Thursday, November 18, 2010

Full of Beans!

So as per my last posting, I've been crazily cooking dried beans in an effort to find out just how the hell it is that you really cook dried beans.

For years, I've been cooking beans from scratch but the results have almost always been entirely inconsistent. The same pot might have some beans that are perfectly tender, some that are overcooked to the point of exploding, and a few that are bordering upon raw. I mean, what the hell?!! They all cooked in the same pot! How could this be?

I have always cooked my beans slowly, at a low temperature, and more often than not, I soak them. I have always gone with the recommended standard of not adding salt until the beans are tender. But it never seemed to matter. I longed to be able to turn out the kind of beans in my kitchen that I'd get when I would go to a local Mexican restaurant and order a side of whole pinto or black beans: plump, perfectly tender and full of flavor, and with a velvety skin. Why couldn't I EVER achieve that kind of result in my own kitchen?!

Naturally, I turned to the experts but that only resulted in more frustration. Even Alice Flipping Waters says to just cover the beans with water and cook until they're done! Rick Bayless says that true Mexicans don't soak their beans, and that the key is to just cook the beans in massive quantities. Well, that might work for a restaurant but it's not necessarily practical for the average home cook. I consulted the Dona Tomas cookbook and the Joy of Cooking. Everyone seems to act like it's just natural to easily cook dried beans, as easy as breathing!

What the HELL?! I just couldn't accept that. I started asking around. A couple of my dear friends, Jamie and Kathleen, who happen to be fantastic cooks, admitted that they have the same problem with dried beans. They never cook quite right. I was sad to hear this but it also made me feel validated. Maybe I'm not just a complete bean-cooking idiot.

So I started poking around on the internet, consulting food science writing on the matter, and growing more and more frustrated. Most sources seemed to say it was simple - soak the beans (or don't), cook and don't add salt until the end. In fact, most sources say you'll ruin the beans if you add salt too soon - that it would in fact make the skins rupture before the beans were really done.

But then I stumbled upon a chili recipe which made the outrageous claim that you not only soak the beans with salt, but that you also add the salt when you cook them, right in the beginning. This was contrary to most everything I'd ever read, but I was willing to try anything at this point!

Right around the same time, I also found an article claiming that in order to make fool-proof, perfect beans, without even soaking, that you first boil them on the stove and then finish them in the oven. And I tried this method, both with soaked and un-soaked beans. And the soaked beans definitely had the best texture of any bean I'd ever cooked, but they still tasted a little bland.

So then, I tried first soaking the beans WITH salt, and then boiling and cooking them in the oven WITH salt, and lo and behold, I ended up with the most perfect batch of beans I'd ever cooked in my life. Tender and delicate but by no means mealy. Plump and juicy, salty and smooth, with hardly any beans having split open. Again... What the HELL?! It's contrary to what everyone says, but at this point, I couldn't care less! Because I've made several batches of beans this way now, and they've been by far the best beans I've ever cooked. And people, I have cooked a LOT of beans!

So here's my take on how to cook the most succulent dried beans:

First, soak your dried beans 8 hours or overnight in plenty of salted water. I don't measure much - if I have like a cup or two of dried beans, I add a teaspoon or so of salt. If I've got something closer to a pound, I might add closer to a tablespoon of salt.

After soaking, discard the soaking water and pre-heat your oven to 250. Put the beans in a heavy duty pot that has a fitted lid. Cover with fresh water by about an inch or so. Add more salt and any aromatics. Depending on the type of bean, I usually like to add half an onion, some crushed garlic cloves, a carrot or two, a bay leaf and either a splash of olive oil or a cheese rind - yes, a cheese rind! Adds a nice rich, salty depth.

Bring the beans to a boil on the stove. Once boiling, turn off the stove and put the beans into the pre-heated oven with the lid on the pot. Start checking after 45 minutes or so - depending on how long you've soaked, them, they may be ready that soon or they may take as long as 90 minutes. Recently I cooked black beans that took about 90 minutes - and they were hands down the most perfect pot of black beans I'd ever cooked - as good as the beans I'd get in the local Mexican restaurant, finally!! Cannellini beans using the same method only took 45 minutes until they were meltingly tender. Red kidney beans took about an hour. So you'll need to pay attention, but it's worth the effort, I tell you! I'll never go back to cooking beans the old way.

So that's more than my two cents on beans. Next up, I'm going to post my recipe for chili which features a big damn lot of beans! And yes, it's ok to use canned - I wouldn't blame you a bit if you opted for that - but in case you feel like using beans that you cooked from scratch (and saving a whole lot of money in the process, I might add!), then I urge you to try making them this way. And also, I'd love to hear about your results, too!

Happy bean making, friends! Stay tuned for that chili recipe!


Miss Lisa said...

All right! Beans are indeed mysterious. The best batches I've made are from the slow cooker (which is kind of like an oven). Soaked overnight and cooked most of the next day in fresh water with onion, garlic and a chunk of kombu seaweed. They're pretty flavorful and not to squashy.
If they get over-cooked, I make a bunch of refried beans out of them.

I've tried the pressure cooker a few times but never again--too inconsistent--split beans, undercooked beans--canned beans are better than pressure-cooked beans. I'm going to soak some right now--thanks for the post.

Soup and Song said...

Thanks, Miss Lisa! I agree about pressure cooking beans - I find it really hard to get them just right using that method. So sometimes I just put them in there for a few minutes so it gets them started, and then I finish on the stove top. I don't have a slow cooker though - have resisted getting one since my counter space is so limited, but one of these days I just might break down & do it. Happy bean cooking!!