Beans are seriously underrated, and cooking them at home is even further under the radar. Compared to getting them straight out of a can, eating home-cooked beans is much more economical, nutritious and flavourful. Cooking them yourself does need some element of planning, but it’s one of the simplest plans to make for a hugely satisfying meal in return, which also makes for great leftovers.
I didn’t know there was so much to take into consideration when it came to cooking beans, until I thought of all the things I wanted to mention for this post, and I realized, Holy Cow, that’s a lot more stuff to mention than I thought! But please don’t let this scare you. Cooking beans is certainly not rocket science, but there are numerous aspects to it that you can consider to make the experience as fuss-free and gas-free as possible!
Soaking your beans triggers germination, which helps to break down the complex sugars that human bodies find difficult to digest. Soaking therefore gives you greater access to their nutritional value, whilst reducing flatulence.
My normal rule of thumb is to soak one cup of beans in at least two and a half cups of water. Some beans take in water really well and can double in size, so providing ample water is important to take full advantage of the soaking process. And the more water you use, the more the complex sugars get broken down.
It is possible to cook beans without soaking, but they need a longer cooking time. The couple of times I’ve cooked un-soaked dry beans, it took twice as long. That’s two hours for beans that I normally cook for one hour, and for beans which will then make me fart twice as much. Ain’t worth skipping the soak in my opinion.
I normally soak my beans for at least 8 hours or overnight. There have been some occasions that I have soaked beans for 36 to even 48 hours because of sudden engagements that held me back from cooking. For these situations, I change the water after every 8 hours or so, as it may turn murky or bubbly, and keep the beans in an airtight container together with the water in the fridge after 24 hours, until I get the chance to cook them.
Red lentil is the only pulse that I don’t soak, as it cooks un-soaked in 20 minutes. If you’re pressed for time, Red Lentils are great to keep in your cupboard for those unplanned cooking moments.
If you like, you can add a pinch of baking soda to your soaking water. The alkaline nature of the soda will help to soften the beans and also reduce cooking time later.
Once the soaking is done, toss out the water and use fresh water to cook your beans.
Water and cooking time
A ratio that I usually follow in the pot is two parts fresh water to one part beans. Another rule I loosely apply is to have enough water to have the beans rolling about when the water boils. Some beans take longer to cook than others. I find that soaked mung beans cook fast, and would normally be ready in 30-45 minutes. Most other soaked beans are ready to eat, albeit a bit on the crunchy side, after an hour in the pot. I prefer to keep them in for 90 minutes to get them velvety soft and tender. If your beans take even longer than that to soften, there’s a high chance that your beans are old. You then might need to cook them for two hours. (Try not to store your beans in the cupboard for no longer than two years, and also buy your beans at shops that replenish their stock regularly.)
You can place a lid on top of the pot to get the cooking water to boiling point faster or to intensify flavours, but keep an eye on it. Beans and water combined, with a lid on top, can create a whole lot of what I like to call ‘bubble lava’, which is foam that spills out of the pot. If this happens, remove the lid immediately, and the lava levels drop immediately. I normally leave the lid on just partially, to allow steam to escape and give the lava more time to develop, which is easier for you to monitor.
Something else worth monitoring is the water level, which will drop as the cooking time progresses. Too little water in the pot will lead to uneven cooking, so replenish the water every 20 minutes to make sure the water-to-beans ratio remains the same as when you started. If you’re making more of a stew consistency than a soup one, allow the water levels to drop only after the beans are done, or almost done.
Remember to add salt to the water at the start of the cooking process. The saltwater will get into the beans and enhance their flavour. (I’ve added salt at the end, only to have very salty water, and very bland beans.) If you are planning to add an acidic ingredient, like lemon juice or vinegar, do so at the end. As I had mentioned in the soaking part, an alkaline environment is favored over acidic to keep cooking time as efficient as possible.
I’ve tried using a pressure cooker, which cuts down cooking time easily by more than half. But I do find that that beans cooked this way gives me a lot of gas. I suspect that traditional slow cooking makes the beans more digestible. Feel free to experiment with different types of cookers to see which one best suits your lifestyle, but it’s still worth observing how your body reacts to each cooking method.
The musical fruit can be made less musical not just through soaking, but by also adding other special ingredients to the cooking phase. I use either Kombu or Asafoetida at any one time.
Kombu is a type of seaweed that plays a huge role in Japanese cuisine. It is extremely rich in Vitamins A and C and minerals like Calcium, Iron and Iodine. But apart from these nutrients and imparting a great ‘umami‘ flavour to the beans and water, Kombu also contains enzymes that further break down the complex sugars in beans. I usually add a 2 x 4 inch slice of kombu to a pot before the cooking begins. Once it has expanded fully after the cooking is done, I either remove it, chop it into smaller pieces and then put it back into the pot, or I remove it and eat it on its own. It’s a very filling snack! Sometimes, if you leave it long enough in the pot, it will kind of disintegrate on its own. Kombu can be found at Japanese food stores or organic health stores.
Asafoetida is a ‘spice’ extracted from the sap of a species of fennel plant. It was only recently introduced to me by an Indian friend of mine. He mentioned that his mother used it a lot in the kitchen to ‘de-gas’ beans. Indeed, I discovered that asafoetida is a staple ingredient in Indian cooking. In its fresh form, it has a strong, pungent smell, similar to garlic or onion. This disappears through cooking and, like Kombu, becomes a mellow ‘umami’ element. I have bought it as a solid brown-coloured block – in its pure form – and have left this in the pot to partially disintegrate through cooking for about half an hour, before removing what remains of it to use another time. I have also bought it as a yellow powder, and I have added half a teaspoon of this to my pot of beans just as cooking begins. Asafoetida can be found in Little India and sometimes in little sundry shops that sell beans.
In the early stages of cooking, a layer of foam may develop on top of the water. (The aforementioned ‘bubble lava’ comes from this foam too.) This is all the indigestible stuff that causes flatulence. You can skim this off carefully with a ladle and discard it.
If, after taking all these precautions, your beans still give you uncomfortable amounts of gas, not to worry. It’s interesting to note that if you eat beans regularly enough, your stomach actually starts adapting to digesting them better. You can develop a tolerance to bean farts! Isn’t that rad?
Look up the soaking and cooking details of specific types of beans to help you get the most out of your cooking with them. Beans are incredibly tasty on their own, but adding other ingredients like grains, e.g. rice and barley, and vegetables will help to make it a more complete meal. If you wish to add potatoes to your soup, cook them separately and add them to the soup later (Cooking potatoes in the same pot will make your water starchy and slow down the cooking process of the beans.) Feel free to experiment with different herbs and spices. I particularly love to flavour my beans with bay leaves and a cinnamon stick. I usually add vegetables ten minutes before the cooking is complete, so as to not overcook them, but you can add them in much earlier to enhance the flavour of the water. My safe choices are tomato, leek, carrot, long beans, corn, cabbage and radish.
If you’re only using the beans, the cooking water can still be kept and frozen to be used another time as soup stock.
The beans alone are fantastic to make into bean wraps. Get yourself some Lebanese bread, tomato and lettuce, perhaps mash up an avocado, add a squeeze of lemon, roll it up in foil or baking paper, and your office packed lunch is ready!
If you’re keeping the water together with the beans, you can keep this for 3-4 days in the fridge. They are great to re-heat and pour over a plate of rice or pasta.
Bean soup/stew also keeps great in the freezer for up to 2 months. Very handy for those days when your fridge is not well-stocked, but you’re in need of a nice wholesome meal that just needs thawing and re-heating.
That’s all I have to share from my years of ‘bean’ productive at home, and hope it will benefit you. What I share is limited to my own experience, so if you have any other suggestions or advice that I have missed out on, feel free to leave a comment!