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The Zen of Beans

Beans are a great source of nutrition, and they play an important part in American regional cooking and culture. Here are the basics a cook needs to know about beans.
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Beans are a great source of nutrition, and they play an important part in American regional cooking and culture. Their roots are often in other cultures, but the recipes have been thoroughly Americanized. They are especially important to barbecue culture, and that's my beat. It's hard to find a pit stop that doesn't serve some sort of beans. Here are the basics a cook needs to know about beans.

Canned beans are quick and easy. Drain the salty liquid, rinse, heat, and they are ready to eat.

Dried beans are much cheaper and taste slightly better. They just take a bit more effort and a lot more time. As Steve Sando of the highly regarded bean grower Rancho Gordo likes to say "The big advantage of dried beans is the liquid they make. Canned beans need to be washed, whereas real beans come with free soup!" If you wish to use dried beans, it's pretty easy.


1) Dump dried beans on the counter and make sure there are no pebbles or other foreign matter in them.

2) Give them a quick rinse in cold water.

3) In a bowl, cover the beans with 3 times their volume of water and soak at least 6 hours. You can soak up to 12 hours if you wish. The longer dried beans soak, the less they need to cook. Beans soaked for 6 hours may need to cook 3 to 4 hours. Beans soaked for 12 hours may be done in 2 hours or so. If you don't have time to soak beans, you can cook with dried beans, they'll just take longer to get tender, perhaps 5 to 6 hours depending on the type and size of the bean.

Some folks think that you should discard the soaking water to reduce flatulence, but I have read reliable sources saying that this doesn't work (sorry), and that throwing out the liquid wastes nutrients. Santo says we should use the liquid, and that's good enough for me.

4) After the beans have been added to the recipe, boil for about 5 minutes, cut back on the heat, and let the beans simmer for about 2 hours or until they get soft enough to pierce easily with a fork. Don't boil beans for more than a few minutes or else they will turn to mush. Simmer them.

If you live at altitude, bean cookery can be consterning. Water boils at a lower temp at altitude because the column of air pressing down on the water surface is shorter and that lowers the air pressure, so vapor escapes the water at a lower temp. As a result it takes longer to cook beans at altitude. A rule of thumb is add 10% for each 1000 feet above sea level.

Quick soak option. Cover the beans with 3 times their volume of water, bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Remove them from the heat, cover the pot tightly, and let it stand for 1 to 2 hours.

Pressure cooking option. Dried beans cook even faster in a pressure cooker. Rinse, soak, and cook 20 minutes in the pressure cooker. Then open the lid and cook another 20 minutes or more until the beans are done.

Approximate Equivalents

Here are some useful measurements. They can vary significantly depending on the type of beans, the size of the beans, or the brand of the canner.

  • Dried beans absorb liquid when cooked so increase the liquid in the recipe when you cook with dried beans.
  • Dried beans expand to about 2.5 times their original volume when soaked and 3.5 times their original volume when cooked.
  • 1 can of beans = 15 ounces undrained = about 10 ounces drained = 1/4 pound dried beans.
  • 1 pound dried beans = about 2 cups dried beans = about 5 cups soaked beans = about 7 cups cooked beans = 4 cans drained beans.

Classic American Bean Recipes

There are numerous classic bean recipes in the American culinary canon, many of them with regional origins. Click the links for my recipes.

South Carolina Hoppin John. Tis a gift to be simple, with ham hocks, bell pepper, onion, garlic, herbs, on a bed of rice.

Texas Beans. Beans presented simply, with a little help from onion, garlic, bacon or fatback, chile peppers, tomatoes, and cumin.

New Orleans Red Beans & Rice. The ultimate pork and beans, with bacon, cured ham, andouille sausage, and a ham bone, tomato, and other goodies, on a bed of rice.

Boston Baked Beans. Bacon or fatback and molasses, the real deal has no ketchup.

Barbecue Baked Beans. Rich, thick, and sweet, like Boston Baked Beans, spiked with barbecue sauce. My recipe has Bourbon in it too.

Frijoles Borrachos. These "drunken beans" start with the usual onion, garlic, chiles, bacon or fatback, and then the all cook in beer.

Hot Dog Chili. Many Americans consider chili to be a mix of beans and ground meat, and that combo is common especially in the East and Midwest, especially on hot dogs. Beans are never found in classic Cowboy Chile.

Pennsylvania Succotash. A native American crazy quilt of lima beans, other beans, corn kernels, tomatoes, onion, sweet peppers, and if you feel like it, green beans, corn, peas, the kitchen sink...

Little Italy Pasta Fazool. This is the immigrant name and preparation based the classic Italian dish Pasta e Fagioli with white cannellini beans, olive oil, garlic, onion, tomatoes, and macaroni simmered into a runny stew. In the US, don't be surprised to see Italian sausage, ground beef, and grated cheese.

New Mexico Burritos. A soft tortilla wrapped around a filling of refried beans, meat, and rice, and then you can start stylin'. Toss in some more beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cheese, and tomato salsa are common. Refried beans, by the way, are rarely fried, they're just smashed beans and some water or stock.

Here's a favorite recipe by Sando:

What classic American bean recipes have I forgotten? What are your favorite bean recipes?

All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2011 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved