Since I’ve been vegan for 25 years, most people assume I’ve been happily cooking dried beans all those years. But they would be wrong.
For too many years I skipped dried beans and went straight for the canned aisle. Why? Because it took too long to soak dried beans. I often forgot. And because I’d tried – and failed – to cook them from scratch in the past.
Rinse, soak, drain, add more water and cook. And cook.
Eventually the beans would be done. But they were nothing special. The canned beans tasted better.
Over the years, I’d read up on dry bean cookery in book after book, and they all agreed: Don’t add salt until the beans are cooked (adding salt earlier would toughen the bean skins, they warned). So that’s what I did. It turns out the “no salt” thing is just a long-lasting and widely held myth.
My editor enlightened me a few years ago: Always add salt when soaking and cooking beans. Boy, am I glad she did. Salt gives dried beans an essential base note of flavor and aids cooking.
This simple advice revolutionized my bean cooking. Now I often cook multiple pots of dried beans.
In addition to learning from knowledgeable editors, another perk of writing this column is that I get to meet and talk about creating plant-based dishes with chefs and home cooks. It was by talking with chefs about their hummus-making secrets that I learned to heavily season my dried beans as they soak and cook. The flavorings seep through the entire bean.
These days, in addition to adding salt and spices to beans, I sprinkle in a scoop of dulse flakes. Seaweed – a powerful plant-based food that is harvested here in Maine – adds flavor, provides micronutrients, promotes digestion and helps thicken the cooked sauce.
The chefs I’ve talked with about bean cooking disagree on whether or not to drain the soaking water. I can see the point of cooking the beans in the soaking water since fewer seasonings are needed, and they’ll retain maximum nutrition.
Yet draining the soaking water and starting afresh is said to make beans more digestible, so that’s what I opt for. Once they are drained, I add fresh water and more salt and seasonings. Next I set the pot over medium-high heat with the lid askew. Once its contents are bubbling vigorously, I turn the heat down to medium low, and I walk away and let the beans gently simmer for a couple hours.
Dried beans cook at different rates depending on their age, so I start checking the beans a little before two hours, and once they are soft and creamy, they are done. Now they can be taken off the heat and cooled and refrigerated in the cooking liquid or used to make another dish – say veggie burgers, soup or hummus.
Lots of times I don’t stop there and instead take my beans to a higher level of slow-cooked bliss.
To do this, I put the cooked beans (liquid and all) in a smaller pan; I often use my cast iron frying pan. I put this pan over medium to medium-low heat and let it reduce for 30 to 45 minutes until the beans are coated in a thick, flavorful sauce.
The taste of these beans is vastly superior to that of any canned beans. Slow cooked on the stove top, beans make an ideal filling for tacos and burritos or can be served over a bed of cooked whole grains. These slow-cooked beans are so tasty, they can be served as a stand-alone dish on a buffet table or at a potluck meal.
Many of us in Maine are familiar with slow-cooked dried beans in the form of baked beans, which is where I actually first experienced success with bean cookery. More than a decade ago, I was given a set of bean pots and a family recipe. Soon I starting making baked beans. Even before I learned to add salt, my baked beans turned out well and showed me how rewarding slow-cooking can be.
Classic baked bean recipes call for seasoning the beans while they cook, and as a New Englander I’ve long known what a rich taste this produces.
I began by slow-cooking beans with a veganized version of the traditional family recipe – retaining the navy beans, molasses and dry mustard but replacing the salt pork with olive oil. Soon I was experimenting with other types of beans and other seasoning combinations.
No matter which type of slow-cooked bean I’m making, I always soak them overnight. So how do I remember?
First I started using sticky notes on the fridge. Now I’ve moved to weekly menu planning, so I check each day to see what I’m cooking for tomorrow and whether I need to do anything, such as thaw bread, pick up an ingredient or soak beans.
After soaking, it takes up to eight hours to bake beans while stove-top beans can be cooked in under three.
Both are satisfying and worth the effort.
Having shared my vegan version of classic Maine baked beans in the past, today I’m sharing my recipe for slow-cooked, stove-top black beans. It’s the perfect project for a snowbound weekend or anytime you’ll be spending a few hours in the house. The beauty of slow-cooked, stove-top beans is that even though from start to finish they take almost half a day when you factor in the soaking, the hands-on time is pretty minimal.
I serve this dish on its own; in nachos, tacos or burritos; pureed with apple cider vinegar for bean dip; and in soup, such as black bean and corn.
Not only are beans tasty and filling, they’re also nutrient-dense powerhouses packed with the clean-burning, plant-based fuel our bodies need. I hope you’ll join me in giving slow-cooked, dried beans a chance.
SLOW-COOKED BLACK BEANS
The slowness of these beans comes from their long soaking and cooking times, but the active time is minimal and comes mostly at the end when they require regular stirring to keep them from sticking.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 cups dried black beans, rinsed and picked through
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons dulse flakes
Place the beans in a stockpot and add water until the beans are covered by 2 to 3 inches. Add 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon chili powder and 1 teaspoon dulse flakes and stir. Cover and let soak overnight or for 8 hours.
When you are ready to cook them, drain the beans. Then fill the pot with 12 cups of fresh water. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, the remaining 2 tablespoons chili powder and the remaining 1 teaspoon dulse flakes. Place the pot over medium low heat with the lid askew.
Let simmer and begin checking the beans for doneness shortly before 2 hours. They are done when they are soft and creamy.
Once they are cooked, either continue simmering them in the same pan with the lid removed, or if you want to save some for another dish, set them aside now. You can also pour the beans and liquid into another pot (I use my cast iron skillet) and cook uncovered over medium to medium-low heat for another 30 to 45 minutes, stirring frequently in the last 10 minutes. The beans are done when the liquid has all evaporated and what remains creates a thick sauce around the beans.
Serve as is or add to another dish. The beans will keep in the refrigerator for days.
HOMEMADE CHILI POWDER
I buy my spices in bulk and make my own spice mixes. Use this recipe to whip up your own chili powder.
3 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mix all the spices together. Keep in a cool, dry place.
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]