Using dried beans, chickpeas, and lentils
For a long time I had misconceptions about beans, chickpeas, and lentils. When I used these (now, close) friends in meals it was irregular, but exclusively from cans. In a previous house, my partner Glenn (the photographic half of our team) grew, dried, later re-hydrated, and cooked beans. And I still had misconceptions. My (erroneous) understanding was that beans (and chickpeas and lentils) were harvested fresh, i.e. squishy and tender, then were either canned and preserved in that state, or dehydrated to be sold as dried goods. (Though to be honest, at that stage I probably had approximately zero awareness of dried beans, chickpeas and lentils as an option.) I think that despite Glenn’s adventure into the world of saving beans, I had these false belief structures which were so strong thanks to the convenience of supermarkets, that the contradictory information simply didn’t register – in fact, there have been significant psychological studies on this phenomena (not related specifically to beans!) which reinforce that we “select” information that is congruent with our beliefs, and reject information that opposes what we have established as our “truth”.
When beans grow, they grow in pods. When the pods are young and fresh, they can be broken open and generally the beans are soft, squishy, tender, and delicious. When the pods are left alone, over time they dry out, and the beans do the same. This is when the beans can be harvested easily and stored for a later time when they will be re-hydrated, cooked and eaten.
There was a point in my life, a few years ago, when this new understanding swamped me. As I moved toward a wholefoods diet, I was incorporating more beans, chickpeas, and lentils into meals for me and Glenn, though they more or less were exclusively out of cans. We started visiting a local farmers market – the Northey Street City Farm in an inner-northern suburb of Brisbane – and noticed bulk bins full of dried beans, chickpeas, and lentils (along with nuts, grains, dried fruit, and other exciting bulk bin friendlies). So, we made the change to dried beans.
(Oddly enough, cooking with beans which were purchased by us dried, is now such an effortless and embedded part of our Eating Lives that it takes significant concentration to remember the confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the first steps in this direction. )
We had mixed messages from the internet and the small cookbook reference library we had at the time (Was it a precise science? How much water for a cup of beans? Do we soak lentils? Is a chickpea a bean? WTF, actually, are soybeans?). We occasionally cooked with dried beans, and believe me it was an ordeal, though still relied on canned beans. It was tricky matching up recipes that required, for example, a can of chickpeas, with soaking beans in advance. How many beans do we soak? Should I count them? What does ‘picked over’ mean? Do I need to inspect each bean/ chickpea/ lentil individually?
As the cookbook library grew, so did confidence, the household repertoire of recipes, and fluency with dried beans, chickpeas and lentils. Here are some general pointers which standout to me, and have helped me shift from canned beans to dried beans.
- Soak beans and chickpeas, don’t soak lentils. For this reason alone (regardless of their nutritional specs and deliciousness) lentils really ought to be an essential member of every pantry as they are eminently convenient.
- Soak beans and chickpeas over night, or from the morning on the day you plan to cook them. Basically – lots of hours will do it. Even black beans, which are wee things and don’t need a great deal of cooking time, don’t mind too much being long-soaked. There may be an impact on the texture of your final meal, but this is not as relevant as your cooking time following soaking.
- Rinse your beans and chickpeas well before soaking, and rinse your lentils before cooking. These foods can sometimes upset the uninitiated gut, and cause bloating (and in seasoned eaters, too). Rinsing cleans them, but also helps to wash away any leeched enzymes which contribute to discomfort following meals.
- When you soak your beans and chickpeas, place them in a jug, jar, bowl, or whatever, and cover with plenty of water. I’m sure there is a precise ratio out there somewhere, but don’t stress about it. Just make sure there is a bunch of water available to be absorbed during expansion.
- Discard the soaking water! If you have the opportunity, change the soaking water mid-soak. Thoroughly rinse the beans and chickpeas before cooking! This helps again with those pesky enzymes.
- After soaking, you must cook your beans and chickpeas. This is by boiling them in water. Stick your beans or chickpeas in a pot, drown them generously (again – no need to be precise, but go for more rather than less as you will drain the water out at the end – it is unlike the absorption method for cooking rice), and bring to the boil. Boil for 10-15 minutes, then lower the heat to a simmer.
- Working out the simmer times for beans and chickpeas is where you may need to consult a reference manual. Once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to gauge it by size, and with being mindful of how long you have soaked them. Longer soaking = less simmering. I will leave this up to you to find out, but large beans (e.g. red kidneys, great northerns) and chickpeas require around 60-90 minutes. Smaller beans require less time (e.g. black/turtle beans may need only 20-30 minutes of simmering time).
- The best way to check for done-ness is to scoff a bean/chickpea or two after a while on the stove and see whether you are happy with the texture. If you find that they hold their shape adequately, have a discernible and pleasing texture, and will serve the purpose required for the recipe you are using, then they are done. Take them off the heat, pour into a strainer to drain the cooking water, and rinse the beans or chickpeas.
- While beans and chickpeas are on the stove, you can add tasty things to the pot to infuse your wee friends with flavour. Consider a bruised garlic clove, an onion studded with dried cloves, a bay leaf or two, some chilli (fresh or flaked), or whatever else takes your fancy. Just avoid salt, as salt can toughen the skin, which we want to avoid. (Pick these things out at the end of cooking, after you have drained the beans or chickpeas, if you choose to use them.)
- When cooking lentils, aim to replicate the absorption method for rice cooking. I prefer this method as I regularly cook lentils in my home-made (salt free) vegetable stock to add a depth of flavour to the final dish.
- Lentils come in a few varieties: brown, red, green… The cooking time depends on the variety and your intended final texture. Most often I cook with green puy (French) lentils as I regularly eat lentils in a simple salad with chopped tomato, feta, capers, boiled egg and whatever else is going at the time. Green puy lentils hold their shape very well, while brown lentils turn into more of a mushy meal, and red lentils are mushier again. They’re all tasty, and your choice will depend on how you plan to use them.
- Usually, for around a cup of dried lentils, I’ll add in a cup of stock, then top it up with water until they look well watered but not drowned. You don’t want to be overly generous here, as you don’t want to drain too much liquid off at the end. If you are going to be pottering about in the kitchen while they’re cooking, just keep an eye on them and top up the water as required if they are becoming dry but not yet cooked enough. Be conservative with the water, but watch it like you would a toddler with a felt pen.
- To cook your lentils, boil them for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to an eager simmer. Most varieties of lentils take 30-45 minutes to cook, and the best way to assess their done-ness is to try them!
- When you have finished cooking your beans, chickpeas, or lentils, you can eat them immediately without any adornment, or incorporate them into your recipe (just take note ahead of time whether the temperature is important for the recipe. You may not be able to use recently cooked, i.e. hot beans, chickpeas, or lentils in your recipe, in which case you’ll have to cook them well ahead of when you plan to make the recipe).
- Alternatively, you can put your cooked beans, chickpeas, or lentils into a container and store them in the fridge to use or eat at another time (they also can be frozen for later use). I generally get through any I have cooked and stored in the fridge within 5 days of cooking. I have never had any fallout from this, but with everything, always fresher is better.
Once you get into the hang of dried beans, chickpeas, and lentils it’s really no effort. We make and break habits all the time, and cooking with dried rather than canned is definitely a habit I would encourage everyone to make.
A note on why I was so eager to move away from canned beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Canned products are exactly that: canned. As such they have packaging which is rationed to a small portion, i.e. one serve. This is troublesome, as landfill, waste, and disposability truly plague this world. And we can change this. While transport, packaging, handling, storage et al. are necessarily entwined with dried beans as well as canned, there is at least the positive action of buying packaging free food. I take these to my local, non-major-supermarket grocer when I stock up on beans, chickpeas, and lentils (sometimes I buy beans and their friends from an online retailer who provides them in packaging. The packaging is recycled paper lined with biodegradable plastic – a topic I am looking forward to interrogating in the future – which while not perfect again at least is a step toward good practices. Something which seems to be rarely available in major supermarkets).