Dried Beans: Why?

By Matthew Yglesias


Lately I’ve been trying to eat less meat and less carbohydrates which leads, naturally, to beans. Which is all to the good, since I like beans. Banal canned beans, that is. But it seemed to me that if I’m going to eat more beans, maybe I should step my beans game up and get the dried beans like all the leading food authorities suggest.

And yet the dried beans seem to taste . . . just the same.

So what’s the deal? Discussions of bean-cooking I’ve seen tend to leap right past the point where they advise you to make the dried beans and swiftly plunge into disputes about bean-cooking methods (do you need to soak? will salt stop your beans from cooking?) . This is nice, but is it really necessary to wade into this territory? One advantage of the dried stuff is that it’s cheaper, but canned beans are really cheap as is—even the expensive organic beans cost $1.39 at my local Safeway. And obviously the canned beans are much faster and more convenient. Time has value in my fast-paced professional blogger lifestyle and I don’t think you need to be paid of money to think that a dollar isn’t too much to pay for an enormous increase in convenience.

If there’s a big taste payoff, of course, that’s another thing. But I’m not seeing it. Am I missing something? Is there some tasty cooking method I need to employ?


34 responses to “Dried Beans: Why?

  1. Cook them with smoked ham hocks or melt salt pork into the cooking water before you put the beans in.

  2. As far as I’m concerned, canned beans taste better than dried beans because the latter is so freaking hard to prepare, they never turn out right. That dried beans taste better in theory doesn’t do much good if it doesn’t translate to the plate. I’ve made the jump to bulk rice, but I’m not ready to go for bulk beans.

  3. If you are buying dried beans from a mysteriously old bulk bin, or in packages that pre-date bell bottoms, that could be the culprit. Although the shelf life is long, “past their prime” dried beans are often lackluster in flavor and texture.

    Properly stored dried beans, when prepared mindfully and deftly seasoned, are a revelation, beats the pants off anything in a can. But if you are satisfied with the canned stuff, that’s great, a boon for convenience, indeed.

    A couple of other quick tips…pressure cooking is another great method for dried beans, but pre-soaking is a textural must from my experience.

    Never put salt in the bean cooking water (toughens the legumes), but feel free to throw in whole stalks of fennel, half carrots, or other such savories.

    I’ve got a killer recipe for heirloom dried Christmas Lima Beans (Gourmet Valley, available from Whole Foods) that will make you an immediate believer, I’ll try to get it over to you.

  4. I agree with Kmango. Good beans are a must. I highly recommend Ranch Gordo:


  5. If I make, say, black beans, I want dried because I’m going to be cooking them will all sorts of stuff like aromatics and bacon and/or ham hocks. This will taste much better than canned… though perhaps to some extent you could doctor up canned beans to match, I wouldn’t bother.

    Otherwise, if I’m making something like chili or cassooulet I might make the beans myself for flavor(as above) or for texture considerations… in the latter case, I might be worried about canned beans breaking down to mush, so it’s better to just make them yourself.

  6. Sorry, make that Rancho Gordo


  7. One advantage of dry is since they aren’t pre-cooked, they have more time to soak up whatever they are being cooked in, and so I find the flavor enhanced greatly. I notice this effect much more when using a slow cooker, obviously, which is how I prefer to eat most bean dishes. If only I had the kind of time to do that more often.

  8. Try cooking your white beans with a parmesan rind. I’m not saying you’ll never use canned white beans again (you probably will, just as I do, for convenience) but if you have the time and inclination, damn those parmesan beans are good.

  9. Another little thing you can do to maximize your dried bean pleasure is to not eat them the same day that you cook them. Even perfectly cooked and seasoned beans get more velvet-textured and full-flavored after they’ve spent a night or two in the fridge.

  10. Christopher M

    The weirdest thing about these discussions, I think it’s sort of the elephant in the room, is how no one mentions that everyone has a slightly different palate and is able to distinguish and experience different nuances of flavor. So maybe there are people who are especially bean-flavor-sensitive who can tell the difference and really appreciate the dried beans. Be glad you aren’t one of those people, since it seems like kind of a pain and canned beans are GOOD. For my part, I can’t tell a $200 bottle of wine apart from a $30 bottle — I like them both — but I can easily tell canned ragù from a homemade, and the difference is worth the three hours of my time it takes to make the real thing. À ciascuno il suo.

  11. There’s also the problem (for me, at least) that most brands of canned beans, other than Eden Organic, are loaded with sodium (mostly salt). I must eat a low-sodium diet, so non-Eden canned beans are out of the picture. (I order directly from edenfoods.com when I can, but shipping is expensive.)

    Dried beans don’t have this problem, are cheaper, and cook quite easily in half an hour in a pressure cooker, soaked or unsoaked.

  12. Good point, Matt. Some state they perfer canned beans because they taste better. Is this because many/most canned beans are salted, sugared and flavored?

    Don’t forget that beans can also be used cold in salads with onions, peppers, cilantro, corn, pasta, olive oil…

  13. For the sodium-avoiding folks, I often hear that rinsing canned beans will remove much of the sodium. I did a bit of web research and like all things culinary and health related, found many competing opinions out there. You might want to do your own research, though, because if rinsing truly cuts salt, that would open some new possibilities.

  14. You can get more different kinds of beans if you buy dried – at least if you go out of your way for them – and this can be fun and tasty. Getting “really expensive” dried beans, in comparison to other beans, is still pretty darn cheap food. Try Cowgirl Creamery in DC for some nice kinds. If the fun of the process and the subtle differences in taste and texture aren’t worth it for you, then by all means enjoy your canned beans.

  15. Good gravy… the answer is to find yourself an Indian cook and to spend some time learning about all kinds of dal, not just the couple of beans you’re thinking of. You won’t believe the range of tastes that legumes can have when subjected to the tender mercies of a south Asian.

  16. Beans ar e a weird food to cook, there are so many ways to cook them, and so many oppinions. It takes experimentation and time to get them right, but once you get that recipe the way you like it, then it’s all gravy.

    In my mind here are the main advantages,
    1) You have control. Like em spicy, sweet, less salty? You have control. Want them al-dente instead of mushy? All you.

    2) Yea, I know 1.36 for a can is cheap, how about 1.36 for the equivilant of 5 cans? They freeze perfectly and get even better after being frozen.

    3) Bean liquid. You know that liquid you pour off your beans because it taste nasty from the can? That liquid from homemade beans is culinary gold. Add it to soups, mash it with the beans for a dip or refried beans, cook rice in it, it’s practically a stock.

    Unfortunately my wife is on a low fiber diet, so I’ve stopped cooking beans as much :(. Home cooked beans can really be a revelation though.

  17. I love beans but need to stay on the low sodium side of things, like Matt. And I find the freshly cooked beans so flavorful. No one has mentioned this quick soak method which I learned in culinary school. I’m sure there will people who will disagree, but I always cook them this way. Rinse the beans in a colander then put in large pot with cold water to cover by a couple of inches. Bring to a boil, boil for 3 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the pot and let sit for 1 hour. Your beans are now soaked as if they were in water overnight.
    I find the high quality, fresher dried beans are fantastic. They are so creamy and yummy.

  18. I have moved to a slow-carb diet, and a large portion of my food consist of beans. I make myself “people’chow” each day consisting of chopped froz. spinach, beans, and a low fat protein (chix, turkey, etc). Add hot sauce and I am a happy camper. So far I have lost 8 pounds, and combined with exercise have put on a good amount of muscle. On the weekend I eat whatever I want and really pig out. My body seems to love this style of eating.

    I cook a big batch of beans every Sunday, and yes they do take some time, but I only have to do this once and I am set for an entire week. I use a very simple method by Rick Bayless and I love it.

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  20. I recently have started buying dry beans instead of canned. First as part of an effort to clean up our diet and second because I can control the amount and possibly save money. The one thing I’ve noticed which is maybe unique here is that dry beans are REALLY hard to screw up. I cook them with all sorts of stocks and throw ins (spices, meats, cheeses etc.) depending on how they are being used. I’ve blended them into soups or left them whole and have never been disappointed. All in all it seems the flavor of canned can’t hold a candle to the dry.

  21. Huh? Less carbohydrates leads to beans? Whatever gave you that idea? A single serving of navy beans contains 36 grams of carbohydrates, or 12 percent of the daily value for a 2,000-calorie diet.

  22. Ed – Beans (as I understand it) are a source of very high quality carbs that are digested very slowly and tend not to spike blood sugar and insulin levels. Mostly due to the huge amount of fiber in beans. This is more in line with eating a “slow-carb” diet as compared to a low or no-carb diet. It really works for my body. I found some good information on the blog of Tim Ferriss http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/

  23. For hardier dry legumes such as black beans, I find that they benefit from overnight (at least!) soaking, and a bit of sprouting. All together this takes about about 2 days depending on the room temperature. After soaking, rinse whenever you remember, try for several times a day. Look for small white shoots on the majority of the beans — no need to go further than that. Sprouting breaks down the sugar, boosts protein content, and makes the beans a lot more digestible. I don’t have a pressure cooker, so I cook my sprouted beans in a large Champion rice cooker (w. a steel pot not aluminum!) until they are soft. After that the softened beans are pimped up stovetop — this step is not necessary of course. Just depends on what you want. Unless camping or in dire strait, I don’t plan to ever eat canned beans again.

  24. Dried beans, once cooked, are less slimy (at least to me) than the canned versions. And the sodium issue matters to me both from a health and a flavor perspective. After all, if they’re loading the canned beans with that much sodium, it’s because they’re using the sodium as a substitute for actual flavor. It’s the secret of all prepared foods — sodium instead of actual flavor.

    Dried beans have better texture and subtlety in flavor, even if you don’t add a lot of flavoring agents in the cooking process. In fact, don’t salt them when you’re cooking them — it makes their little jackets get tough, and it interferes with the cooking process. The better flavor becomes more apparent once you wean yourself from the expectation that they will taste like canned beans.

  25. Re: cooking methods for the fast-paced lifestyle that make making beans time effective:

    Put everything you want your beans to taste like in a blender with water (onion, garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, secret sauce, etc.). Put your beans in the slow cooker. Go to bed. Wake up. Eat a burrito. Refrigerate/freeze the rest.

  26. pomme de terre

    I usually go for the canned variety. They are easier, and the taste advantages of dried are offset by my unfailing ability to eff up the soaking and cooking process and make slightly crunch beans.

    For some reason, dried beans are my culinary Kryptonite. Dried beans, eggplant and chocolate truffles.

  27. Easy and delicious way is to pour boiling water over dried beans (cover by about 3 inches) in a slow cooker.
    Add a good spoonful of salt and a bay leaf. Even better if you add a few cloves of garlic and a quarter of an onion, and maybe some epazote if you have that on hand.
    Cook on low overnight or while you are at work, on start on high and cook a few hours on the weekend. Just make sure they don’t dry out.
    You can just take out the bay leaf and squish up the garlic & onion and stir it back in, with a little vinegar and pepper to taste.
    If you use black beans or frijoles rojos de seda, take out half and puree them and fry for refried beans, and eat the rest as soup.

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  29. Unrelated to flavor is the issue of BPAs in canned foods. BPAs mimic estrogen in the body and may have adverse health effects, particularly for children. Dried beans avoid this issue.

  30. In my local store dried beans cost more than canned!!! However, this is Manhattan and Whole Foods, so perhaps this is very unusual.

  31. The main differences between canned and dried, as I see it are:

    1) you can control the liquid dried beans are cooked in (good for making bean soups, for example)
    2) salt control (canning requires high amounts of salt and chelators)
    3) only a handful of bean varieties are available canned

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  33. @Christopher M, you cannot tell the difference between a $200 bottle of wine from a $30 one because in 90% of the cases, it’s supply/demand&marketing that makes the difference, not the actual wine (which = terroir and the vintner’s skill and resources).

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