Bean Basics

Beans, baby.

Nutrition: Dried beans and peas are an essential source of protein and soluble gel fibers in the vegetarian diet, and good for everybody else. There is a lot of information about dried beans and peas on the web. A healthy food, beans have abundant complex carbohydrates, soluble fiber, iron, and folic acid, yet contain little or no fat and no cholesterol. In scientific studies, they have been shown to lower cholesterol, reduce the occurrence of certain types of cancer, and normalize blood sugar. Beans contain natural phytochemicals and protease inhibitors that are being studied as anti-cancer agents.

Always cook thoroughly: Though legumes contain small amounts of toxins--lima beans contain cyanide, for example, and dried beans contain lectins--cooking destroys these compounds, making the toxins harmless. Cooking also destroys enzymes which would otherwise oxidize fats and prevent us from digesting proteins. Not many people are allergic to beans, folks who are, most commonly react to peanuts and soybeans. However, feeding horse beans (fava beans) to some people of Mediterranean descent can cause severe to lethal reactions.

Most beans except soybeans have a protein called "incomplete" because it is low in the amino acid methionine. Your body can use the amino acids that are abundant to make high quality, complete protein if you also eat grains, seeds, dairy or meat at some point during the same day. Beans are one of the best sources of soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower serum cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar. Insoluble fiber is also considerable in beans.


1 pound of dry beans makes 7-9 cups of cooked beans.

Start with the freshest dried beans you can buy. Good beans are smooth and bright. Old beans show cracked seams or are dull or wrinkled. The older the bean, the longer the cooking time, and a really ancient bean will never get tender. Store beans cool and dry, never in the refrigerator.

Spread the beans on a cookie sheet to pick out dirt or gravel, then wash in a big pot or bowl. Discard any skins, shrivels, or broken bits that float. Then drain in a colander, rinse again and place in the rinsed bowl or pot, adding 3 quarts of water for each pound of dried beans.

Bring the beans and fresh soaking water to a boil for two to five minutes before soaking and you need to pre-soak only two to four hours, covered. Even for overnight soaking, boiling first will help prevent the beans from souring because it destroys any wild yeasts. In the summer, soak beans in the refrigerator if you soak overnight.

Assorted Beans
Bean Varieties

Drain and change the water before cooking. Using the soaking water as part of the cooking water preserves a few vitamins but promotes gas formation, while boiling and draining off the soaking water removes over half the complex sugars that cause you to fart up a storm.

For maximum tenderness, do not add sweet or salty foods or sauces, or acidic foods like tomatoes until the beans are almost or fully cooked. Calcium or acid causes the outside of the bean to stay tough. When fruits and vegetables are cooked, heat causes the insoluble pectic substances (the "glue" between the cells) to convert to water-soluble pectins, which dissolve, allowing cells to separate and soften. Both calcium and sugar, however, hinder this conversion to pectin. Cook beans with an ingredient containing these substances, such as molasses, the beans won't get overly soft. That's why Boston baked beans can be cooked for hours and still retain their shape. If you cooked the same beans without the molasses, you would have "refried" beans (bean mush).

Cooking beans in "hard" water, which contains calcium, also prevents softening. If you have hard water, it's best to use bottled water for beans.

Acidic ingredients prevent softening, but in a different way. When calcium and sugar prevent cells from coming apart, the starch inside the cells can still swell and soften, so the beans will be tender. With acids, starch within cells can't swell, so the cells don't ever break down. So don't add acidic ingredients, such as tomato sauce, wine, lemon juice, or vinegar, until the beans are already tender.

Altitude matters for tenderness. People trying to cook beans other than split peas or lentils at altitudes above 2000 feet may also end up with tough beans. Cooking times double. At high altitudes, it helps to use a pressure cooker for those beans for which it is safe, those which do not foam excessively or lose their skins. At high altitudes, you may want to use canned beans which are already cooked if available. Bean flakes and bean grits can be cooked at high altitudes with better results than whole beans. Beans which have been boiled 5 minutes, and soaked overnight, cook more evenly at high altitudes.

Presoaking speeds cooking times. Soaked garbanzo beans and soybeans take about three hours to cook at sea level. Most other presoaked beans take 1 1/2 to 2 hours from the time the water comes to a boil, is turned down to a simmer, and covered, the time to boiling depends on the amount of beans. Not pre-soaking increases cooking time up to 1 hour. Split peas, blacked peas, pigeon peas, small dahl, and lentils do not have to be presoaked, they only take about 25-60 minutes to cook if not pre-soaked. The only exception: if you are going to cook these small beans in the same pot with your rice, presoak them so everything gets done at the same time.
You can tell if a bean is fully soaked. When you split it, each half will be flat, not dented, and the color will be even all the way through, not dryer looking in the middle.

Sprouted beans cook in about half the usual time. Sprouting beans increases vitamins and protein and reduces carbohydrate and reduces gas.

French Cassole With Beans
A FrenchCassole

Tenderizing: Cooking tips to improve bean digestion.

  • Mixing in 1 T of unsalted papaya meat tenderizer per pound of beans before cooking helps decrease any problems with digestibility.
  • Some herbs and spices also help, especially ginger and marjoram.
  • Cooking with kombu seaweed also improves digestibility and flavor.
  • Add epazote to the beans when cooking. Epazote, a little-known herb also called Mexican Tea, helps break down the offensive gas-causing saccharides, but some folks joke dried epazote smells a little like old socks, itself.

Alternate ways to cook: Adjust the cooking time for other cooking methods

  • Pressure cooker: use about 2-1/2 cups of water per cup of beans. Soaked: 20 to 30 minutes, unsoaked: 40 to 50 minutes. Beans which cannot be safely pressure-cooked include all those with skins that separate off, as they may block the valve of the cooker.
  • Crockpot: soaked: 2-3 hours on high, adding hot water as needed to keep the water level above the beans, then 6-8 hours on low. Unsoaked beans on low may NEVER get done.
  • Microwave speeds soaking: 30 minutes. You will have a hard time trying to cook beans in the microwave, but you CAN use it to "flash-soak" them. To "flash-soak" them, microwave the beans, covered with water [about two inches over the tops of the beans], on high for 15 minutes and then let the beans stand covered in the microwave container for another 15 minutes, you can cook them immediately. I just put a plate over the beans when I take them out of the microwave for their last 15 minutes. Be sure to pour the soaking liquid off afterward and use fresh water for cooking