Beans: a Cooking & Nutrition Guide for Vegans

Beans can add so much to your diet. Here’s everything you need to know.
New vegans sometimes complain that they don’t feel sufficiently satiated by their meals. But beans will stick to your ribs as thoroughly as meat-centered meals once did, leaving you satisfied for hours. They are flavorful, easy to prepare, and dirt cheap. Not only that, they come in a multitude of varieties so they can be a staple of your diet without ever becoming monotonous. They are also a terrific source of protein, and most varieties are virtually fat-free.

Black beans and pinto beans are two of the most popular ingredients in Mexican cooking. They’re delicious served as a burrito filling, or alongside rice, guacamole, and salsa on a Mexican-style supper plate. Beans also make the world’s best leftovers: In many Mexican households, leftover beans are refrigerated and then fried up the next day. To make Mexican style refrieds, just mash the beans and then mix in some water. Then heat it in a frying pan with some minced garlic that’s just been sautéed in some vegetable oil. Stir in some chopped cilantro (if you’re not a cilantro hater) just before serving and you’ll really have something special.

While black beans and pintos dominate Mexican cooking, Garbonzos are wildly popular in India and the Middle East. Garbonzos—which are also knows as chick peas—just might be the tastiest bean variety of all, offering a distinctive flavor and an incredible texture. One reason garbanzos stand out among beans is that they contain significant amounts of fat, which delivers a richness of flavor that’s absent from other beans. Perhaps the most popular entrée in all of India is chana masala, a delicious curry comprised mostly of garbanzos which is served atop basmati rice or alongside samosas. Garbanzos are every bit as important in Middle Eastern cooking, as they are the main ingredient in that cuisine’s two most common foods—hummus and falafel.

Black beans, pintos, and garbanzos are a great starting point for your exploration of beans, but don’t stop there. There are dozens of other varieties available canned or dried at your local grocery or natural foods store. And there are two different all-vegan cookbooks devoted entirely to the topic that will give you dozens and dozens of great new recipe ideas: The Great Vegan Bean Book and Vegan Beans from Around the World.

Beans can be purchased either canned or dried. Canned beans are super convenient, since they are pre-cleaned and fully cooked they need only be drained, heated, and spiced as desired. While less convenient than canned, dried beans carry three advantages: they’re less than half the price of canned, they’ve got superior taste and texture, and they carry a smaller environmental footprint.

The best place to buy dried beans is the bulk section of a good natural food store. Most of these markets carry about a dozen different varieties, and often these are organically grown.

Dried Bean Preparation

Preparing dried beans is easy. Start by pouring them into a mixing bowl. Comb your fingers through the beans to make sure there aren’t any molar-cracking pebbles lurking within (never skip this step; you’ll be surprised how frequently you find a pebble!) Next, pour enough water into the bowl to submerge the beans. Since the beans will soak up a lot of water it’s important to use plenty of water so they’ll stay entirely submerged.

Cover the bowl to keep dust out, and soak for at least four hours. Many people start soaking the beans before bedtime so they’ll be ready to cook in the morning.

Note that soaking isn’t strictly necessary but doing so will cut your cooking time significantly, while saving time and energy. But even soaked beans can more than two hours on the stove pot or in a slow-cooker. That’s why many bean lovers own Instant Pots or pressure cookers. These appliances can usually reduce your cooking time to 30 minutes or less.

The cooking time for beans varies by its variety, whether it has been pre-soaked, and the cooking method. Garbanzos, white beans, and kidney beans take the longest cooking time—up to a few hours for beans simmering on a stove-top. Smaller beans take substantially less cooking time.

You’ll know your beans are properly cooked when you can easily smoosh one against the roof of your mouth using your tongue. As Moosewood Cookbook author Molly Katzen memorably put it, “crunchy beans don’t make it.” That was true in the 1970s when Katzen wrote those words, but it’s even more true today, as it has recently become known that many beans contain a toxic sugar-protein called lectin. Thorough will destroy the lectin, but eating undercooked beans can be a hazard. This is especially true with red kidney beans, which are loaded with a variety of lectin so toxic that it’s even hazardous to pronounce: “phytohaemagglutinin.” Red kidney beans are sufficiently high in this substance that it’s wisest to soak them for at least five hours prior to cooking, and to discard the soaking water. The same warning applies to cannellini beans and broad beans, but those varieties are far less popular than red kidney beans. Please don’t let this warning frighten you away from eating these delicious bean varieties. With proper soaking and cooking, they’ll become as safe as any other food you can eat, and they’re loaded with nutrients.

If all this soaking and simmering seems daunting note that there are a few varieties of tiny dried beans that can be quickly cooked without soaking: split peas, lentils, and mungs. Split peas are obviously the main ingredient for split pea soup. You’ll want to simmer them until they mostly break apart—mixing with the cooking water to form a thick and creamy base. You can alternately simmer yellow splits or mung beans and before serving add roasted cumin seeds, curry powder, and salt to make dal—the most popular Indian soup.

Flatulence

With all the virtues beans have in terms of being cheap, delicious, and healthful the one thing that stands in their way of world domination is their tendency to cause intestinal gas. Few people realize that this problem can largely be mitigated. Beans cause flatulence because they contain a sugar that your body can’t readily digest. When the sugar reaches your intestines, bacteria feed on it to form gas.

The good news here is cooking dissolves a substantial portion of this sugar into the cooking water. So if you pour your cooking water down the drain and use fresh water to finish preparing your recipe you’ll likely find your beans are more easily digested. The same thing goes for the water that canned beans are packed in—discard it and use fresh water and your meal will be far less gas-producing.

While thorough cooking will tend to improve digestibility, don’t overdo it or your beans will become mushy. Blending or mashing your beans for dishes like hummus or Mexican-style refrieds is another way to substantially improve digestibility.

If these tips don’t yield satisfactory results, don’t give up until you’ve experimented with split peas and lentils. Many people who can’t tolerate a black bean burrito will find a thin yellow split pea dal creates no digestive problems whatsoever.

There’s also a product called Bean-Zyme that contains an enzyme that breaks down the sugars of beans. Depending on who you ask you’ll hear it’s miraculous, totally ineffective, or somewhere in between.

And finally, many people plagued by indigestion don’t realize that a little knowledge and attention can resolve lifelong difficulties. Specifically, your body’s digestive powers are at their peak at mid-day. So if you’re going to eat beans and other coarser, harder-to-digest foods early afternoon is the time of day to do it. Ideally only eat these foods on an empty stomach when you’re truly hungry, and you’ll gain quicker digestion and less flatulence. Where people get into trouble is when they eat late at night and when they eat something tough to digest when their digestive system is already busy working on food already eaten. Obviously the longer hard-to-digest foods take to pass through your intestines the more gas will form, so being genuinely hungry before you eat beans will help ensure they don’t hang out in your digestive tract for an undue amount of time.

Give Beans a Chance

Moving gracefully towards a plant-based diet depends on discovering delicious vegan foods to crowd out the meat, milk, and eggs you grew up eating. Bean-based meals can play a key role here, especially since they are among the most filling and protein-rich foods available. So give yourself every possible advantage when exploring the world of beans. Venture beyond pinto beans to explore the delicious, colorful, and tasty lesser-known varieties, and consider investing in a pressure cooker and a book on vegan bean cookery. Beans are so cheap relative to any other healthful food that you’ll quickly make back any money you invest in books or cookware, and your diet will become more diverse, healthful, and satisfying than ever before.

As you can see, even though beans are one of the simplest foods in existence, there’s a great deal to know about them. There’s likewise a lot to learn about rice, which offers the ideal complement to beans where flavor and protein is concerned. Since these two foods pair up perfectly, there’s really no way to get the most out of one without also learning about the other.