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Bean Basics

Learn how to prepare, cook, and soak beans.

Bean Basics

If you really want to improve the quality of your diet, think beans. A hearty and satisfying alternative to meat, beans are low in fat, and rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, and potassium. As for fiber, no other food surpasses beans. Just a half cup of cooked beans provides 4 to 8 grams of fiber — up to four times the amount found in most other plant foods. Beans also help maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. As an added bonus, beans keep you feeling full and satisfied long after the meal is over — a definite benefit if you're watching your weight.

Some people avoid eating beans because of "bean bloat." What causes this problem? Complex sugars in beans, called oligosaccharides, sometimes form gas when broken down in the lower intestine. This side effect usually subsides when beans are made a regular part of the diet, and the body becomes more efficient at digesting them. The proper cleaning, soaking, and cooking of dried beans can also help you make beans a delicious and healthful part of your diet.

Because beans are a natural product, packages of dried beans sometimes contain shriveled or discolored beans, as well as small twigs and other items. Before cooking, sort through your beans and discard any discolored or blemished legumes. Rinse the beans well, cover them with water, and discard any that float to the top.

There are two methods used to soak beans in preparation for cooking. If you have time — if you intend to cook your dish the next day, for instance — you may want to use the long method, as this technique is best for reducing the gas-producing oligosaccharides. If dinner is just a couple of hours away, though, the quick method is your best bet. Keep in mind that not all beans must be soaked before cooking. Black-eyed peas, brown and red lentils, and split peas do not require soaking.

The Long Method
After cleaning the beans, place them in a large bowl or pot, and cover them with four times as much water. Soak the beans for at least four hours, and for as long as twelve hours. If soaking them for more than four, place the bowl or pot in the refrigerator. After soaking, discard the water and replace with fresh water before cooking.

The Quick Method
After cleaning the beans, place them in a large pot, and cover them with four times as much water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, and continue to boil for two minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for one hour. After soaking, discard the water and replace with fresh water before cooking.

To cook beans for use in salads, casseroles, and other dishes that contain little or no liquid, clean and soak as described above, discard the soaking water, and replace with two cups of water for each cup of dried beans. When beans are to be cooked in soups or stews that include acidic ingredients — lemon juice, vinegar, or tomatoes, for instance — add these ingredients at the end of the cooking time. Acidic foods can toughen the beans' outer layer, slowing the rate at which the beans cook. You'll know that the beans are done when you can mash them easily with a fork. Keep in mind that old beans may take longer to cook. The use of hard water can also lengthen cooking times. During long cooking times, periodically check the pot, and add more liquid if necessary.

The following table gives approximate cooking times for several different kinds of beans. Need a meal in a hurry? Lentils, split peas, and black-eyed peas require no soaking and cook quickly. Lentils are the fastest cooking of all legumes; they can be prepared in less than thirty minutes. Split peas cook in less than an hour, and black-eyed peas, in about an hour.

Cooking Times for Dried Beans and Legumes

Bean or Legume Cooking Time
Black, great northern, kidney, navy, pinto, and white beans, and chickpeas 1½-2 hours
Black-eyed peas* 1-1¼ hours
Lentils, brown* 20-30 minutes
Lentils, red* 15-20 minutes
Lima beans, baby 45 minutes-1¼ hours
Lima beans, large 1-1½ hours
Split peas* 45 minutes-1 hour
* These beans do not require soaking.  

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