While there’s nothing wrong with cooking canned beans, nothing beats making them from scratch using dried ones. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

How to make: beans from scratch

It may be a little intimidating at first, a bag of dried beans staring back at you from the grocery store aisle. Especially when it’s just a few steps away from a tauntingly easy can that professes to be fast, simple and just as good. And while there’s nothing wrong with the convenience of already-softened beans, the taste and texture of ones gently simmered from dried state to creamy deliciousness is incomparable.

Today, we’re offering you four simple tips for cooking beans the old school way—from scratch. It’s easier than you may think, though it does take a little more time. The good news: You can make extra, freeze and store them for weeks at a time. The methods described below apply to any bean you’re making — black or red beans, pintos or garbanzos, even fast-cooking lentils. Once softened, you can add any flavoring you like.

To soak or not to soak. There’s much debate about whether dried beans should be soaked overnight as a first step in preparation. Some cooks do this in order to shorten cooking time or to help dried beans become nice and plump and extra tender. Others argue beans become too mushy overnight and prefer to just cook them slowly until they reach the desired tenderness. Ultimately, as is the case with most cooking techniques, there’s no singular way.

But here are a couple of methods to try until you find what works best for you. First: if you’d like to soak beans for a short time, put them in a large caldero and cover with about 4 inches of water. Bring the beans to a boil over high heat, allow to boil for about 4 minutes, cover, turn heat off completely and let them sit for up to two hours. This will begin to tenderize the beans, but they will still need to cook low and slow for some time before they’re ready. Second option: for a longer soak, simply put the beans in a large caldero and cover with about 6 inches of water. Allow to soak overnight, then drain them. Regardless of how you soak them, short or long, after this step they’re ready to be used in any recipe. They won’t be tender yet, but the cooking time will be shorter. (Note: lentils and split peas never need to be soaked. They cook very quickly on their own.)

Simmer, don’t boil. And taste. After soaking, cook the beans in a large caldero, covered with about four inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat as much as possible so they simmer very gently. You don’t want them to boil vigorously because this will cause them to fall apart. Like so many delicious dishes, the key here is low and slow. How long will it take? It depends. Lentils can take 15 to 20 minutes; black beans can take two hours, chickpeas even more. Keep tasting them until they’re as tender and creamy as you want. Unlike pasta, beans shouldn’t be al dente.

Never add salt before the beans are tender. It may seem intuitive to add a little salt to the beans as they simmer, so they’re nice and flavorful. But don’t! Salt prevents the beans from tenderizing, or at least it slows down the process. Which means it will take longer to cook; the longer the beans cook, the likelier they are to fall apart and get too mushy. Add salt either once they’ve tenderized or about halfway through.

Want creaminess? If you’re making a potaje-like bean dish — as in the kind you ladle over a mound of rice — you probably want the liquid to be a little on the creamy side and not too brothy. Once the beans are fully cooked, take about a cup of the beans and puree in a blender. Add the pureed beans back to the rest of the beans in the pot and stir to combine. The puree acts as a thickening agent.

Looking for some bean recipes? Check these out:

Black beans

Lentil salad

Garbanzo and kale stew

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