Beans are delicious, hearty, nutritious, rich in protein, budget-friendly and versatile. A perfect part of someone's diet in other words. While you could purchase canned or frozen beans, why not buy a bag of dried beans and cook them yourself. It's easy, relaxing and cheap.
Beans, lentils and peas are all part of the food category legumes. There are many different kinds of beans such a pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, black eyed peas, white beans etc... Since so many different kinds exists you can vary your recipes and try different options. All these different kinds of beans (and chickpeas) are cooked using the same method. Only the cooking time is varied depending on their size.
First of all you want to look through your beans to make sure there are no small rocks or pebbles. Mostly you won't find any dirt, but it doesn't hurt to give the beans a quick look.
Soaking limits the time the beans need to cook, makes the beans more digestible and some people claim it makes them taste better as well.
There are two basic methods of soaking.
The soaking method that requires the least amount of effort is the long soak. Simply cover the beans in water and soak them overnight (about 8-10 hours). You don't want to soak the beans for too much longer, then they can absorb too much liquid and loose their texture and flavor. If however, you soaked your beans and want to wait to cook them, then drain the beans and store in the fridge until you're ready.
The second method is a little quicker and doesn't require as much preparation. Put the beans in a large pot, add water and bring up to a boil. Let the water boil for about 2 minutes, then remove from the heat, cover the pot and let soak for about 1 hour.
No matter which method you used for soaking, you want to use fresh water to cook the beans. So drain the soaking water and refill the pot. If you didn't soak the beans, then that's fine too, they will just take a little longer to cook, make sure you rinse them first.
Use a large pot such as a dutch oven to cook your beans. Make sure to take into account that the beans will expand quite a bit when they cook (one cup of dried beans is about 3 cups cooked), so add enough water. We usually add the beans to the pot and top with water about one inch and a half above the beans. If however, you didn't soak them, then you would need to add about twice that amount of water.
When you cook them, you want to have a gentle simmer and not a rolling boil, a too high boil can split the beans. So simmer the beans gently and skim off any foam as you go along. How long your beans will need to cook depends on how long they soaked as well as their size. They can take anywhere from 1 ½ to 3 hours to become soft. Try them out as they're cooking until they achieve a perfect softness.
Depending on what you're planning to make with your beans, it might be a good idea to add some flavorings. If you are making a pot of beans to serve as is, then you'll want to add plenty of salt and spices. If you are cooking beans with the intention of freezing them or keeping them pretty unflavored, then it would still be a good idea to add some basic herbs.
A basic combination of flavors to add at the beginning of the cooking process includes dried bay leaves, dried thyme or rosemary and whole garlic cloves or onion pieces. Other classic spices include chili pepper and cumin. If you want to provide some more richness to your beans, then add some bacon slices or some salt pork. Add salt when the beans are almost done, this will prevent the skins from becoming tough.
The Cooking Water
The water the beans have been cooking in has taken on their flavor and earthiness. This water will make a nice broth for a bean soup, so don't necessarily drain it once they're done cooking, save it.
Once your beans are cooked, you can either store them in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze them. Here are some great tips for freezing beans.