Cooking dried beans is an acquired skill. It’s usually acquired when one doesn’t own a car and has to lug groceries up several flights of stairs. I’ve wrestled with dried beans in fits and starts ever since I started cooking. They seem like a great idea – versatile, cheap, lightweight (compared to canned), near-infinite shelf life, and if you buy too many, you can make juggling beanbags with them. But after a few pots of hard, tasteless, undigestible beans, I would give up and go back to canned beans for a year or two.
And then I found it, the Holy Grail of bean-cooking websites. Thank you, CentralBean.com, for teaching me the way of the dried bean. Their website answers every question I had about cooking those pesky little suckers – and for you, dear reader, I will share what I learned. And I will also share my baked bean triumph – a recipe that I’ve been trying to master for years.
Does it sound like I spend too much time thinking about beans? Well, I probably do. We’ve been a bit housebound this week due to the snow, and I took the opportunity to try out some new recipes and stock the freezer. This week I’ve cooked red beans and rice, black beans for burritos, and baked beans to go with barbecue chicken sandwiches. I’m a bit bean-centric at the moment. But I will share the fruits of my bean journey with you.
Stovetop beans are actually a great project for a snowbound day – they don’t need a lot of attention, just a lot of time. I don’t have a recipe really, but I like throw mine in a pot with some chopped onion and garlic, a few tablespoons of oil, and enough water to cover, and bring the water to a boil. I’ll add spices sometimes, but it isn’t necessary – cumin and coriander to black beans, or cayenne and paprika to red beans. Then turn it down to a simmer and check in after an hour. They won’t be done yet, but it’s a good time to check the liquid level of your pot and add hot water if need be. Check the beans every half hour or so, either by smooshing them against the side of the pot or by eating one. Once the beans are cooked, I add salt and drain them, then let them cool a little before measuring them into tupperware and freezing them.
Her are some things I’ve learned (or re-learned) on my bean journey this week – thanks again, CentralBean.com.Just say “No” to your slow cooker. Slow cookers are great for a lot of things, but not for cooking beans. The “Low” setting is too low to convert the starch in the beans and make them tender, and the High setting evaporates too much liquid. You can still make crockpot chili, just cook your beans on the stovetop and add them to your chili when they’re fully cooked. (Unless of course, you live in Texas. Then you just plain don’t put beans in chili.)
Say ‘Wait a minute there, buddy!” to tomatoes and other acidic foods. Acids can keep beans from softening, so add them at the end of the cooking process. I always wait until the end of the process to add salt as well, even though Central Bean says it’s ok to add it at the beginning. I’m superstitious about it at this point – Central Bean and I will have to agree to disagree.
Rinsing is mandatory; soaking is not. If you’re willing to add an hour or two to cooking times, you can skip the soaking step altogether. Rinsing, on the other hand, is a necessary step, not just to remove dirt, but to pick over the beans for small rocks and inedible plant matter that may have snuck into your bag of beans.
Cooked dried beans freeze really well. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to freeze beans, but I actually like them better than canned because I can adjust the seasoning and salt levels to my tastes. Frozen in two-cup portions, they’re a great addition to soups and stews, and they make a great speedy dinner tossed into a quesadilla or onto nachos, or even just with rice and a sprinkling of shredded cheese.
Really good baked beans are hard to come by. It’s a simple enough principle, beans and spices baked in the oven, but once you’ve eaten really good baked beans – warm, sweet, smoky, oniony (is that a word?), and crispy yet smooshy but not mushy baked beans – you’ll chase that white whale right over the horizon. I searched through a dozen of my cookbooks looking for a recipe that looked like what I was searching for, and got nothing but a paper cut. Even my Midwestern ladies’ auxillary church cookbooks let me down. Why would a baked beans recipe include a can of pork ‘n’ beans? Really, people? Dejected, I consulted my old friend The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, and of course… I should have gone there first. One thing I like about this recipe is that although it takes several hours, there is almost no hands-on cooking – boil the beans, mix them with the sauce, and toss them into the oven. These beans would be great for an outdoor party with barbecue chicken or burgers, with kielbasa on football Sunday, or on toast on a rainy day with a book. Erm, don’t eat the book.
Old-Fashioned Baked Beans – from The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 1996 edition
- 1 pound dry navy beans or dry Great Northern beans
- 1/4 pound bacon or salt pork, cut up
- 1 large chopped onion (about 1 cup)
- 1/2 cup molasses or maple syrup
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Rinse beans and soak overnight. Drain and rinse again, then add to large heavy pot with 8 cups of fresh water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 60 to 90 minutes or until tender. Drain the beans and reserve the bean liquid. In a 2 1/2 quart casserole dish, combine the beans, bacon or salt pork, and onion. Stir in 1 cup of the reserved bean liquid, molasses or maple syrup, brown sugar, dry mustard, salt, and pepper.
Bake, covered, in a 300 degree oven 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours or to desired consistency, stirring occasionally. If necessary, add additional reserved bean liquid. Makes 10 to 12 side-dish servings.