How to Unlock the Magic of Beans

By Daniel Lucas

Bean cookery is the epitome of cooking with economy and grace

I am possibly the only person that I know that gets noticeably excited to eat beans. My hope in writing on this particular subject is to change that because it is my belief that if you learn how to unlock their magical powers, you will be just as fascinated with beans as I am. Over the course of the last year I’ve really come to understand their importance in the kitchen, in our diets, and in human history. They’ve played a critical role in the development of our world’s civilization and potentially hold the keys the problems we are facing now and will continue to face moving into the future. Much like Jack traded in his mother’s cow for some magic beans, we too should be trading in our meats for more plant-based foods. But luckily for us, all beans are magical and can easily be obtained at the local grocery store. Granted, they don’t grow to reach the sky and provide us with treasure, but they can give us something perhaps just as important.

Before we dive into the history of beans, let us first pause to clearly define a couple terms. “Legumes” refer to plants in the Fabaceae family whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. Pulses are part of the legume family, but the term “pulse” refers only to the dried seed. 1 I generally use “beans” as a culinary term to reference pulses, which include kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, mung bean, lima bean among others. Pulses do not refer to the legumes soybeans or peanuts, which contain higher oil content than pulses. They also don’t refer to fresh peas or green beans. Moving forward I will be interchangeably using the terms, preferring pulse in a historical context, preferring beans in a culinary context, and legumes more broadly in an agricultural and environmental context.

Beans in History

Us humans have a long history with pulses. In fact, along with emmer wheat and barley, pulses were among the first plants cultivated during the Neolithic Revolution which took place starting around 10,000 B.C. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond goes into great detail about how agriculture developed, why it developed differently across different regions of the world, and how it propelled us into civilization. He notes that cereal crops, such as wheat, rice, corn, and sorghum are the building blocks of our cultivated food. They have characteristics that made them well suited to be the first plants domesticated by humans–they are fast growing, high in carbohydrates, and have a high yield per acre making them highly economic. However, wheat alone would unlikely have been convincing enough for humans to abandon hunter-gathering for sedentary lifestyles supported by agriculture. Wheat lacks the protein to fully support the human diet, but fortunately for humans, pulses are on average 25-38% protein. This combination was a great boon to humans because, as Diamond mentions, combined with cereals, pulses provided many of the ingredients to a balanced diet. In turn, they also alleviated some the pressure to hunt as the primary source of protein and allowed humans to spend their time developing complex highly stratified civilizations.

Since their cultivation, pulses continued to play a major role in our diets throughout the world’s civilizations. In his book A Mediterranean Feast, Clifford Wright covers different regional cuisines throughout history between the 7th and 18th century and beans are a featured more than just a few times. They are the quintessential peasant food. As Wright puts it, “Beans have among the highest protein contents of all plant foods and are, for that reason, known as poor people’s food, and are nutritionally important for people who cannot or choose not to eat meat.” Across the Mediterranean, every culture has their signature use of beans. Italians have Pasta e Fagioli, a simple soup with pasta, beans, in a tomato broth. The Egyptians have Ful, a simple fava bean mash that is slow cooked with onion and tomatoes. In the words of Wright, Ful is “The rich man’s breakfast, the shopkeeper’s lunch, the poor man’s supper…it is considered the Egyptian national dish”. As you move further to the east, the usage of beans only increases. The cuisines of Arab Levant makes heavy use of beans, but their most famous implementation is that of chickpeas in Hummus, a pureed bean dish that has become a mainstay in American cuisine. Other dishes mentioned in A Mediterranean Feast include Chickpea in Zimino Sauce (Algerian), Lentils with Lemon (Arab Levant), Olive Bean and Nut Mix (Languedoc), Fresh Beans w/ Olives (Campania), Chickpea Soup w/ Cumin (Algeria), and Andalusian Style Chickpeas (Andalusia). These are precisely the types of dishes, or more specifically, the types cooks–the 18th-century European peasant that I draw my greatest inspiration from. These peasants are the masters of cooking with economy and grace, their use of beans are of the best, and their skills should not be lost in history.

Beans and the Planet

If you still aren’t convinced that beans are worth your time, or your appetite, that’s alright because we’ve only covered half of their magic. Beans have provided us with key sustenance and nutrients over the course of history, but, beans are just as good for the planet as they are for our diet. Beans are among the most sustainable crops. Their most unique feature–one that sets them apart from every other type of domesticated plant–is their ability to fix nitrogen for themselves. I’m not an expert gardener, but Steve Solomon, the author of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, is. Here’s what he has to say: “Legumes manufacture some, or all, of their own nitrogen requirement in collaboration with a family of soil-dwelling bacteria called rhizobia, which form pinkish nodules on their roots. Without rhizobial nodulation, legumes would have to obtain all of their nitrates from the soil as other plants do.” Not only does this save the farmer money and resources on fertilizer, but more importantly, when you apply nitrogen-container fertilizer to crops, such as manure, the bacteria in the soil transform the nitrogen into nitrous oxide, which is an extremely dangerous greenhouse gas. NPR writes this up as a necessary evil, and perhaps it is, but I would be curious to see the results if industrialized agriculture utilized legumes and adopted sustainable crop rotations

Some people even believe that legumes can also supply nitrogen to non-legumes sharing their root zone. Solomon rejects the notion calling it a “parrot fantasy”. However, Solomon does acknowledge that they contribute nitrogen and increase soil organic matter when used as green manure. They also preserve soil fertility by capturing soil nutrients, and for that reason, they play a critical role in crop rotations.

Yet another compelling reason to cultivate and consume legumes is that they use significantly less water than most types of meat production. According to a report from the Water Footprint Network, it takes 704 gallons of water to produce one pound of lentils.2 Chickpeas require less than lentils at 501 gal./lb. In comparison, beef requires 1,847 gallons of water per pound, followed by sheep at 1,248 gal./lb. pork at 718 gal./lb, and chicken at 518 gallons of water per pound. In a time when California is experiencing extensive droughts, a region that provides us with a great percentage of our edible vegetation, it’s important to keep these numbers in mind.

Beans play an important role in eating a well-balanced plant-based diet as they offer us essential proteins but also contain substantial quantities of fat and carbohydrates along with other nutrients such as potassium, calcium, iron, and several B-vitamins. Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods: Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition notes that “the proteins from [beans] can help regulate sugar, water, and other aspects of metabolism”. It can also promote “proper growth and development” of both the body and brain.

Beans in Our Diet

But what about the flatulence? It’s widely known that some people don’t digest beans well, but as Pitchford points out, Ayurveda–a form of traditional Indian medicine–suggests combining them with oily foods. Sure enough, this is common practice among the cuisines around the world. Cooks from the Arab Levant add liberal amounts of tahini (sesame seed oil) to hummus, and many cultures fry their beans in oil. Personally, when using beans in salads, I tend to marinate them in a combination of cumin, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Pitchford details a long list other proven methods for increasing the digestibility of beans such as adding salt to the end of cooking, cooking them with cumin and fennel, changing the soaking liquid one to two times, discarding the foam that develops when boiling beans, and adding vinegar to the end of the cooking process, and marinating beans in vinegar and olive oil in a ratio of 2-1. For even increased digestibility, beans can be sprouted to break down proteins into amino acids, starches and trisaccharides into simple sugars, and to create valuable enzymes and vitamins. Personally, when using these methods in their preparation, I rarely experience any undesirable side effects. However, if you’ve tried everything mentioned above and still have a problem digesting beans, reduce your consumption to a volume that works well for your body. Even supplementing 50% of your typical meat consumption would result in a positive impact on both your personal health and the health of the planet.

Beans in The Kitchen

Even if you don’t buy into my whole notion of beans saving the planet, everybody can appreciate how beans can save your wallet. Beans are cheap–I mean, really cheap. Especially when compared to meat production. I can cook a week’s worth of healthy organic meals for under $50 if I utilize beans to their full potential.

Bean Type Price
Kidney Bean $ 4.39 / lb
White Navy Bean $ 2.99 / lb
Lentils ????
Mung Bean $ 3.49 / lb
Red Beans $ 2.99 / lb
Chickpeas $ 2.99 / lb

If you’ve never soaked and cooked beans yourself, then you’ve never really experienced beans. Beans in a can are pretty gross–they’re mushy, taste like canned goods, and are much more likely to cause you digestional stress. Starting from dried beans isn’t complicated, and they freeze extremely well, so once you’ve made a batch, using them in your weekly meals is just as easy as using canned beans. Plus, when you cook beans yourself, you get the amazing byproduct of bean broth, which I’ll cover in more detail in a bit.

Just a quick note before we continue: lentils are an exception. They don’t require any soaking and cook in about ~30 minutes. They are great for instances when you don’t have time to prepare and need some beans in a pinch! Or all the time! Lentils are great, and some people even claim they are easier to digest than other types of beans.

These instructions are for beans in general, but some beans will require more or less soaking and/or cooking time. Generally, the longer you soak the beans, the faster they will cook. To soak beans, put your dried beans in a bowl and add enough water so the beans have enough room to double in size and still be covered. Usually, I like to soak my beans for 8 hours overnight, then all I need to do is cook them for ~30-40 minutes the next day and they are ready to go. If you want to change the water out a couple times to improve digestibility as mentioned by Pitchford, you will obviously need to be awake and monitor the soaking of your beans during the day. Either way, the amount of active time required to do this is minimal.

Once your beans are adequately soaked, discard the soaking liquid and put your beans in a pot big enough to house them comfortably. Fill the pot with fresh water until the beans are covered by at least 2” and then bring to a boil. Once the pot is boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer. If any foam forms, use a small hand strainer or a slotted spoon to remove it. Not all beans produce foam, and some produce more than others. Chickpeas always produce a lot of foam, kidney beans less so. It’s important to not season your beans before they foam, or otherwise, you will end up skimming most of your seasoning off and your beans will be bland. If your beans have boiled and no foam has formed after ~10 minutes, it’s likely that your beans aren’t going to produce a lot of foam and it’s safe to add your seasoning.

You can use all sorts of herbs and spices for this, but my favorite combination is simply crushed garlic and bay leaf. For each cup of dried beans, I add one crushed garlic clove and one bay leaf. I’ve also used cinnamon, cumin, cloves, coriander, rose and all sorts of other spices and herbs. If you know what you’re going to do with the beans in advance, then I try to use the spices that will go into the final product. If I’m not sure, then I just stick to garlic and bay leaf. Once you’ve added your seasoning, then it’s time to add olive oil. Regardless of how you season your beans, you always need to add, at least, 1 tbsp of oil per 1 cup of dried beans.

Never add salt to the beans until they are fully cooked. If you prematurely add salt to the beans, you are more likely to end up with hard beans. If your beans aren’t getting soft, sometimes you just need to keep cooking them, sometimes much longer than anticipated. If your beans aren’t fresh–and it’s hard to tell how fresh dried beans really are until you cook them–they might take longer to cook. I’ve had to cook beans for up to an hour and a half before they began to soften. Always cook over medium heat and never let your beans boil after they reached their initial boil.

Hopefully, at this point, you have beans that have are soft but still have a nice bite and hold their shape. You don’t want them to be mushy and overly soft unless you plan on making a bean mash, such as hummus or something similar, in which case that may be acceptable. Some people store their beans in the cooking liquid, which is totally acceptable, but I like to strain my beans out and store the cooking liquid, otherwise known as bean broth, in a separate container. Bean broth is a starchy broth that is great for adding both flavor and body to soups, stews, and stocks. Some beans make better broth than others. In particular, chickpeas make a delectable sweet broth–I can drink this stuff straight and can use it directly to make soups, stews, and sauces. Other beans, like kidney beans, make a starchy, but more bitter broth. I tend to just use 1-2 cups of this broth to add to vegetable or meat stocks.

Now that you have freshly cooked beans, it’s time to put them to use. If you’re not sure what to do, check out one of the following recipes:

  • Pasta e Fagioli
  • Beans w/ Rice and Sauerkraut
  • Lettuce Wraps with Aromatic Beans
  • Chickpea w/ Harissa Sauce
  • Lentils