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Editor’s Note: In her monthly kitchen recommendations column, recipe developer and food writer Casey Barber shares her suggestions and tweaks to make your meals better.
If you’re making the switch to more vegetarian and plant-based meals, chances are you’ve been adding more beans to your roster of regular dishes. That means you’ve likely been loading up your grocery cart with cans galore. But while canned beans are convenient, I’m here to make the argument for using dried beans in their place.
(And whether you’re a vegetarian or meat eater, finding a place for beans in your diet is a healthy — and tasty — must.)
Dried or canned, beans are nutritional all-stars. “They’re known for being good sources of both dietary fiber and plant protein. But they also offer up iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc,” said Gena Hamshaw, a New York-based registered dietitian who specializes in vegan cooking. “It’s hard to find foods that are so rich in so many important and valuable nutrients, not to mention budget-friendly.”
But when it comes to dried beans, these little legumes have a lot more going on for them.
“Dried beans are more economical, in the sense that they cost less, cup for cup, than canned beans. They’re also great for batch cooking, which can help home cooks to save money,” Hamshaw said.
One 15-ounce can of beans yields about 9 ounces of beans once drained, and will cost you approximately $1 at the supermarket. (More on bean weights below.) A pound of dried beans, meanwhile, will give you about 3.5 cans’ worth of beans at a cost between $2 and $3, depending on the brand. I don’t know about you, but I love paying half the price for what I personally find to be a more flavorful product.
“Some canned beans are higher than others in added sodium,” Hamshaw noted, but as an average example, a can of pinto beans contains 270 milligrams of sodium per serving, which is 12% of the recommended daily amount for adults, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
You can certainly buy low-sodium or no-salt canned beans and rinse them before eating, which can reduce the amount of sodium by up to 40%, according to Bentley, but dried beans contain a much lower amount of sodium, between 0 and 15 milligrams per serving.
In addition, when cooking dried beans, you can control the amount of salt you add, as well as any other spices and flavorings. (Some seasoning blends do contain additional sodium, so make sure to read all spice labels if you’re closely monitoring your sodium intake.)
Why not move beyond the grocery store staples — pinto, black or kidney — and try a lesser-known bean? Rancho Gordo, Zursun, North Bay Trading and Primary Beans are just a few of the many purveyors of heirloom bean varieties; some of my personal favorites include buckeye, flageolet and scarlet runner beans. While these beans have a higher price tag than bulk bin varieties, it’s fun and tasty to experiment with new flavors.
Let’s dispel the biggest misconception about dried beans — they require just about as much hands-on prep time as finding a can opener, opening a can, draining and rinsing. In fact, the easiest way to prepare dried beans is with an Instant Pot or other brand of multicooker. And no, you don’t have to presoak them if you don’t want to (or if you just forget).
The argument for soaking is because, even though the beans are already dried, they lose moisture over time. If a bag of beans has been on the pantry shelf for a year, they’ll be more desiccated than a freshly dried batch. Giving the beans a soak lets them rehydrate — think of it as a water marinade, slowly penetrating each bean to give it moisture.
But I’ve found that pressure cooking dried beans in an Instant Pot or other multicooker is 99% foolproof whether you’ve presoaked them or not. While you can always cook your beans on the stovetop, pressure cooking is a hands-off method — my favorite “set it and forget it” technique — that produces reliable results.
If you want to presoak your beans, place them in a bowl and fill with enough water to cover the beans by about 3 inches. The beans will absorb the water and increase in size a bit as they soak, so make sure you use a large enough bowl to accommodate them.
Soak for at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours, then drain the beans and transfer to the Instant Pot or other pressure cooker.
If you’ve presoaked your beans, fill the pot with enough water to cover the beans by at least 1 inch. If you haven’t soaked them, use enough water to cover the beans by at least 3 to 4 inches.
Add a pinch of salt, spices — I like to mix it up with chili powder, Old Bay seasoning, garlic powder or onion powder — and any aromatics, such as onions, bay leaves or garlic cloves.
Seal the lid and cook on high pressure. Smaller beans typically take less time than larger beans do, and because all pressure cookers have their own little quirks, you’ll find the perfect time for your model as you make beans more often. Soaked beans should require between 20 to 25 minutes to cook; for unsoaked beans, it’s around 40 to 45 minutes.
Once the cooking cycle has ended, turn the pot off and let the pressure release naturally for 15 minutes before opening.
If you’re not using your beans immediately, store them in their cooking liquid for the best texture and flavor.
I find it easiest and most accurate to measure beans by weight rather than volume, since beans come in various shapes and sizes.
One 15-ounce can of beans, once drained, yields about 9 ounces (or 255 grams) of beans. Because dried beans double in weight when cooked, you’ll need the halve the amount you use in recipes with canned beans. So 4.5 ounces (or 128 grams) of dried beans should be equivalent to one can; 9 ounces (or 225 grams) of dried beans to two cans and so on.
With these ratios, you’ll be able to make a big pot of dried beans and portion them out for future meals, or make as much as you need to replace canned beans in any recipe. Here’s a few suggestions to get you started:
• Borracho beans, sometimes called cowboy beans or ranch beans, are a versatile filling for burrito bowls, enchiladas, tacos or as a side dish.
• Refried beans are so much better made from scratch than straight out of the can. Once you try a homemade version, it’s hard to go back.
• Tostadas are a crunchy vehicle for a spicy black bean puree, and an ideal recipe for when you’re short on time and have extra beans on hand.
• Black bean chili is so simple to make in a pressure cooker when you can throw all the ingredients in at once.
• Use tender cannellini beans or other white beans to make a tangy and sweet vegetarian version of baked beans.
• Pasta fagioli is an Italian bean-and-pasta stew that’s great with any style of white beans, such as Great Northern, navy or flageolet.
• Hummus is probably the most popular dish using garbanzo beans, or chickpeas, and it’s so smooth and creamy when made fresh.
• Chickpea coconut curry doesn’t just roll off your tongue — it’s a classic combination for a vegan weeknight meal.
Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.