Salt, spices, and aromatics are the way and the truth.

By Margaret Eby
March 31, 2020
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This year is a boom time for beans. That was true before the coronavirus crisis, thanks to the Instant Pot and a heightened awareness of beans as a sustainable, cheap source of protein in a time of rapidly escalating climate change (and a growing number of plant-based eaters). And it’s particularly true now, when grocery store aisles are picked clean of the long-ignored Goya bags of chickpeas, and customers are buying heirloom beans at such a clip that heirloom bean purveyors like Rancho Gordo are overwhelmed with demand.

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But even once you have obtained beans, you still need to put in some work to make them not just edible, but tasty. It has come to my attention that isn’t necessarily common knowledge that vegetables and beans deserve to be seasoned just as effusively as a whole roast chicken or a cut of steak. If you boil some beans, without much in the way of salt or seasoning or anything else, they’re not going to hurt you, but they’re probably not going to be as delicious as they would if you do a few really simple things to add flavor to them. There are times when you want beans to be relatively unseasoned—like when they’re an ingredient in another dish—but if you want to eat beans, say, with a bowl of white rice, you’ll be a lot happier if you add a few simple things as you simmer them.

If You’re Soaking Your Beans, Add Salt

You really don’t need to soak your beans. Really! It only cuts down on cooking time by like 20 percent, and that is time you could have been using to cook the beans anyway. But some people like to, and it can make beans cook up more evenly if you’re unsure how old they are. Unless you’ve got heirloom beans with a harvest date on the package, who can tell how old beans are anyway? But OK, if you want to soak your beans, add a tablespoon or two of salt to the soaking liquid, a trick from Cool Beans author and bean guru Joe Yonan. It effectively brines the beans, making them both tastier and more evenly cooked. Just note if you do that to cut down on the salt you add while they’re cooking later.

For Beans With Meat, Start Here

If you eat meat and you have a ham hock on hand, or some bacon, or a bit of sausage, that’s a good way to build a foundation of flavor for beans. If it’s sausage or bacon, you’ll want to cook it through before adding it to the pot. Brown the meat in a bit of oil at the bottom of the pot to start, then remove it with a slotted spoon or spider and cook the aromatics in the meat fat. Add the meat back in when you put the beans and liquid into the pot. A ham hock is OK to just throw in with the beans whole, but you can get a bit more flavor out of it if you brown it first.

For Vegetarian/Vegan/Plant-Based Beans, Start Here

I usually keep my beans meat-free, so this is my normal weekly procedure. You’ve got your beans—half a pound or a pound is usually plenty, depending on how many folks you're feeding. You soaked them or you didn’t, whatever. Now is a time to build a bunch of flavor before you even add beans to the pot. Heat up whatever vessel you’re using for the beans with a glug of olive oil, or coconut oil, or a lump of butter or lard. Any fat will do! Then use it to cook some aromatics, which are, loosely, vegetables that can stand up to a lot of cooking and bring in some flavor when sweated down. If you cut up celery, carrots, and onions, well, friend, that is a classic French mirepoix, and it will do very nicely. It’ll also disappear into the beans as it cooks, more or less, which is delicious. But other combinations of vegetables do very nicely too, so you can adapt it to what you have. The Cajun and Louisiana Creole combination of this vegetable base, usually called “the trinity,” is onion, celery, and bell pepper. In Spanish, Italian, Latin American, and Portuguese cooking, this base often includes onions, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic and it’s called a sofrito.

All of these are great for cooking beans, but you don’t have to adhere to anything super strictly. Use what you have. Mushrooms, sure! Leeks, absolutely! Ginger and lemongrass? Heck yes. Jarred salsa? Listen, I’ve done it. Just sweat the vegetables in the fat until they’re no longer crunchy, and are beginning to turn golden. These days, I prefer to just halve or quarter an onion, smash a couple whole cloves of garlic, and leave it there—I fish the onion out at the end, and the garlic cooks into the beans enough that it basically disappears.

Tomato Paste Is Your Pal

Remember your old friend tomato paste? It’s great to add into beans. Throw in a dollop or two to the aromatics once they’ve cooked, and saute it in the hot fat for a minute or two, just to cook out the tinny flavor. Harissa paste also works nicely for this.

Enhance With Spices and Herbs (If You Want To)

Beans are an excellent canvas for using that spice mixture you picked up once on vacation and forgot to use. They take well to all manner of spices, including mixes like taco seasoning, garam masala, and Old Bay. I like smoked paprika to add a bit of the campfire flavor, since I keep my beans vegetarian most of the time. I also like adding a little bit of red chile flake or a whole dried chile, sometimes some cumin, and maybe a little bit of Mexican oregano. But there are no wrong answers here, just go slowly and don’t dump in a whole cannister of cumin in one go. Add a teaspoon or two of what you’re working with, and you can always adjust the flavor later on.

I add my spices after my aromatics have sweated sufficiently, and cook them in the hot oil until they’re fragrant, thirty seconds to a minute. Then I add in beans, cover the beans in an inch or two of water and crank the heat until they come to a simmer. As for herbs, woody types like thyme, sage, and rosemary, are also great—add those in with the beans and water. I always add bay leaves at this stage too, since they bring that herbaceous can’t-put-your-finger-on-it flavor. I also add in a strip of kombu, a kind of Japanese kelp, which helps the beans cook more evenly. But don’t stress out; use what you have

You Don’t Have to Use Plain Water

Water is perfectly good for cooking beans, but if you want extra flavor, why not add another liquid? You can cook beans in any kind of stock, for example, or any kind of combination of stock and water that you want. You can also add some wine or beer for more flavor. Just let it reduce for a few minutes to cook off some of the alcohol before adding the water and/or stock.

Salt Everything Almost Always

Seasoning is the cardinal rule of cooking anything, including beans. About a tablespoon of kosher salt per pound of beans is a good place to start if you’re cooking them in water—remember as they simmer, the bean broth will concentrate and get saltier. If you’re using stock, particularly the store-bought kind that’s often fairly salty on its own, you should err on the more conservative side of seasoning. At the end of your cooking, taste the beans and adjust the salt as you’d like it.

Simmer Down Now

OK, now you have your beans in the pot, with whatever combination of spices, vegetables, and whatnot you prefer. If you’re cooking them on the stove, the thing to do, as per the guidance of Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando, is to raise the heat until it comes to a boil. Sando advises letting the beans boil for fifteen minutes and then turning them down to a simmer. I usually walk away from the pot and come back to check on it to see that it’s boiling, and then turn it down. Beans do not require precision! They are cool to chill out for a while. It’s fine. Then you just simmer them until they’re tender. Once they’re done, store them in the liquid they were cooking with.

I tend to check on mine every half hour or so. Your bean cook time will vary, depending on the type of bean you use, your stove, and how old your beans are, but most beans should be done in one to three hours. Just be patient, and keep tasting them. If you’re using a pressure cooker, that’s cool too. Beans will usually take between 20 minutes to 45 minutes at high pressure—here’s a handy chart. I tend to finish beans I cook in an Instant Pot by simmering them a bit at the end using the Saute function, because it concentrates the bean broth flavor, and also because I’d rather slightly undercooked beans and finish them though simmering than overcook them into total mush.

Finish Off as You See Fit

That’s it! You’re done. Taste the beans. If you want, add some freshly ground black pepper, or maybe a dash of hot sauce, or a squeeze of lemon. You could make a delicious chile sauce, or shower them with Parmesan, or stir in a lump of butter. You can eat them in a bowl with rice, sprinkled with green onions, or blend a cup or two of them with a half-cup of olive oil and add it back into the pot for an easy soup. You can eat them on toast with greens, or in pasta, or marinated in salad. There are dozens of bean recipes out there, and they’ll all taste better now that you know not just how to cook them, but how to make them delicious.