Monday, October 22, 2007

Cooking the Perfect Beans!

With bean season here in our beautiful Northern California fall, let's make sure we cook them successfully and deliciously.
Cannelinis, Navys, Gigantes, Garbanzos, Limas, Cranberry, Favas, Lentils, Flageolet, Great Northern, Mung, Pinto, Kidney… There’s definitely a bean for everyone. No matter what variety and/or recipe, there are a few important bean factors to take into consideration.

Soaking the beans over night may reduce your total cooking time but it’s not absolutely necessary. I’ve been cooking beans straight from their packaging for the past 6 years and never had a problem. Though rumor has it, soaking your bean and changing the water a few times cuts down on the flatulence-producing enzymes. Hmm, this will be for you to try and found out.
The common bean is made up of 22% protein, 61% carbohydrate, and 2% fat making these little legumes an all-around bundle of health. And some of us may remember learning in grade school what a bean is comprised of; the inner cotyledon, the embryo, and the outer seed coat. Why am I bringing up these lost memories of science class? Because in order to understand how to cook a bean properly it’s best to know how it works. The cell walls of beans will soften more readily in alkaline solutions, not acidic or salty. One of the most common mistakes people make when cooking these little buggers is adding salt to the liquid in the beginning of the process. This is the biggest no-no! Never, no matter how long you cook them, their skins, or shells, will never soften past a snappy crunch. Even veteran chili makers know that adding uncooked beans straight into their acidic and salty sauces will not speed up the process and absorption of flavor, but result in beans that seem to be uncooked. They will feel done and creamy in the middle, but still have a lingering rawness in the outside shell. But then we run across the problem of having beans that aren’t seasoned enough, or at all. So where does the salt come into play?? The solution to this problem all comes with the timing in the salting.
70%-80% done is a general rule of thumb when to add salt. I lean more toward the 80% side. How do you know when your beans have reached this level of done-ness? You can either bite into the bean to test the rawness of the core, or you can break open the bean and look into the middle. When a bean still has time left it will have a little white dot in the middle showing you your hot liquid has not permeated it yet. The amount of salt for your recipe depends on how many beans you’re working with and how much liquid. I generally salt the liquid until it tastes like a salty soup when there’s 20% time left.
Speaking of the bean liquid, it contains most of the ingredients of a veggie stock, so I always triple the amount of water to bean ratio, saving the excess liquid for stock with added starch (from the beans) for soups and braises. I simply ladle the excess liquid off the top of the bean pot and poor it through a strainer to leave out any little bits.
One more tip to creating the perfect beans is adding in olive oil to your water in the beginning of the cooking process. This results in a more velvety texture in the bean and the broth will taste richer.

Bean Recipe: For 5 pounds of dry beans

1 Carrot, peeled
2 Ribs of celery
¼ Yellow onion
4 Sprigs of thyme
3-4 Smashed cloves of garlic
3 Tb. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt to taste

For 5 pounds of beans, use a 4-6 quart pot. Place the beans in the pot along with the remaining ingredients (except the salt). Add enough water to cover the beans by 3-4 inches. Bring the water to a light boil and then reduce to a simmer. Depending on what type of bean you’ve decided to cook, total cooking time will vary. Try checking the status of your bean in 30-minute intervals. Remember. Don’t add the salt until the beans are 80% done or add uncooked beans into acidic sauces!

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