Simmer dried beans instead of reaching for cans

The Whole Dish podcast: Dried beans are top contenders in ‘$10 Meal Challenge’

After another four-session stint of teaching whole-foods cooking and how to make healthful choices, I shed my apron last week to lead Ashland High School students on a tour of Safeway.

The grocery-store tour is my favorite lesson in the Cooking Matters curriculum, devised by a handful of chefs and government nutrition-guideline gurus. And it isn’t actually geared toward young adults learning how to shop. The section-by-section look at grocery stores opens the eyes of many adults, even longtime cooks and shoppers. It was this tour that sparked educators’ interested in offering Cooking Matters to Ashland School District’s Aspire Program participants.

The tour dedicates the majority of time and attention to the fresh produce section. The current MyPlate model implores Americans to fill half of their plates with fruits and vegetables, a bit less of the former, more of the latter.

But the tour also emphasizes that fruits and vegetables don’t have to be fresh to “count” toward mealtime quotas. Stops in grocers’ frozen and canned sections point out that convenience, seasonality, storage and price all can play roles in choosing frozen and canned items.

Which items do we purchase most often in cans? My co-instructor and fellow ACCESS volunteer, Steve, and I agree that canned tomato products are pantry essentials, along with canned beans.

Yes, we’ll admit that canned beans largely represent convenience, compared with tomatoes’ off-season preservation in cans. And yes, beans are many times more economical and healthful when prepared from scratch, i.e. dried. They just take a bit of time. And when my family pops open a couple of cans of beans for burritos, nachos, tostadas or taco salads, it’s because we didn’t plan far enough ahead to thaw out some meat and we need a fast protein fix.

Because I know that’s bound to happen, though, I need to treat cooking beans like I do stock. When I have a lazy, weekend day at home, I should put a pot of beans on the stove and, after several hours, portion the beans into freezer bags. They’ll take just a few minutes to thaw when I need them in short order.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune makes cooking beans from scratch even more appealing. Turns out that soaking beans isn’t really necessary. Yes, soaking decreases cooking time, but beans take so long anyway, just start them a bit sooner if you’re planning on it being a daylong process. And no, soaking them doesn’t really improve their digestibility all that much. Sorry.

Another myth that the Tribune dispelled is salting before beans become soft. The newspaper’s recipe calls for seasoning the cooking liquid with about half a tablespoon of kosher salt per quart, as soon as it comes to the simmer. The liquid should taste properly seasoned.

To ensure versatility, however, keep the flavor profile simple, limiting it to aromatic vegetables (onions, peppers, garlic, etc.), and fairly neutral herbs and spices. Tomatoes work with almost every cuisine. And pork products (bacon, salt pork, ham hocks, etc.) deepen flavor, and the extra fat gives beans a creamier mouth feel.

Tribune News Service photo

Here’s the Tribune’s method for making a pound of dried beans:

1. Crisp up half a pound of bacon lardons.

2. When they’re halfway there, add aromatics, and sweat for a few minutes.

3. Add beans and enough liquid to cover them by about an inch. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

4, Add salt until the liquid tastes perfectly seasoned, then cover the beans and simmer until they’re soft and creamy.

Depending on the kind of beans and how old they are (beans continue to dry out on the shelf), and depending on whether you soaked or not, this could take anywhere from an hour to three or more. Leave yourself plenty of time, and you can’t go wrong. Check the liquid frequently; if the level drops below the beans, add more as necessary.

When the beans are done, taste for salt, and finish flavoring with whatever you’re using: spices or fresh herbs, vinegar and sugar, barbecue sauce, you name it. Then, consider several more options: Serve beans immediately with rice. Add more liquid and turn it into bean soup. Pass them through a food mill to make bean puree.


Cuban/Latin American-style: Render bacon. Sweat onions, green pepper, garlic and jalapeno, if you like. Use black beans with chicken stock or water. When done, flavor with cilantro, oregano, cider vinegar, sugar and optional sliced pimento-stuffed olives.

French-style: Render bacon. Sweat mirepoix (a 2-1-1 mix of chopped onions, carrot and celery). Use white beans with stock and a bay leaf. When done, flavor with thyme or herbes de Provence. A poached egg on top of these is wonderful.

Tex-Mex: Render bacon. (See the pattern?) Sweat onions, green pepper, garlic and optional jalapeno. Use kidney beans and/or pintos in water or stock. When done, flavor with cumin, chili powder and optional barbecue sauce.


Perfect Pinto Beans

1/2 pound thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 pound dry pinto beans

1 quart low-sodium chicken broth

Water, as needed

Salt, as needed

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

1 jalapeno, split in half (optional)

Cilantro, minced, for serving

Mexican cheese, like cotija or queso fresco, crumbled, for serving

In a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium heat, saute the bacon until fat is rendered but bacon is still soft, for about 5 minutes.

Add the onion and continue cooking until bacon is slightly crispy, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until just fragrant, for about 30 seconds.

Add the beans and stock. Add water until beans are covered by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Season liquid with salt to taste, about 1/2 tablespoon per quart of liquid.

Add the bay leaf, spices and jalapeno, if using; cover and simmer until beans are soft and creamy, for 90 minutes to 3 hours.

Serve warm in bowls, topped with the cilantro and cheese.

Makes 12 half-cup servings.

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