Monday, March 1, 2010

I don't like you and I'm gonna beat you up

One of the interesting things about this meatless Lent has been the way that it's affected my meat cooking on Sundays -- for instance, yesterday I mixed miso into my burger for an umami boost, and gave goat butter Buffalo wings a try (they're good but the spice overwhelms the goatiness).  Now, the goat butter I probably would have picked up one way or the other, but miso is something I hadn't got round to picking up until it occurred to me that it would be a good addition to vegetarian chili.

See, I don't want some bullshit vegetarian chili.  Chili with a bunch of carrots and celery and squash and all that jazz isn't chili, it's spicy soup.  I want a chili that suits chili traditionalism (outside of Texas and its no-bean rule, anyway) but just doesn't happen to have meat in it.  So I'm working on that.  I don't think I have it quite down yet.  That's why I haven't posted a million bean recipes -- I'm still working them through.

But for now, a basic guide to dried beans.

First of all, you don't need to soak beans.

Almost everybody gets this wrong.  Food writers.  Cooks.  Your mom.  Bean vendors.  You don't need to soak beans.  It won't improve their texture, it won't improve their flavor, it won't have a significant impact on their cooking time, it won't make them more easily digestible.

You can soak your beans.  It doesn't do any harm.  With very stale beans that are years old, it might have a greater impact on their cooking time, and that may be where this practice comes from.  But generally it's going to buy you maybe half an hour, and I don't see that thirty minutes is worth an overnight soak and the need for advance prep.  Soaking is one of those myths that survives because if you do soak your beans, hey, your beans turned out fine.  Well, they'll turn out fine if you dance a jig and rotate the pot widdershins three times too, but that doesn't mean shit.  Stone soup comes out just fine with no stones at all.

Without soaking, beans take no longer to cook than a decent pot roast, and need very little supervision.

You can toss them straight into a Crock Pot, flip it up to high, and just wait a while.  That works.  Even soak-advocates often mention that, so I don't know why they're so hung up on the soaking myth.

But here's how Russ Parsons advocates cooking beans, here's how I generally cook beans:

Heat a cast-iron pot with a lid on your stove, on medium high heat.  Saute any aromatics you like -- carrot, celery, onion, pepper, garlic, for instance.  Add a fair bit of water (I eyeball this, can't help you with measurements).  Bring it to a boil.  Add your beans and maybe some seasoning.  Keep on a high boil for five minutes.  Cover and put in a 250 degree oven for a couple hours.  Start checking on the beans after 90 minutes or so.

Keep in mind that canned beans -- which not only weren't soaked before cooking, but weren't even cooked, in that the canning process actually does the cooking -- are softer, more "well done," than people traditionally cooked beans for the thousands of years before commercial canning was introduced.  So you can cook them to that point, but you shouldn't feel you have to.  Often when people avoid canned beans, it's because of this matter of texture and doneness.

Very important points about bean cooking:

Never add acids to uncooked beans.  That means tomatoes, vinegar, molasses, lemon juice, anything like that.  In an acidic cooking environment, beans won't soften.  Ever try to make baked beans and added the molasses at the beginning?  Twelve hours later you've got the same thing you started with, just hotter.

Add salt at the beginning.  You can add more later, but if you only add salt at the end, you're seasoning the pot liquor, not the beans.  Yes, this is another thing conventional wisdom gets wrong.  Look, it's the same reason you add the aromatics to the pot: the beans are soaking up water.  Put flavor in the water and the beans will soak up flavor.  If you wait to salt the beans, it will take more salt to get the job done.  It's a myth that salting the beans before they're cooked will make them tough.

What will make beans tough is having really old beans.  Beans keep for years.  For decades.  This is one reason they've been cultivated: they're a durable storage protein.  But if you're not living in a fallout shelter, they don't have to keep for years.  The beans at your supermarket, depending on where you live and what the sell-through is like, are probably quite old.  They may have been old when they arrived.  They may have been old when they were packaged.

Beans, peppers

Beans are so cheap, there's no harm in paying a little extra for them.  I've been happy with beans from Rancho Gordo, which are sometimes carried in stores, or available from the website.  They're not cheap.  But for entree beans, rather than afterthought beans, they're not expensive either. 

One of the reasons I'm digging these beans is because they're good and satisfying with minimal adornment -- anybody who's spent more than passing-through time in the South knows there's nothing wrong with a bowl of beans and maybe some cornbread, but your supermarket canned beans need a lot of hot sauce or other seasoning to keep from being one-dimensional.  (Black beans are an exception worth mentioning; canned black beans can have surprising depth and complexity.  There are probably a handful of other exceptions, though I have found canned black-eyed peas, for instance, to taste less "earthy" and more "like dirt.")  Really good beans come with more than one dimension right out of the pot.


  1. One advantage to soaking beans before cooking them is that it evens them out. In a bag of dried beans typically I find some that are really very dried out and some that are just a little dried out.

    When I cook them without soaking, especially if I cook for a relatively short time, the result is that the ones that started out less dry are mushy by the time the ones that started out fully dry are edible.

    Soaking them beforehand brings them all to the same starting point, so I can cook up a nice even pot of beans to whatever degree of softness I want.

  2. My reply keeps getting eaten, either that or this has posted four times. Anyway! That's true. I think the extent to which it's an issue varies by bean -- with my Rancho Gordo beans, the size variation is greatest with the pinto-like beans (I don't know enough about bean botany to know if it's accurate to refer to a "pinto family"), whereas I've found black-eyed peas to usually be pretty regular.