How to cook delicious beans?
May 14, 2007 4:58 PM   Subscribe

I love beans, but when I make them myself, they taste gross. What's the secret to great tasting beans?

I'll go to a restaurant, and eat a whole plate of beans. But when I try to make beans myself at home, they always taste really bland and gross, and I usually end up throwing out 5/6 of the beans I made (which I would have liked to have eaten for leftovers, had they been good). What's the secret to delicious beans? I'm not really looking for reciples that contain beans as much as I'm looking for plain, simple bean recipes. I own a slow cooker and have a gas stove and a oven; no microwave.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:03 PM on May 14, 2007

Bacon. Brown sugar. Molasses. Maybe a little mustard, vinegar, some onions.

Beans optional.
posted by Flunkie at 5:05 PM on May 14, 2007

You're probably leaving out most, if not all, of the fat and sugar that's in restaurant beans. Onions, peppers, cumin, and other spices, of course, help pack an anti-blandness punch too.
posted by birdie birdington at 5:08 PM on May 14, 2007


>>Bacon. Brown sugar. Molasses. Maybe a little mustard, vinegar, some onions...

Second that and a couple of spoons of ketchup! It really smooths it out a bit. But be easy on the mustard. It is easy to go overboard with it. Also, add water and let it slow simmer out.

Another thing I do with bean is to start with vegetarian baked beans from the can. Then i can control what I want out of each flavor, including the meat that is added.
posted by lampshade at 5:10 PM on May 14, 2007

What kinds of beans are you talking about? There are so many kinds.

For all dried beans, soak all night.

For pinto beans, cook with ham and chopped green chili. Feel free to toss in the ham bone. If the ham is very salty, that's fine since these beans need a fair bit of salt or they're bland.

For baked beans, you should not use Navy beans because they are hard to digest. Use Great Northern beans instead. I parboil mine and then cook them in a cast iron dutch oven with salt pork, brown sugar, mustard, ginger and onions. The spices and the salt pork (or bacon) season the beans so you won't have to add salt.

For fresh green beans, nothing is more simple than a gentle steam.
posted by onhazier at 5:18 PM on May 14, 2007

Fat is the secret ingredient. Butter, olive oil, bacon or ham, lard. Salt is also very important. Liquid smoke also tends to help, especially blander beans.
posted by lekvar at 5:23 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

For black beans, I'd saute onions in some oil and then add the water and then add the beans. And lots of salt at some point. That seemed to work.
posted by salvia at 5:31 PM on May 14, 2007

1 pound dry pinto beans (remove any stones)
Cover with 2 inches of cold water.
(you can soak overnight if you want)
Add inch and a half cube of salt pork (or 3 slices of bacon)
Bring to boil.

Reduce to simmer until water just above beans.
Cook until tender (keeping water just above beans)
When beans are tender add salt.
(Very important to wait till this point to add salt)
It takes quite a bit of salt but taste test as you do that.
posted by JayRwv at 5:41 PM on May 14, 2007

I think you're overthinking this.

I usually go with onion salt, garlic, and cumin. If I feel like spice, I add cayenne pepper. For proportions, it's all just trial, error, and constant tasting.
posted by piratebowling at 5:42 PM on May 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

For a pot of pintos, I cook them with a chopped onion, several cloves of garlic, and 2-3 bay leaves. I don't presoak because I like the garlic and onion to be drawn in with the water. That does make them a little gassier than canned beans though. So, for me, no oil, no sweetener. I do add cumin and a little oregano sometimes. Then serve with sour cream, Spanish rice, salsa, mmmm comfort food.
posted by bricoleur at 5:43 PM on May 14, 2007

In general, here's a no-particular dish method that works for me.
  • Cook the beans to a done texture. If you're working with dried beans, you might stop at just before your ideal texture. (Or open a can of beans or heat some frozen ones)
  • Rinse canned or cooked-from-dry beans with at least 3 changes of water. This helps with the gumminess factor.
  • set the beans aside
  • Sautee something oniony (onions, spring onions, shallots, a leek) until translucent
  • Add a little mince garlic, and sautee for 2 or 3 minutes more
  • Add your other stuff. Other stuff can be all or part of the following
    • Greens (spinach, chard, kale, etc)
    • Tomato (canned or otherwise)
    • Meat (sausage, ground beef, leftover chicken, fish, or pork)
  • Stir in the beans themselves

  • Season with salt and pepper

  • Season with other seasonings. Depends on the family of flavors you want.
    • Mexicanish: pepper, cumin, oregano, cilantro
    • Indianish: ginger, cumin, cayenne, pinch cinnamon
    • European: herbes de provence (rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, sage, parseley)
    • Italian: pizza or italian seasoning blend
    • Down-home: sage, salt, pepper
  • Optional: add something acidic (citrus juice or vinegar) a splash at a time

  • Heat until the beans are warm again

  • Serve

posted by nita at 5:47 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Besides lard, the secret ingredient in Mexican black beans is epazote. Don't listen to the haters, it's totally the next cilantro.
posted by pullayup at 5:52 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I realize that the canonical black bean soup recipe contains a ham hock and whatnot, but this Mexican version is fantastic. I always make a double batch:

8 oz dried black beans
5 c cold water
2 bay leaves
3 Tb lard or vegetable oil
1/2 c chopped white onion (yellow is fine)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped (I'd go with a can myself)
3/4 to 1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried oregano
cayenne pepper or chili flakes to taste

Garnishes: Thinly sliced fresh jalapeƱo, sliced green onions, lime wedges

1. Rinse beans thoroughly in a sieve under running water, picking out debris and blemished beans.

2. Combine beans, water and bay leaves in a 3 to 4 quart heavy saucepan. Heat over high heat to boiling; immediately lower heat to very low. Simmer, covered, until beans are tender but not soft, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

3. Heat lard/oil in medium skillet over medium heat until hot. Add onion and garlic; saute until soft, about 4 minutes. Add tomato, salt, oregano and cayenne; cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture is almost dry, about 5 minutes.

4. Add tomato mixture to beans, simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until beans are soft, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaves.

5. Press soup mixture a few times with a potato masher to very roughly mash beans.

6. Serve soup with garnishes.

Note: the soup is a bit watery when freshly made, but thickens up overnight and is even better the next day.
posted by O9scar at 5:55 PM on May 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

What kind of beans are we talking about here? I mean, this is sort of like saying "how do I cook delicious meat?"
posted by caddis at 5:55 PM on May 14, 2007

Seconding JayRwv's recipe.

Also, until I specifically started paying attention to it, I consistently underestimated the impact salt has on delicious restaurant foods, from cheap burgers to high-class pieces of meat. Salt doesn't just taste salty, it brings out all the other flavors, so undersalted foods often don't really taste undersalted, they taste bland. With an inherently bland food like beans, this is going to have an enormous impact.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 5:58 PM on May 14, 2007

What I do is boil the beans on their own first, and then drain them, improvise a sauce, and put the beans back in.

When I boil beans, I usually put a whole garlic clove, some pepper corns, and a bay leaf in the water with them. I have residual Jewish guilt about putting a bacon bone in there too, but you just go for it if you want.

You definitely can do the whole thing the slow cook way, but in that case I would put the most volatile seasonings (eg herbs and spices) in towards the end. A lot of slow cooker recipes seem to assume you'll just chuck everything in the liquid and that's it. I think it's worth browning things that benefit from browning (eg onions, meat) in a pan first.

Guidelines for improvised sauce for beans:

1. As noted, fat. Fat from smoked porky things is good. So is olive oil or beef dripping. I favour left over duck fat from the confit I made last year. Put your fat in a heavy bottomed saucepan.

2. In your fat, create "browned" flavours by gently sauteeing chopped aromatic vegetables:
- onions, or
- onion + carrots (equal amounts), or
- onions + celery (equal amounts), or
- onions + carrots + celery, aka the holy trinity of flavour (equal amounts), or
- meat (eg sausage, stewing beef, whatever you have lying around the refridgerator)

Let the onions get to the golden stage.

3. Add some sort of liquid:
- chopped tomatoes, and/or
- stock, and/or
- wine, and/or
- a little bit of the cooking liquid from when you boiled the beans, but no too much, or you'll be farting all night.

4. Add tasty things to the cooking beans, ie some but not all of:
- a whole garlic clove
- whole pepper corns
- a bay leaf
- one or two whole allspice
- fresh herbs: winter or summer savory, thyme, parsley, celery leaf
- smoked paprika (good when you're cooking for vegetarians but want that smoked sausage flavour)
- ...

5. Don't forget salt. Beans need a lot of salt.

Pick some combination from above list that seems like it will go together, and go for it. I doubt I ever cook beans the same way twice, but they always come out well.

Black beans + salt pork + bay = primitive feijoada.
White beans + tomato + wine + sausage + herbs + other meat = pseudo cassoulet
Pinto beans + cumin + tomato + chilli = tex mex

And if you have really good beans, look the cook in the eye, and say "this tastes great! How'd you do that?"
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:58 PM on May 14, 2007

Oops. Of course you'll add the beans back somewhere between step 2 and 3 ...
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:59 PM on May 14, 2007

Beans do indeed need a lot of salt. If you are cooking the beans yourself from dry, my advice is to include plenty of salt in the cooking water.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:06 PM on May 14, 2007

Salt, definitely.

Also, it's been disproven that if you add salt too early the beans will never soften. Add it in the beginning, taste as you go along to make sure that the 'pot liquor' hasn't become too salty. If it does, you can always add more water.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:18 PM on May 14, 2007

Yet another vote for fat and salt being the missing ingredient(s). You'll need to use lard or bacon to really get the right texture and flavor, but if you're concerned about cutting down on saturated fat and sodium, you could try using vegetable oil, and only adding a sprinkling of salt to the finished dish as you serve it, instead of cooking them in brine. You'll get most of the salt flavor that way, and use way less of it.
posted by rkent at 6:19 PM on May 14, 2007

Good reading.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:29 PM on May 14, 2007

Start with canned beans. Dried beans need soaking (and should have soak-water changes), then cooking, then rinsing. Sounds easy except it adds many hours and if the cooking isn't perfect or the beans have been stored for too long, the cooked beans are inconsistent. That being said, if you're die hard for dried beans go with a pressure cooker, unsoaked beans take 5-30 mins, dependent on the variety.

A few points:
-The canning process removes a lot of the oligosaccharides, which cause gas. So does soaking, which is why the water should be changed, the canning process removes more.
-Always rinse canned beans, or cooked beans once you are ready to add them to a dish.
-Acidic dishes (tomato based, ones with vinegar, etc.) cause the skin to become impermeable to water. If using dried beans make sure they are cooked before adding them, if using canned then be assured they will not cook more. If the dish is not acidic then don't add the beans till the near the end, unless you want mush (e.g. refried beans).

Besides that I would say google some bean recipes that you want, serves me just fine.
posted by dr. moot at 6:41 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and here's a good trick to know-

Dip a spoon into the pot of beans while they cook and draw out four or five trying to bring as little liquid with them as possible. Slotted spoons are good for this. Bring the spoon up to your face. Gently blow across the beans. If the skins peel and curl while you blow, the beans are just about ready to eat, though they will still be al dente (firm). If you cook for an hour longer they will become soft. If the skins do not peel you need to cook the beans longer.

Beans are good while still firm, but never mealy. If you sample your beans ad they are still mealy or the texture is not consistent, cook the beans longer.
posted by lekvar at 6:44 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I second any recommendation for thyme with black beans.
posted by HeroZero at 6:50 PM on May 14, 2007

Rancho Gordo, purveyor of amazingly great heirloom variety beans, has a great page of recipes and instructions, including a primer on cooking beans, complete with video. And though I initially balked the first time I spent five bucks on a pound of their beans, the difference in taste is pretty remarkable.
posted by judith at 6:58 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Start with canned beans. Dried beans need soaking (and should have soak-water changes), then cooking, then rinsing. Sounds easy except it adds many hours and if the cooking isn't perfect or the beans have been stored for too long, the cooked beans are inconsistent.

Well, whatever works for you. Personally, I find the taste and texture of tinned beans inferior. I buy my beans from hippy shops where the turnover is high, and I find it no trouble to dump a cup of beans in water before I go to bed.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:05 PM on May 14, 2007

black beans: rinse, then add along with 2-3 bay leaves to boiling water. Turn off the heat. Let soak overnight.

The next day, add other seasonings if you want (celery leaves are nice, also thyme, savory, basil). Add water if needed, bring to a simmer, cook 1.5 - 2 hours until done. Then add salt (if you add salt too early, the beans will be Mushy. This is especially true of lentils).

Cooking the black beans in the soaking water assures you get that nice black bean "sauce". The bay leaves are pivotal, I think.
posted by amtho at 7:35 PM on May 14, 2007

I love this very simple recipe for rice and beans -- and cooking it makes the house smell wonderful.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:46 PM on May 14, 2007

Alkalinity is what makes beans mushy, not salt. Contrariwise, acid added too early in the process prevents your beans from softening, ever. This is why some recipes call for a pinch of baking soda in your cooking water, which is actually only a good idea if the water you're starting with is on the acidic side. As dr. moot mentioned, acid added later in the process, once things are at the texture you desire, can be quite handy, as it will keep the beans from going on getting mushier and mushier.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:23 PM on May 14, 2007

The primer that judith links to is essentially how I cook beans; soaking, cooking with the soaking water, adding salt later, &c. I think the most important thing about beans is, like soups and stews, they always taste better the second day. If they don't, you can always add the yummy things that have been mentioned in this thread and re-heat. Or make them into soups, stews, shepherd's pie, casseroles- no need to throw them out.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:50 PM on May 14, 2007

Seconding Rancho Gordo. Buying beans from them has completely changed my opinion of beans. Most are pretty good just cooked with some sauteed onion and a bit of salt at the end. I especially recommend the Anasazi, Good Mother Stallard, and Flageolet beans.
posted by pombe at 9:13 PM on May 14, 2007

you should contact fellow metafite nola. he hosts a weekly red beans and rice every monday and it is GOOD.
posted by ms.jones at 9:16 PM on May 14, 2007

I love Sofrito in my beans. It's a Puerto Rican / Dominican thing used in just about everything but esp. beans and stews.

It's basically a puree of Culantro (which smells and tastes a lot like cliantro, but I've been told Culanto is what one is supposed to use for Sofrito), Aji Dulce (which look like Scotch Bonnets, but if you made sofrito with Scotch Bonnets you would burn your tongue off), garlic, onions and oregano.

It's not hard to make but depending on where you live the ingredients could be hard to find.

Oh, you're in Astoria...

The Western Beef on the corner of Steinway and Northern Blvd. has pre-made fresh sofrito in the vegetable section. It's not always there, but in a pinch Goya also makes a frozen version though I've never tried it. (They also make it in a jar but that has MSG) If you get the fresh stuff freeze it in an ice cube tray and store the cubes in a zip lock in the freezer.

Then you just fry a little minced garlic in olive oil, drop in your Sofrito cube, let it melt and then add your cooked beans. I just use canned beans. If you like stewed chicken or that sort of thing it's also great in that.
posted by JulianDay at 9:28 PM on May 14, 2007

One more thing. Time. Cook them low and slow.
posted by kc0dxh at 6:37 AM on May 15, 2007

My black eyed peas recipe:
  • 1/3 lb bacon chiffonaded and cooked to near crispy then drained
  • 1 large onion, 2 cloves garlic, 1 green pepper, and 1 hot pepper cut up and fried with 1tbsp oilive oil until slightly caramelized
  • 1 10oz box frozen black eyed peas
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp celery seed
  • 1 1/2 cup water
Add all ingredients to a pot and cook on lowish heat for at least 1 hour.
The caramelized vegs make this taste somewhat sweet even though no sugar or sugary ingredient (e.g. ketchup) has been added. Also it is not particularly high fat.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:49 AM on May 15, 2007

Salt definitely, and also added fat in proportion to how mealy the type of bean you are cooking is. Cumin, cumin, cumin if you like Mexican or Indian dishes, otherwise the aforementioned Southern style.

I'd say skip the water changing and soak. That's mostly for the oligosaccharides as mentioned previously, but it barely reduces them and is too much trouble. Cooking in an alkaline solution gets you more oligosaccharide reduction if that is an issue.

Always sort dry beans to remove gravel, and contaminants.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:49 PM on May 17, 2007

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