Log in to your account

Not a member yet?

Subscribe now

Eat well, spend less: The beginner’s guide to beans

Everything you need to know about that nutritional powerhouse, the humble legume.

Dried beans – also known as pulses or legumes – got a bad rap in the ’70s and ’80s, when they were consigned to the kitchens of hippies, greenies and student flats. They were feared by meat lovers and dreaded by small children.

Even now, many Kiwi families have still never ventured much beyond baked beans on toast, usually because they simply aren’t sure where to start.

In our house, when money was very tight and meat very expensive, I found I could extend mince dishes such as bolognese, chilli and meatballs by adding cooked red lentils to the mixture. Gradually the lentils replaced the meat altogether.

I also teamed beans with spicy sausage, lamb shanks or fish, making robust, peasant-style food that was tasty, nourishing and didn’t cost much.

I was sooo ahead of my time! Now every restaurant around is serving puy lentils or white bean mash. And why wouldn’t they? The profit margins from beans are excellent.

If your household runs screaming from the room at the merest mention of beans, take my advice and don’t tell them.

Instead, select dishes that are familiar or fashionable: the cuisines of Mexico, India and the Mediterranean all use beans with or without meat.

Offer dips and snacks and build up to full meals; add cooked pulses to soups, sauces and salads and include sprouted beans in sandwiches and stir-fries.

One or two bean dishes a week is a good choice both nutritionally and financially. They are low in fat, provide protein, iron and fibre and are very inexpensive.

If you’ve never cooked with beans before then you may be wondering: “Don’t beans need soaking? How do I cook them? Do they take ages? Will we have greenhouse gasses? And will the household actually eat them?”

If so, check out the beginner’s guide to beans below.

Dried beans (pulses or legumes), are readily available in health food shops, Indian grocery suppliers, supermarkets and organic or wholefood specialists, both bagged or in bulk.

Dried: Store them in an airtight container and throw out any beans that are wrinkled, mouldy or that you have had longer than a year. Old beans take longer to cook.

Cooked: Beans freeze well, so when preparing them from scratch do loads and freeze them in 1 cup quantities or pre-measured for specific recipes.

Dried beans and lentils will approximately treble in volume as they cook.

Lentils require no pre-soaking. Red lentils cook in around 10 minutes; brown and green lentils in 30-40 minutes in boiling liquid such as water, stock, soup or sauce.

Beans such as kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans and black-eyed beans need to be softened and then cooked. The softening or ‘soaking’ can be done overnight in cold water if you are very organised.

The beans will still need up to 1 1/2 hours of cooking, or you can use the ‘quick-cook’ method below to prepare beans.

  • To soak and cook beans: Most beans will treble in volume when cooked. The length of time varies depending on the type, age and size of the bean, so cooking times are approximate. Since beans require long cooking which uses electricity, cook several cups at a time and freeze them. You can add a frozen chunk directly into boiling soups and stews.
  • Overnight method: Place beans in a saucepan and cover with 4 cups of water to 1 cup of beans. Soak the beans overnight in cold water. The beans will soften but they still need to be cooked. Replace the soaking water with fresh water and simmer the beans for 1-3 hours. Cooked beans should be tender but not mushy.
  • Quick-cook method: Place beans in a saucepan and cover with 4 cups of water to 1 cup of beans. Bring to the boil for 2 minutes, then leave to stand for one hour. Now they are ready to cook. Return the pan to the heat and simmer the beans until till soft; 1- 3 hours.
  • Vary the time depending on the bean.
    Kidney beans and other similar sized beans– simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours. Kidney beans in particular can cause tummy upsets if not properly cooked, so a 15-minute period of rapid boiling is recommended. See Soy beans – 3-4 hours. Chickpeas – 1-2 hours (yum, fresh hummus – see What to do with chickpeas / garbanzos).

These are very convenient but work out at nearly three times the price of home-soaked beans. However, they are super convenient and extremely versatile. I usually keep a can of kidney beans and a can of chickpeas in stock to back up my freezer supplies. One 440g can contains around 1 1/2 cups of beans. Try a few of the following types next time you shop:

  • Red kidney beans: great for Mexican dishes; mix with mince for a tasty chilli; make into bean burgers – try my Easy bean burgers recipe.
  • Chickpeas: make your own hummus by mashing or blending; mix into stews and salads.
  • Cannellini and butter beans: use as a base for salads; mash with oil and herbs and use instead of potatoes; add to soups.
  • Five bean mix: make your own bean salad; mash and use as filling for tacos; blend to make a dip; add a can of tomatoes and serve with tortillas.
  • Lentils: add to curries and soups; use as a base for salads; combine with bacon, onion, stock and a dash of wine for a tasty side dish with meat.

HFG tips:

  • Make sure your beans are thoroughly cooked before serving; under-cooked beans can cause tummy upsets.
  • A dash of oil in the water will help prevent foaming.
  • Do not salt the cooking water when cooking beans; it will make the beans tough, not tender.
  • A pressure cooker will substantially reduce cooking times. If you have one, use it.