Almost every recipe in every cookbook you've ever read says you must soak dried beans before you cook them. In almost every case that advice is wrong.
Letting dried beans sit overnight in a bowl of cold water does nothing to improve their flavor or their texture. In fact, it does quite the opposite. While soaking shortens the unattended cooking time of beans somewhat, the time saved is marginal and there are no other labor-saving benefits. Finally, soaking does absolutely nothing to reduce the gas-producing properties of beans.
These may be difficult ideas to get used to, flying as they do in the face of everything most of us have been taught about cooking beans. One friend, an Arizonan, dismissed the idea out-of-hand, attributing it to my New Mexican background. "What do they know about beans?" she said.
But cooking unsoaked beans is not new. No less an authority than noted Mexican cookbook writer Diana Kennedy has advocated it for years. "If you want the best-flavored beans, don't soak them overnight, but start cooking in hot water," she says in "The Cuisines of Mexico" (Harper & Row: 1972).
In fact, the more I asked around, the more people I found who cooked beans this way--mostly, it seemed, people from Mexican or Central American families--although at least one prominent New American chef and another well-known French chef agreed.
What's more, few commercial canners soak dried beans before cooking. In fact, in a way they don't cook the beans at all. The heat and pressure of the canning process (called the retort) is enough to cook--perhaps even overcook--the beans right in the can.
Still, I wanted to see for myself. Call it trial by frijoles.
First, I cooked three pots of beans: one soaked overnight, one quick-soaked (brought to a boil and left to sit, covered for one hour), and one simply covered with boiling water. To each pot I added a hunk of salt pork, some sliced onion and a bit of garlic. I simmered them slowly on top of the stove, covered.
The two soaked beans did cook more quickly than the unsoaked--they were finished in about 1 hour and 15 minutes, as opposed to two hours. But when I sampled them, the extra 45 minutes paid off. The two pots of soaked beans were pallid compared to the unsoaked (though the long-soaked were better than the quick-soaked). The unsoaked beans had a noticeably deeper flavor; they were firmer to the bite, and they did not break up as much in cooking.
Then came the ultimate test. I sat down with a big bowl of the cooked unsoaked beans (after a little refrying with bacon and a handful of grated Monterey Jack cheese) and ate lunch. I waited, half expecting to blow up like a balloon (as a precaution, I did this test at home, alone). Nothing untoward happened.
That experiment was far from scientific, but after talking to a couple of researchers who confirmed my results, I moved on to more phone calls and other tests.
All of us, it seems, have our own set of folk tales about cooking beans. And most rules are followed simply because that's the way someone told us to do it, rather than as a result of any kind of testing.
* Some people told me quite firmly that beans should never be salted before cooking--that this keeps them from softening during cooking. In fact, Kennedy herself makes this claim.
So I cooked beans with salt added (1 teaspoon per pound of beans turns out to be about the right ratio) and without. They cooked to exactly the same degree of softness in almost exactly the same time.
Interestingly, though, to get the same level of saltiness in the unsalted batch of beans, I had to add more than twice as much salt. And even then, it was more a case of the broth being salty than the beans.
* Other people said that the type of pot in which beans are cooked is the most important thing--only earthenware will do.
I cooked beans in three different pots--earthenware, stainless-steel and unlined aluminum. There was some difference in the rate at which the beans soaked up water (or, probably more accurately, the pans soaked up water). The earthenware needed more water early but then seemed to maintain a steady level a little better. I could find little difference in flavor between the earthenware and the stainless-steel, but the unlined aluminum lent a distinctly metallic flavor to the beans.
* One chef told me he never allowed his beans to be cooked on top of the stove. Only by cooking them in the oven is it possible to get the slow, steady pace they need, he claimed.
I cooked beans both on top of the stove and in the oven. With constant attention and a ready flame-tamer, I could manipulate the temperature well enough to keep the beans at a sufficiently slow simmer. But, covered, in a 250-degree oven, the cooking was almost effortless. All I had to do was check every half-hour or so to make sure there was sufficient water.
The effect of the cover was particularly amazing. Cooking beans in one test without a cover took six hours. The same quantity of beans, cooked at the same temperature with a lid, was done in about 1 hour, 15 minutes ( without pre-soaking).
All of these tests were done with commonly available varieties--pinto and white northern--that had been purchased from stores that seem to sell a lot of beans. In fact, the age of the bean may be the most important factor.
Dried beans continue to lose moisture as they sit. With very recently picked beans--say, the Scarlet Runners I pick and shell in the summer in my back yard--a quick simmer is all that is necessary. (Actually they are quite good even raw when doused with a little olive oil, mint or basil and salt).
On the other hand, those dried flageolet beans you bought on a whim a couple of years ago that have been sitting in the back of the pantry ever since may be quite dry. In fact, with these beans, soaking may be necessary to bring the cooking time down to a matter of hours, rather than days.
Finally, it was time to put the beans to the final test--cooking them in recipes. What good is science, after all, if it is not in the service of mankind? So test we did, adapting old favorite bean recipes to this "new" way of cooking. The results were gratifying: In every case, the dishes were done in almost the same amount of time as the originals. And the textures and flavors of the beans were much improved.
Progress is great when it tastes so good.
Beans, squash and chile are three of the basic American ingredients. I was going to add corn, but it just seemed to busy. My favorite thing about this recipe is the interplay of the sweet, soft squash and the earthy, firm beans. But that's just a bit too subtle to carry the dish. The addition of the red onion just before serving makes an amazing amount of difference--a blaze of color across a subtle background.
PINTO BEAN AND SQUASH STEW
1 pound dried pinto beans Salt 1 (1/4x2-inch) slice salt pork 1/4 onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced Pepper 4 slices bacon, cubed 1 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced 2 green onions, minced 1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed 1 cup beef stock 1/2 red onion, finely diced 1/4 cup chopped cilantro 3/4 cup sour cream
Cover pinto beans and 1 teaspoon salt with 3 inches of boiling water in large pot. Add salt pork, onion and garlic. Cover and bake at 250 degrees until beans are cooked, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Season to taste with salt, if necessary, and pepper. Keep warm.
Cook bacon with jalapeno and green onions over low heat in large saute pan until bacon is crisp. Add squash and stock. Cover and cook until squash is just tender, about 1/2 hour.
Combine beans and squash and mix gently but well. Do not smash beans or squash. Spoon beans and squash into 6 serving bowls. Sprinkle each with red onion, cilantro and 2 tablespoons sour cream. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
456 calories; 325 mg sodium; 25 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 5.45 grams fiber.
This bean-and-sausage recipe uses chorizo and blood sausages. It's adapted from "Paula Wolfert's World of Food" (Harper & Row: 1988). "The beans must cook al pil-pil," Wolfert writes, "which in Basque means very slowly in an earthenware pot, over very low heat. Purists say the good flavor of this dish comes from the taste of the pot. I believe the particular savor develops because the beans must be cooked very slowly to avoid breaking the pot, and thus the flavors of all the components have time to intermingle.
"The special spicy edge of this dish comes from the fleshy hot peppers of Espelette, a town in the Basque region of France. The closest equivalent taste that I have found is the . . . bottled chile sauce called Sriracha (a thick chile paste sold in Southern California in most Asian markets). If not available, substitute Red Devil sauce."
BLACK SAUSAGES WITH RED BEANS AND CHORIZO
1 pound small red beans or red kidney beans 3/4 pound lean salt pork 1/4 cup olive oil 2 medium onions, sliced 2 cloves garlic, sliced 1 pound fresh chorizo sausages in natural casings, or spicy Hungarian or Italian sausages, uncut 4 carrots, scraped and cut into 1-inch chunks to equal 16 pieces 3 green Italian peppers (also called frying peppers), cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares to equal 24 pieces Dash sugar Salt 3/4 teaspoon chile paste, or more to taste 6 ounces blood sausage Freshly ground pepper Red wine vinegar
Pick over beans, then place in colander and rinse under cool running water until water runs clear.
In pot blanch salt pork 5 minutes in boiling water, then drain and rinse. Slice off rind and cut into small pieces. Cut remaining salt pork into 8 pieces. Set aside.
Place beans in deep saucepan with water to cover and slowly bring to boil. Boil 10 minutes, skimming often.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in 5-quart flame-proof casserole, preferably earthenware or enameled cast iron, over medium heat. Stir in onions and garlic. Saute until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add chorizo and reserved salt pork and pork rind. Cook 5 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.
Add beans and liquid to casserole. Bring to boil, skim carefully, cover and bake at 275 degrees 2 1/2 hours. To avoid drying and breaking beans, be sure beans are always covered with cooking liquid. Add boiling water if necessary.
Toss carrots with 1 tablespoon oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cover and cook over medium-high heat 3 minutes. Uncover, add green peppers, sugar and salt and stir over medium-high heat until carrots take on some color, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir carrots and green peppers into casserole. Return casserole to oven and cook, uncovered, until liquid is thickened, about 30 minutes. Set casserole aside at least 1/2 hour to allow flavors to blend. (Recipe can be prepared up to 1 day in advance to this point. Cool quickly and refrigerate covered.)
About 30 minutes before serving, remove surface fat from beans. Stir in chile paste. In medium skillet, heat 1 teaspoon olive oil over medium-low heat. Pierce blood sausage, add to skillet and crisp evenly, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Cut into 8 pieces.
Using slotted spoon, remove chorizo, salt pork, carrots and green peppers from beans. Cut chorizo into 8 pieces. Divide salt pork, blood sausage, chorizo, carrots and green peppers among individual heat-proof serving bowls. Adjust seasoning of beans with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon beans and sauce over. Bake at 375 degrees 10 to 20 minutes, or until very hot. (Mixture can also be baked in large serving casserole.) Serve hot with light sprinkling of remaining olive oil and vinegar. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
1,058 calories; 1,588 mg sodium; 120 mg cholesterol; 76 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 39 grams protein; 5.62 grams fiber.
Note: If using electric slow cooker with earthenware inset, set cooker on simmer (about 220 degrees) and cook about 10 hours.
Cassoulet is not a recipe for the faint of heart--or the short of time. Allow yourself two days to do this one, adapted from Richard Olney's "The French Menu Cookbook" (Godine: 1970), and the amount of work should be manageable. And rest assured, the flavors are more than worth the effort.
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into short lengths
1 lamb shoulder, all surface fat removed, cut into large pieces but not boned
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup dry white wine
3 cloves garlic, peeled
Mixed herbs, such as dried thyme, oregano, marjoram and savory
1 (1-pound) can tomatoes or 3 to 4 fresh tomatoes
2 whole cloves garlic
White bread crumbs
Prepare Pan-Fried Goose and Bean Stew. Set aside. In 2 tablespoons fat rendered from Pan-Fried Goose, cook onions and carrots in heavy saute pan (just big enough to hold meat placed side by side) about 15 minutes, stirring regularly, until lightly browned.
Remove onions and carrots. In same pan over high heat, brown pieces of lamb, seasoned to taste with salt, in same fat. When browned on all sides, sprinkle with flour. Turn pieces over, then return vegetables to pan. When flour is lightly cooked, add white wine, garlic and sprinkling of herbs to taste. Scrape and stir with wooden spoon to loosen and dissolve browned bits. Transfer contents to heavy casserole.
Add tomatoes and enough of cooking liquid from Bean Stew to cover. Cook, covered, at bare simmer, either in 275-degree oven or over very low heat on range, 1 1/2 hours. Skimming off surface fat 2 or 3 times.
Pour contents of casserole into sieve or colander. Pick out pieces of meat and carrot and put aside. Press rest through sieve into saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cook at low simmer 15 minutes, skimming.
Rub bottom and sides of large, medium-deep earthenware oven dish with garlic cloves until garlic disappears. Untie pork rind from Bean Stew, cut into small dice and distribute over bottom of dish.
Cut Pan-Fried Goose into 2 pieces and place on bed of rinds. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Distribute about 1/3 of beans over and around pieces of goose. Split pig's foot from Bean Stew. Remove largest bones and cut each half into 3 to 4 pieces. Arrange pig's foot along with pieces of lamb and carrot, including carrot from Bean Stew, evenly over surface.
Cover everything with half of remaining beans. Distribute sausage from Bean Stew (cut into thick slices) and pancetta from Bean Stew (cut into squares) on top. Cover with remaining beans.
Generously sprinkle entire surface with bread crumbs. Then carefully, to moisten without displacing, pour over, ladle by ladle, sauce from lamb until liquid rises just to surface of beans.
Dust lightly again with bread crumbs. Sprinkle several tablespoonfuls of melted goose fat over surface. Bake at 450 degrees until heated through and bubbling. Reduce heat to 300 degrees so gentle bubbling is maintained. After about 20 minutes, as liquid reduces, partly by absorption and partly by evaporation, begin to baste surface, first with remaining lamb sauce and then, when lamb sauce is finished, with remaining cooking liquid from Bean Stew.
Baste every 20 minutes. When golden-crisp crust has formed on surface, break crust all over with spoon so part becomes submerged and rest is moistened by sauce. In principle, cassoulet should remain at least 2 hours in slow oven, and crust should be broken minimum of 3 times. But if basting liquids should run short before then, it is better to stop cooking than risk dish becoming too dry. Makes 14 servings.
Each serving contains about:
660 calories; 331 mg sodium; 96 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 46 grams carbohydrates; 36 grams protein; 4.44 grams fiber.
1/4 goose, breast or leg
Dash mixed herbs
Goose fat from inside bird
1/4 cup water
Sprinkle goose with herbs and salt to taste. Let stand overnight. Melt pieces of fat in pan with water over low heat. When nothing solid is left but cracklings, discard cracklings and strain off pure fat. Place goose in pan with fat and cook over low heat until tender. Save fat when done.
White Bean Stew
6 ounces fresh pork rind
1/2 pound pancetta
1 pig's foot
1/2 pound uncooked garlic sausage (cervelat)
2 pounds dried white beans
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
1 large onion, stuck with 2 cloves
2 cloves garlic
Place pork rind, pancetta and pig's foot in large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to boil. Simmer 5 minutes, drain and rinse in cold water. Roll up pork rind and tie with kitchen string. Pierce sausage in several places. Set aside.
Cover beans generously with cold water in large, heavy saucepan or earthenware casserole. Bring slowly to boil. Drain. Return beans to saucepan along with carrots, onion, garlic, bouquet-garni, pork rind, pancetta, sausage and pig's foot. Pour in enough warm water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to boil again, slowly. Cook at bare simmer. Do not add salt.
Remove sausage and pancetta after about 40 minutes. Reserve. Pig's foot and rind should cook with beans until beans are done, about 2 hours. Taste cooking liquid and season to taste with salt. Put rind and pig's foot aside with sausage and pancetta. Discard onion and bouquet-garni.
Continuing our cross-cultural look at pork and beans, this is from Diana Kennedy's "The Art of Mexican Cooking" (Bantam: 1989). This version has a mild, lingering spice that is very nice.
PORK AND BEANS FROM MICHOACAN
(Frijoles Puercos, Michoacan)
2 ounces bacon, cut into small squares
About 6 ounces chorizo, skinned and crumbled
1/3 cup dried 1/2-inch flour tortilla squares
Frijoles de Olla, about 4 cups with broth
4 canned chiles largos or canned jalapenos en escabeche to taste
1/4 pound queso anejo, Chihuahua, Romano or Muenster cheese
2 ounces chicharron (fried crackling), broken into small pieces
Fry bacon in small skillet over low heat so fat renders out. Do not let bacon brown too much. Remove bacon pieces with slotted spoon. Set aside. Add crumbled chorizo to bacon fat. Fry gently without browning about 5 minutes. Remove chorizo with slotted spoon. Set aside. In same fat, fry tortilla squares until completely crisp. Drain on paper towels.
Put Frijoles de Olla in heavy, wide pan and add whole chiles, bacon and chorizo. Heat through gently so beans do not scorch on bottom. When beans just begin to bubble, add cheese and chicharron. As cheese just begins to melt, sprinkle top of beans with tortilla squares. Serve immediately, before squares become soft. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
450 calories; 828 mg sodium; 51 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 2.29 grams fiber.
Frijoles de Olla
1/2 pound dry beans, such as pinto, California pink or black turtle
1/4 white onion, roughly sliced
1 heaped tablespoon lard
Run beans through hands to pick out any small stones or pieces of earth. Rinse twice in cold water and drain. Put beans into pot and cover with enough hot water to come at least 3 inches above beans.
Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, onion and lard. Bring to simmer. Continue simmering until skins of beans are soft. Season to taste with salt. Continue cooking until beans are very soft and broth is soupy. Beans are better eaten day after cooking, when flavor matures. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.
This recipe, adapted from "Jasper White's Cooking From New England" (Harper & Row: 1989), may well be the ultimate American baked bean, just sweet enough from the molasses and maple sugar . There is also a pleasantly bitter undertone from the black pepper and dried mustard.
BOSTON BAKED BEANS
1 pound navy beans, pea beans or other small dried white beans
1/2 pound salt pork
1 medium onion, cut in 1/2-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup tomato puree
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup mustard
1/3 cup maple sugar
1/3 cup molasses
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
Pick through beans and discard off-colored or broken ones. Rinse and drain beans.
Remove rind from half of salt pork. Cut into 1/2-inch squares. Cut other half into 3/4- to 1-inch-thick strips to equal 4 or 5 strips, with rind attached. Set aside.
Line bottom of earthenware crock or bean pot with 1/2-inch squares of salt pork and onion. Place beans on top.
Bring 1 quart water to boil in saucepan. Add garlic, tomato puree, salt, pepper, mustard, maple sugar, molasses, bay leaves and vinegar. Simmer 1 minute. Mix well and pour over beans.
Score strips of salt pork crosswise, about every inch, without cutting through. This prevents strips from curling while cooking. Place strips on top of beans and liquid. Cover pot and bake at 250 degrees 5 hours, checking occasionally (first at 2 hours, then every hour), to be sure liquid is just barely covering beans. Add more water as needed.
After 5 hours, remove cover of bean pot and cook 1 hour more. Remove strips of salt pork and stir pot before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Each serving contains about:
588 calories; 825 mg sodium; 24 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 71 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 5.15 grams fiber.
Here is the classic Cuban version of pork and beans, adapted from "Memories From a Cuban Kitchen," by Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz (MacMillan: 1992). You may be surprised at how quickly this dish comes together.
BLACK BEANS AND RICE (Moros y Cristianos)
1 cup dried black beans
1/4 pound slab bacon, rind removed and cut into 1/4-inch dice, or 5 tablespoons pure Spanish olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups converted white rice
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons pure Spanish olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Freshly ground pepper
Cover beans in large pot with hot water by 2 inches. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Bake, covered, at 250 degrees until just soft, 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.
Cook bacon in large saucepan 6 to 8 minutes over low heat or heat oil until fragrant. Add onion, green pepper and garlic. Cook, stirring, until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Add beans, rice, 4 1/2 cups water, 2 teaspoons salt, bay leaf, olive oil, cumin and pepper to taste. Cook over medium-high heat until all water has been absorbed and small craters form over surface of rice, 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir with fork, cover, and cook over low heat until rice is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Discard bay leaf and serve. Makes 8 servings.
Each serving contains about:
363 calories; 119 mg sodium; 7 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 58 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.58 grams fiber.
"Pasta fazool" is the Americanization of the Sicilian name for pasta e fagioli, a standard dish all over Italy. This recipe, adapted from Anna Tasca Lanza's "The Heart of Sicily" (Clarkson Potter: 1993), is very good.
CRANBERRY BEAN SOUP (Minestra di Fagioli)
1 pound dried cranberry beans
1 large onion, cut into chunks
1 stalk celery, cut into chunks
2 carrots, cut into chunks
1/4 pound pancetta, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/4 pound spaghetti or tagliatelle, broken up and cooked al dente
1 clove garlic, minced, for garnish
Olive oil garnish
Rinse and drain beans and place in large saucepan with onion, celery and carrots. Cover with water. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer until beans are almost done, about 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in skillet saute pancetta until fat is rendered. Add 2 cloves garlic, minced. Saute. Add tomatoes and parsley. Cook 15 minutes.
Remove 2 cups of beans from saucepan and puree in food mill or food processor. Stir puree back into soup. Add tomato mixture and spaghetti to soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook soup to warm through. Garnish with 1 clove garlic, minced, and drizzle of olive oil to taste. Makes 8 first-course servings.
Each serving contains about:
328 calories; 135 mg sodium; 7 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 2.12 grams fiber.
Note: Cranberry beans may be purchases at most upscale supermarkets.
Food styling by Donna Deanne and Staci Miller