Salt—Contrary to many bean ultimatums (that salt slows beans down or makes the skins tough), I found that cooking beans with a little salt actually makes them cook a little faster—not a lot, maybe five minutes or so, but they also tasted better. They didn't taste salty, they just didn't taste bland.
Acid—The one bean law that I found to be true was that acid slows them down. Basically, we're talking tomatoes (chili) and sometimes molasses (baked beans).
Cooks have traditionally used this to their advantage in things like chili, where beans are cooked separately. Because of the acid in tomatoes, a bean chili can stay on the stove forever and the beans don't turn to mush. But ultimately, acid is like a throttle-how much it slows beans down depends on how much acid is present. Since many chilis are loaded with tomatoes, beans will stay in suspended animation. But a soup with, let's say, a diced tomato or two isn't going to have much of an effect on the beans.
Cooking times—This has always cheesed me off...these charts showing that one bean cooks in 47 minutes and another takes 46.
There are just too many variables. The obvious one is that everyone's water is different. I mean, on some packages there is even a note suggesting that if you have really hard water you can speed things up by using a pinch of baking soda or bottled water. But there are bound to be other things that make such charts useless-some beans are going fully soaked and others aren't, sometimes the burner blows out....
Throw out the charts and time a batch of beans. I found that in my kitchen, black eyed peas cooked in about 30 minutes and garbanzo beans took a little over an hour, but all the rest were done in about 45 minutes.
Taste and texture, are designer beans worth it?—To read the glossy articles that come out from time to time, you'd think that serving a common pinto bean is like serving Kool-Aid with roasted lamb. It's complete, utter rubbish. Beans are pretty much interchangeable.
Yes, garbanzo beans have a distinctive earthy flavor and firm, nutty texture. And yes, some beans are a little mealy, like russet potatoes, and others are kind of creamy. But as a practical matter I consider those differences secondary to color. I mean, refried beans made with black beans are really dramatic. I can't say they taste a lot different than refried beans made with pinto beans, but they sure look cool. Anyway, black beans turn everything black just as kidney beans turn everything a rusty red. So if I want, say, a minestrone soup broth to be more or less clear, I'll use a white bean. (However, if you rinse black beans well after they are cooked, they won't bleed all over everything. A good trick for a black bean and corn salad.)
However, I don't want to dump on heirloom varieties. They are good beans. And even though they seem expensive, they're nothing compared to what people spend on Cognac, chocolates, and cigars.
Buying quality beans—This isn't a joke. Most beans are packaged in plastic so you can see them. Look at them. You want whole beans. You want color uniformity throughout the bag. You don't want lots of broken beans or halves, nor do you want lots of beans with chipped or shriveled skins.
One last note: If you decide to run a round of bean experiments, don't do it in December. I still haven't lived down the fact that I chose the most sociable time of year to learn about beans.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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