when I first read about the project was this: The cornerstone of all their diets is beans, about 1 cup per person per day. When Buettner was asked on The Splendid Table radio show what dietary takeaways the rest of us could gather from his project, his response was, you guessed it: “Eat more beans.” 

Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans is Kitchn’s September pick for our Cookbook Club. See how you can participate here.