From the Chronicle Kitchen
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Basic Cooking Techniques for a Simple Pot of Beans
There isn’t one single best method of cooking beans. When you’re in a hurry, you may want to use a pressure cooker. On a leisurely, rainy Sunday, you might want to put a clay pot full of beans in the fireplace. At the most basic, you want to simmer the pot until the beans are soft. Soaking can speed up the process, and vegetables or broth will make the beans more flavorful. It’s really that simple.
Soaking the Beans
Normally on a bean-cooking day (which happens two or three times a week at Rancho Gordo), I put the beans to soak in the morning, after rinsing them in lots of cool water and checking them for small bits of debris. I cover the beans with about 1 inch of cold water.
You will hear that changing the soaking water cuts down on the flatulence factor of beans. For every person that tells you this, there is another, normally a food scientist, who will declare it to be false, or the results negligible. I’ve cooked a good number of pots, and I can tell you from my own experience it makes no difference. The only thing you can do to prevent gas is to eat beans more often, and your body will learn how to digest them. If you haven’t had beans in a while or you eat a very low-fiber diet, I don’t recommend you begin with a big bowl of beans. Start slowly, and you won’t have a problem.
Others insist that beans don’t need to be soaked at all. The entire nation of Mexico, for example. Although I prefer to eat in Mexico over almost any place else in the world, I have done side-by-side comparisons and found that beans soaked in water for 2 to 6 hours have a better texture and cook more evenly. But if you hate the idea of soaking, skip this step.
Another trick is called the quick soak method. Advocates of this technique pour hot water over the beans and let them soak for about 1 hour, then pour off the water, add new water, and start cooking. This sounds scientific, but when you think about it, soaking in hot water is virtually cooking, so why not just start cooking? Obviously I’m no fan of this method, but you are bound to meet some bean cookers who are adamant about it. It’s best just to nod in agreement and then go ahead and do what you want.
Flavoring the Beans
Heirloom varieties don’t need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh, which I’d define as within two years of harvesting. You can cook them with a ham bone or chicken broth, or, as I prefer, simply with a few savory vegetables like onions and garlic. Another option is a classic mirepoix, a mix of finely diced onion, celery, and carrot, sautéed in some kind of fat, often olive oil. A crushed clove of garlic doesn’t hurt. If cooking Mexican or Southwestern, I sauté onion and garlic in mild bacon drippings or even freshly rendered lard. I think flavoring with a mirepoix is the best way to cook a good bean. I love fussing in the kitchen, but this is all you need.
Keep in mind that salt, acids, and sugars can negatively affect the beans as they cook. So don’t add these flavorings until after the beans are soft. This includes molasses in baked beans.
If you’re stuck with old, standard supermarket beans, cooking them with a ham hock and chicken broth might be a good idea, but heirloom varieties taste as good as they look and don’t need a lot of help. To save cleanup time later, I sauté the vegetables in the same pot I use to cook the beans. Once the vegetables are soft, it’s time to move on to the next step.
Cooking the Beans
Pour the beans and their soaking water into a large pot. The beans will have expanded, so make sure they are still covered by about an inch of liquid. If you haven’t cooked the mirepoix in the pot, add it now and give a good stir. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a hard boil.
Keep the beans at a boil for about 5 minutes and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. I like to see how low the heat can go and still produce the occasional simmering bubble. If too much heat is escaping, cover the pot. If the simmer turns into a boil, remove the lid or set it ajar. Allow the beans to cook. This can take 1 hour up or even 3 to 4 hours, depending on the age of your beans. When the beans are almost ready, the aroma will be heady. They will smell not so much like the vegetables you’ve cooked with them but like the beans themselves. At this point, add salt. Go easy as it takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt. For my taste, I find a scant 2 teaspoons salt per pot, made with 1 pound dried beans, is ideal, but this is very subjective. If you want to add tomatoes or another acidic ingredient like lime or vinegar, wait until the beans are cooked through.
If the liquid in the pot starts to get low, you can add more water. Mexican cooks will tell you that cold water hardens the skins and that you must add hot water to keep the beans soft. I keep a pitcher of room-temperature water nearby, and so far the beans I’ve cooked have never suffered from tough skins.
You’re done! Once you’ve mastered this method, try some different techniques. Your bean-cooking friends will swear by this or that method. You should listen to their advice, keeping in mind there are few absolutes when cooking beans and it takes very hard work to mess up a pot of beans.
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