The Serious Eats Guide to Beans

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, except where noted]

Sure, beans may be the stuff of crass rhymes and penny-pinching diets, but they're also one of our oldest, most reliable, and most diverse forms of sustenance. In part, that's because there are more than 18,000 species of legume plants, growing on every continent save Antarctica, a vast number of which yield the edible seeds we know as pulses and beans. "Seeds are our most durable and concentrated foods," Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking. "In fact," he adds, "seeds gave early humans both the nourishment and the inspiration to begin to shape the natural world to their own needs...ten thousand turbulent years of civilization have unfolded from the seed's pale repose." And we don't just thrive on beans ourselves—we use them to feed our livestock, and even to fuel our machines. In many ways, beans make our world go 'round.

Much of the popularity and proliferation of legumes is due to their ease of growth (legumes are self-pollinating) and tolerance to drought, which keep prices steady and low. Add their widely touted health benefits, a nitrogen-fixing growth cycle, and capacity for long-term storage, and you have something of a superfood. With their diverse range of flavors and applications, it's no surprise that beans have become cooking staples in almost every cuisine in the world.

And yet, for many of us, beans and pulses remain something of a puzzle. What exactly qualifies as a bean, how do species vary from one another in flavor and texture, and what's the best way to buy and cook them? Here's what you need to know.

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What are beans, anyway?

Broadly speaking, beans are the edible seeds of a variety of plants in the Fabaceae family. This means that their anatomy includes the necessary elements for continued bean production—an outer seed coat, which protects the bean; a micropyle, just below the seed coat, which allows water absorption; the cotyledon, which houses stored food used for initial growth; and the embryo, from which another bean plant will grow. Beyond this basic definition, beans can be divided into two groups: those that can be eaten pod-on (snap peas, for instance) and those that are shelled for their seeds, which can then be eaten either fresh or dried.

Like most crops, beans are planted in the spring and yield the bulk of their bounty in the fall. But if left on the plant, the small pods grow into shelling beans, which, after the stalks are cut, are allowed to dry in the field. "That's why you get stones or dirt clods or other organic debris, and why you always have to check your beans before you cook them," says Steve Sando of Napa Valley's Rancho Gordo.

What's the deal with "heirloom" beans?

Heirloom beans are grown from seeds that have not been cross-pollinated with any other varieties; they've been the same, genetically speaking, for decades. For this reason, they may not be the easiest to grow, but they tend to be more distinctive in both color and flavor—think marbled skins, vibrant hues, and flavors that range from earthy to mushroom-y to meaty to nutty. The better-known varieties sold at most supermarkets, on the other hand, are commodity beans. These have been bred to produce higher yields with a more consistent appearance, or, in some cases, to grow rounder beans that are easier and more efficient to can thanks to their uniform symmetry.

Both heirloom and commodity beans are cheap sources of protein and great for the soil. "But it's with heirlooms that you get the really interesting flavors and textures," Sando argues. "There's an enjoyment of cooking them. Commodity beans are more about ease of harvesting and production, while heirlooms are more appealing to cooks."

What's the difference between dried and canned beans?

Canned beans actually are dried beans—they're just dried beans that have already been cooked. Unlike with their uncooked counterparts, there's no need to soak or simmer canned beans, so the process of getting them from shelf to plate is swift, foolproof, and undeniably convenient. That said, the brine in which canned beans are stored does leach out starches, proteins, and plant solids, which often results in a less robust flavor and texture. But, depending on what you're using them for, this may not have such a tremendous impact. If you want to substitute canned for dried, we won't judge—we'll just encourage you to simmer them in your soup or stew for about half an hour so they can absorb some flavor, and remind you to follow our simple conversion chart to get the most bang for your buck.

One downside to canned beans is that, because they're sold in opaque containers, you can't see the quality of the beans. With dried beans, it's usually easy to take visual cues. Whole, unbroken beans will cook more evenly, and fresher ones will require less soaking time, so knowing when they were harvested can be a great asset. Once purchased, dried beans should be stored in a cool, dark place, since direct sunlight speeds up the aging process, causing beans to darken and making them more time-consuming to cook.

Regardless of whether you buy canned or dried beans, it's always a good idea to rinse your beans before putting them to use. Rinsing dried beans will remove any dirt or particles that may have made their way from field to home. With canned beans, rinsing will wash the beans of their excess brine and sodium, but you may wish to save the liquid they were stored in for other uses—protein-rich aquafaba is a secret ingredient in our vegan mayonnaise, and can be whipped into a meringue just like egg whites.

So I'm going dried. Do I need to soak my beans?

The idea behind soaking your beans is that an extended bath will soften the seed coat, reducing the ultimate cook time while simultaneously leaching out some of the flatulent elements in the bean (more on that in a minute). But we've found that black beans (and likely other thin-skinned beans, such as black-eyed peas, pinto beans, and lentils) can actually fare better without a soak. Unsoaked, they take only a bit longer to cook, and there's no significant impact on their, erm, digestibility.

Sando soaks only if he's making beans on Sunday and has time to do so. But he eats about a half cup of beans a day on average. For him, it's simple. "You basically just boil them until they're done," he says. If you're buying what Sando calls "stranger beans"—beans of unknown provenance and ambiguous age—he recommends soaking, since older or lower-quality beans can be tougher to cook. Sando says that beans also lose much of their nutritive value over time, so he advises doing what you can to make sure your beans are fresh, "and just eat a lot of them."

If you want to skip the soak without extending your cook time, though, there's no better tool for the job than a pressure cooker. The cooker's hermetically sealed design creates an environment able to achieve higher temperatures than the standard 212°F boiling point, allowing the beans to cook faster.

What about salt? I've heard it can make beans stay harder longer, or burst when they're cooking.

Should you salt your bean-cooking water? "This question is right up there with 'Do you stir or shake a Martini?'" says Sando. Lucky for you, we've put it to the test—and we're ready to put the issue to rest once and for all. It turns out sodium ions help bean skins release the magnesium and calcium ions that give them their rigidity. Kenji's unequivocal verdict? "For the best, creamiest, most flavorful beans, season your bean-soaking water with one tablespoon of kosher salt per quart (about 15 grams per liter), rinse the beans with fresh water before cooking, then add a pinch of salt to the cooking water as well."

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Wait, so what's the best way to cook dried beans?

Simmering beans—either on the stovetop or in your pressure cooker—is far and away the most commonplace way to cook them, and there's not a whole lot you can do to mess them up with either method. But a few rules of thumb can help guarantee more consistently delicious results.

  • If you're soaking your beans, don't shy away from the salt.
  • Skip the soak when cooking thin-skinned beans, like black beans.
  • Use aromatics, like onion, garlic, and herbs, in your cooking liquid—they'll transform any pot of beans into something far more flavorful.
  • Oh, and don't worry about making too many beans at once. Beans make excellent leftovers—virtually any kind can make its way into a satisfying bean salad, wintry gratin, or creamy puréed soup.

Why do beans make people gassy?

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In the bean-farming industry, it's known as the Gift of Purchase. To college kids across the world, it's a fart. Indigestible carbohydrates in beans (oligosaccharides are a notable one) are ultimately what give us gas. Our bodies don't have the enzymes needed to break these down, and even if they did, many of them are too big to be absorbed into our bloodstream as sugar. So they get pushed to the colon, where bacteria feast on them and, through fermentation, convert them to fatty acids. Gas, or the Gift of Purchase, is a by-product of fermentation. However, if you eat beans regularly, your body will grow more accustomed to and experience less trouble with breaking down the oligosaccharides, thus eliminating much of the gas.

Pinto Beans

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The maroon-speckled pinto bean (pinto means "painted" in Spanish) is the most widely eaten bean in the United States. And it's easy to see why—though the beans lose their psychedelic exterior once cooked, they do a great job of taking on the flavors of any aromatics and other ingredients they're cooked with. Pintos can be eaten whole, mashed, or refried, and their earthy flavor and creamy texture translate in a variety of cooking methods. Try them in smoky frijoles charros with bacon and chilies, mixed into this spicy chorizo chili, or as a topping for a plate of chipotle chicken nachos.

Black Beans

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Nestled within the seed coat of black beans are three anthocyanin flavonoids, water-soluble pigments that give the beans their midnight color. Mild, slightly sweet black beans become extremely smooth and creamy when cooked, which is why it's common to find them refried. Whole cooked black beans and rice is a staple in many countries, including Cuba, where the dish is known as moros y cristianos, and Costa Rica, where the preparation goes by the name gallo pinto. Black beans are our go-to in this lazily slow-cooked side dish spiked with orange, a quick and easy pressure-cooker take rounded out with chorizo, and these killer veggie burgers.

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These small, white, oval beans are named for their ubiquity in the pantry of the 20th-century US Navy. Mild in flavor, dense and smooth once cooked, navy beans, like pintos, are ideal for absorbing the flavors of other ingredients. They're the traditional choice for crowd-pleasing barbecue beans and classic Boston baked beans, but they're equally at home in a white chili with chicken.

Kidney and Cannellini Beans

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Kidney beans, which take their name from their kidney-like shape, are a common ingredient in chili and, because of their dark-red color, make a visually appealing addition to three-bean salad. The similarly beloved cannellini bean is technically a white kidney bean, and the two can be used interchangeably in recipes like pasta e fagioli, satisfying minestrone soup, traditional French cassoulet, or these fully loaded (totally vegan) nachos.

Great Northern Beans

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Flat, white, kidney-shaped great northerns are larger than navy beans but smaller than cannellinis. Their middling size and slightly lighter density make them great candidates for soups and purées. Use them in place of cannellini beans in this creamy dip flavored with lemon, or try them stirred into this hearty white bean soup with spinach and rosemary.

Green Beans

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Green beans—also known as string beans, snap beans, and, in French, haricots verts—are most commonly eaten freshly picked. Unlike most other beans, their pods are edible even when raw, so cooking times and methods are more about personal preference than palatability. Dry-fried, Sichuan-style, they come out blistered and snappy, aromatic with ginger, garlic, chilies, and Sichuan peppercorns. But we also love them sautéed with mushrooms, grilled for salads and sides, braised with bacon until they're tender and rich, and, of course, baked into a classic green bean casserole.

Lima Beans

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Lima or butter beans are the Brussels sprouts of the legume family in that (almost) everyone claims to hate them. Maybe it's Sylvester's fault. Not Stallone, but James Pussycat Sr., whose boisterous catchphrase was "Sufferin' succotash!", referring to the age-old dish of butter beans and corn. But give them a shot and you'll quickly discover just how underrated the smooth, creamy, sweet beans really are.

Thanks to the plant's high tolerance of hot climates, lima beans have become a staple crop in Africa, parts of Asia, and Peru (particularly Lima, the city after which they're named). Limas are typically shelled before they're eaten, and come into season in the late summer and fall. Try them in boldly flavored bean salads, like this warm Spanish-style side dish with paprika and celery, or a Greek-inspired mixture of butter beans, tomatoes, and dill.

Fava Beans

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If the lima bean's faintly mealy texture is a turnoff, you may want to give springtime favas a shot. Like limas, favas are shelling beans, meaning they grow in pods that, while edible, aren't exactly delicious. Add them fresh to a simple salad with carrots and ricotta, blanch them to top a light and summery tartine with goat cheese and almonds, purée them with mint for a twist on pesto, or pair them with pecorino primo sale ("first salt," or young pecorino), which, in Tuscany, is ready around the same time fava season hits its stride. Dried fava beans form the backbone of the spicy Egyptian breakfast stew ful mudammas, and bulk up this rich (but totally dairy- and fat-free) Colombian soup.

Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)

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The garbanzo bean or chickpea is thought to have been cultivated in the Middle East as far back as 3,000 BC. You'll find two main varieties of the bean—the larger, lighter-hued Kabuli, which is common throughout the Mediterranean, and the diminutive desi, grown primarily in India. Both share a buttery but starchy texture and a creamy, nutty flavor.

Garbanzos hold up particularly well to canning and make great additions to salads, pastas, and curries. Use them to make your own better-than-store-bought hummus; fresh, herb-packed falafel; and a whole host of other home-cooked dishes. Don't forget to hold on to that aquafaba for all kinds of vegan-friendly recipes.

Soybeans

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Soybeans have been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years, where they're consumed as a whole food (think edamame) and processed for soy milk, tofu, bean curd, cooking oil, margarine, and soy sauce. These days, the US is the world's leading producer of the crop, but the majority is processed for animal feed and industrial products like biodiesel rather than for human consumption. The versatile crop, once harvested, can be cooked, fermented, or sprouted. Our favorite way to embrace soybeans? A host of tofu recipes that actually taste great: delicate, spicy mapo tofu, grilled chipotle- and miso-marinated tofu, and Vietnamese-style tofu banh mi.

Mung Beans

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The mung bean, also known as the moong bean, is a versatile legume, small and green, used in both sweet and savory dishes. Mung beans, though less common in the States, are a regular feature at Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian tables, and are available in dried, split, fresh, raw, cooked, fermented, and powdered forms. Mung bean sprouts are among the more commonplace bean sprouts you'll spot at the supermarket. And, like most legumes, mung beans are high in protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Thanks to their smaller size, mung beans also have a shorter cook time, especially if you buy them split. Get to know them in this creamy and sweet porridge with coconut milk, a popular breakfast in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Lentils

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Lentils, like mung beans, are quicker to prepare than most other legumes. They also grow in a rainbow of colors, from greens and browns to oranges and reds, each with slightly distinctive flavors and textures. Season them with mustard in a punchy side dish for salmon, add them to an array of soups and stews, enjoy them at breakfast time in a tomato-based sauce with eggs, or sample them in a salad with goat cheese and walnuts.

Peas

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Most beans are available year-round, and peas are no exception. Though the springtime staples are definitely best eaten fresh, they can be dried and reconstituted without losing too much of their flavor. The pea is a unique legume in that it has a high starch content, balanced by a delicate sweetness. When fresh ones aren't in season, frozen peas are preferable to canned peas because they can better retain color and texture, whereas the canning process can take away from these characteristics. Try them in any of these 18 pea recipes we love.

Black-Eyed Peas

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Black-eyed peas, also called cowpeas, are named such for the black dot at the bean's center. As a drought-resistant crop, they grow well in hot, arid climates. In the American South, black-eyed peas are eaten on New Year's Day as hoppin' John, along with collard greens, to ensure prosperity in the year to come. But whether you use them in a soup with kale or in a curry, black-eyed peas deserve a spot in your pantry. They're creamy and slightly sweet, and they cook quickly, so you don't have to soak them, though many prefer to in order to rid them of their papery skin.