Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tools and Tips: How and Why You Should Cook Your Own Beans

Boiled Water Added to Beans and Spices


I spent 4 hours working on my novel today. And while that may not seem like a lot of time, it feels like a lot of time. It feels like it just extracted a whole part of myself just to edit a little blip of writing. So while I could definitely spend more time, I'm looking at this as a slow-but-sure warm-up period. It's been years since I've written consistently for long periods of time - and it's exhausting!

So I'm taking a break to post about food. Originally, I thought I might post my alfredo sauce recipe, but I'm saving that for later. After reading about my friend Sabrina's irritable experience with cooking beans, I decided to revisit the topic.

In prior posts, I've extolled the benefits of eating beans and encouraged everyone to start with raw beans. Why? It's all about love: love for your own well-being, love for the people you cook for and love for the planet we all share. I break it down as follows:

I. Love for you and others

Beans are packed with fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals (raw or canned) and are low it fat (except peanuts). Most beans are relatively mild in flavor, can be integrated into a variety of dishes and are cheap, cheap cheap. So chowing down on beans is a great way to show your body (and wallet) how much you care.

Starting with raw, uncooked beans takes love to a whole new level. Whenever you cook any food (it doesn't matter what kind of food), you are altering the nutritional value of that food. Proteins are broken down, fiber is stripped away and nutrients are boiled off. If cooked products are subsequently canned, these products are often packed with a preservative (such as salt water) and kept shelf-stable with a can lining such as BPA.

Cooking beans yourself allows you to control the cooking process and skip the preservatives and chemicals. Rather than over-cooked, mushy beans infused with salt from a can, spend a few hours and cook your own beans.

II. Love for the planet

The planet is going to hell in a hand basket and you don't need to be an environmental nut-job to see it happening. We are a convenience-obsessed race with our greedy eyes focused on carefree consumables. Sound harsh? Maybe, but it's also reality. How often do we get on a plane and think to ourselves: "I wish I had more room - too bad the big guy next to me didn't cancel his flight" or "Walking 15 minutes to the drugstore is such a waste of time - I'll drive" or "3 hours to make a chocolate cake? Forget that - I'll buy the boxed mix" or "I'm sick of my [car, laptop, phone, TV] - it's time for a new one!"

Guess what? All that convenience, carefree easiness has a price and our sick little planet is paying through the nose. The oceans are filling with plastic because we can't contain our lust for toss-away packaging. The forests are being decimated to throw up new houses and new, bigger factories all because we want new, bigger, better stuff. The landfills are growing and it's becoming harder and harder to conceal our piles of trash behind the disappearing trees. Wild animals are starving in our backyards because we just can't resist suburban city sprawl.

Fish in Hawaii Aquarium

But who's willing to sacrifice a little convenience to make a difference? Stop pointing at the couple in the Hamptons with six Land Rovers! If you want to make a difference, even a small difference, then just cook your own beans.

Dried beans are most frequently sold in 1-pound plastic bags, although you can now sometimes find 2 or 5 pound bags at some grocers. Amazon sells some beans in bulk 25 pound bags. And if you really do some searching, you can find local farmers who may be willing to sell you beans in bulk (thus reducing the transportation impact of shipping you 25 pounds of beans).

For most beans: 1 pound of dried beans = approximately 2 cups dry beans = approximately 4 to 5 cups cooked beans. Alternatively, there are only 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans in the typical 15 ounce can. The convenience of opening a can is generating at least 3x as much packaging waste vs. the dried beans. And don't pat yourself on the back for recycling the cans - lots of energy is consumed (and thus has to be produced) in order to recycle those convenient little cans.

Homemade Baked Beans, Closeup

If you're still not convinced you should cook your own beans, you can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone. In fact, you're probably in the majority. However, if you'd like to pick up a bag of beans and try your hand at cooking them, here's a primer on good bean cooking techniques:

Sorting:
Most packaging will instruct you to sort through your beans for rocks or other inedible bits. Don't spend a lot of time searching - give the beans a quick once-over and pick out any glaring rocks you find. Honestly, it's been years since I've found something inedible in my beans.

Soaking:
If you care deeply about the planet and you have a good mind for planning ahead (and your home is not infested with animals likely to disrupt the soaking process), soak your beans before you cook them. Soaking drastically reduces the bean cook time, thus saving energy.

Here's how: Soak 1 cup of beans in 3 cups of water at room temperature for at least 6 hours - overnight is a good time for this. Save the leftover soaking liquid for cooking the beans later.

Cooking:
If you're in a hurry and you have soaked your beans, add them to a medium pot and cover with 1/2 inch of water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer over low heat until the beans are tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans covered. Add salt and spices if you wish to flavor the beans (such as cumin, smoked paprika, etc).

Spice Mix Added to Beans

Preferred method:

  1. Add your uncooked dry beans (along with any seasoning, including salt) to a slow-cooker insert
  2. In a separate pot, bring 1 gallon of water to the boil, then pour the water over the beans and cover the slow-cooker
  3. Cook the beans on the HIGH slow-cooker setting for 1 hour, then continue cooking the beans on the LOW setting for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until beans are tender

If you're not going to be around to adjust the heat setting, you can instead cook the beans on the LOW setting for 4-5 hours.



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