Slow cookers are perfect for cooking beans and pulses. After all, today's slow cookers evolved from a bean pot. There is no end to the list of delicious slow cooked dishes made with healthful, inexpensive dried beans.
The first step for all bean recipes is to rinse the beans in a sieve or colander and look them over carefully to discard any broken beans or the occasional pebble that sneaks into the bag. Also, keep in mind when you're cooking beans to not fill the slow cooker more than one third with beans because they more than double in volume once they're cooked.
Although guidelines are given for how long each bean recipe takes to cook, there are variables that influence this time. If beans are a few years old, they'll take longer to cook. Also, the minerals in your tap water can retard the softening and require a longer cooking time.
Traditional Hawaiian cooks add a few slices of ginger to the water in which dried beans are cooking as a way to alleviate the potential gas problem.
The Soaking Step
Most beans benefit from pre-soaking. For many years, it was believed that soaking was beneficial because the enzymes that make beans difficult for some people to digest leach out into the soaking water, which is then discarded. Lately, researchers have questioned whether the amount of enzyme removed in this way is significant. Many cooks agree, however, that soaking does soften the beans and save cooking time. (You can start cooking skinless or thin-skinned legumes such as split peas and lentils without any preliminary soaking.) Soaking also softens the beans, reducing cooking time.
There are two methods you can use to soak beans. The first is to cover them with water and let them sit on the counter overnight. This method is consistent with slow cooking because you might have already decided to cook a recipe the next morning.
The second method is the "quick soak." In a medium saucepan, cover the beans with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil the beans for 1 minute, then cover the pan and turn off the heat. Let the beans soak for 1 hour.
Whichever method you use, drain the beans and discard the soaking liquid after soaking. Cooking should then begin as soon as possible. If this isn't possible, drain the beans and refrigerate them.
A Bean by Any Other Name
Bean recipes are also very tolerant to substitutions, so if you can't find or don't have a specific bean on hand, don't despair. Instead, consult the following table for a substitution.
|Name of Legume||What to Substitute|
|Black (also called turtle)||Kidney|
|Fava (broad beans)||Large lima|
|Kidney (pink and red, pinto)||Small navy|
|Lentils (red, brown, green)||Split peas|
Although many dried beans can be substituted for one another, don't substitute with canned beans in the slow cooker. Canned beans are already fully cooked, and they'll fall apart before they absorb the flavoring from the slow cooked dish.
It's best to soften the beans before adding other ingredients to the slow cooker because certain foods can actually harden beans while they're cooking—exactly what you don't want! When they're cooking is the time you're hoping the beans will soften.
There are two families of ingredients that can retard bean softening as they cook: sweeteners and acids. Sweeteners include the following:
- Any type of sugar
- Maple syrup
Acids include the following:
- Any sort of vinegar
- Red and white wine
- Lemon juice
- Lime juice
If you use any of these ingredients in your bean dishes, make sure you soften the beans beforehand.