Cooking legumes from scratch can be intimidating. For some reason, everybody seems to be thrown off by the whole idea of soaking and cooking legumes in the near future as opposed to making a dish instantaneously. But cooking legumes doesn’t require more than a pot of water, some heat, and time.
I personally default to dried legumes 99% of the time. I make a large batch and freeze the extras until I need them for a recipe. Inexpensive, versatile, delicious, and nutritious – legumes are a definite staple in our house. We enjoy them in hearty chili’s, soups, and burrito’s on a winter’s day, and in salads and dips at a summer’s barbecue. Whether you cook them from scratch or use the canned variety, legumes should be a part of everyone’s healthy diet.
The legume family includes dried beans, peas, and lentils. In the diet, the term “legumes” usually refers to pulses, which are the edible seeds of leguminous plants. Below is a list of the most common species of legumes, varying in shape, texture, color, and taste.
Cooking Legumes from Scratch
If you’re scared of the whole process of cooking legumes from scratch, don’t be! This guide will teach you everything you need to know about cooking legumes. My hope is that by the end of this article, you’ll see that dried legumes are really not that difficult to prepare.
Check for a Date
Freshness is absolutely crucial when it comes to dried legumes. According to the Dry Bean Council, “beans that have been stored for over 12 months or in unfavorable conditions may never soften”. (1) Old beans will also have declining nutrient levels. (2) The best age for “fresh” dried beans is from harvest to four months old.
If you have some old legumes on hand, they will never become as soft as regular legumes. As a food scientist Harold McGee states, dried legumes “become resistant to softening when they’re stored for a long time – months – at warm temperatures and high humidities. This resistance results from a number of changes in bean cell walls and interiors, including the formation of woody lignin, the conversion of phenolic compounds into tannins that cross-link proteins to form a water-resistant coating around the starch granules. There’s no way to reverse these changes and make hard-to-cook beans as soft as regular beans.” (3)
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to assess the age of dried legumes. Look for whole, firm, bright legumes with a slight sheen. Older legumes will look dull, appear darker in color, and have more cracked skins.
Measure the amount of dried legumes you wish to cook. One cup will expand two-and-half to three times when cooked. Spread the legumes onto a flat surface and remove any stones or debris.
To Soak or not to Soak
There’s so much conflicting information about soaking out there. Some say start a day ahead, some say soak overnight or for a couple of hours. Yet others maintain that you don’t have to soak at all. Really, it’s more of a personal preference since there are both pros and cons to soaking. Things you’ll need to consider are:
The consensus is that soaking reduces cooking time, depending on the type of legume you use. Some smaller legumes, such as lentils and split peas, don’t need to be soaked at all. All the other legumes, however, should be soaked following one of the two basic soaking methods:
Overnight soaking – to soak legumes the traditional way, place them in a pot, cover them with water by two inches and let them soak for eight hours or overnight. If you plan on soaking your legumes for more than eight hours, put them in the fridge to prevent fermentation.
Quick soaking – an alternative method is quick-soaking, which allows you to whip up a bean dish within a few hours. Put the legumes in a pot on the stove, cover with water, and boil them for two minutes. Turn off the heat and let the legumes soak for at least an hour.
The best water for soaking is soft water, specifically with a calcium carbonate content less than 90ppm (parts per million). Hard water, or water with 200 ppm or more of calcium, hinders re-hydration. (2)
If you have time and want to preserve energy usage, soaking is a clear winner.
Legumes are rich in fiber and oligosaccharides (large, complex sugars), which humans can’t digest. Bacteria in the intestines digest these complex sugars while releasing carbon dioxide. The good news is that soaking reduces flatulence-related substances. (4) That being said, beans cause flatulence in many people even after soaking due to their high fiber content. However, the more often you eat legumes and other high fiber foods, the more your gut micro-flora adapts and the less gas you produce. (5, 6) Consuming fermented foods or supplementing with probiotics should help as well.
If you have intestinal issues from legumes, soaking will definitely help.
Oligosaccharides aren’t the only nutrients that leach out when you soak legumes. Some vitamins and minerals are lost as well. The amount of nutrients lost during soaking is pretty negligible though. Interestingly, soaking actually increases the nutritional content of protein, fiber, and a few nutrients, such as thiamin and calcium. A study published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found these differences in nutrients of legumes (7):
To reduce the nutrient loss from soaking, soak legumes in cold water. According to studies, “losses of total solids, N compounds, total sugars, oligosaccharides, Ca, Mg, and three water-soluble vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin and niacin) were measured and found to be very small at soaking temperatures up to 50° C [122° F]. An increase in those losses of from three- to fourfold was found when the soaking temperature was raised to 60° C [140° F] or above.”(8)
If you want to get the most nutrients possible from legumes, then you should not soak.
Not only are legumes full of nutrients, but they also contain anti-nutrients – phytates and tannins – which substantially reduce nutrient availability. Soaking – preferably in 113° F water – deactivates these anti-nutrients and significantly improves the amount of magnesium, zinc, and iron you absorb. (9)
So keep in mind that while you might ingest more nutrients from unsoaked legumes, you might not necessarily absorb them.
Flavor, Texture, Color
I have read many articles and studies about how much better unsoaked beans look and taste. To test it, I cooked three identical pots black beans: one soaked overnight, one quick-soaked, and one not soaked at all. In each case, I simmered the beans on top of the stove until tender. The results?
Flavor: the quick-soaked beans were the least flavorful. The soaked overnight beans came out better. But the clear winner was the unsoaked beans with rich (bean-y) flavor.
Texture: the two pots of soaked beans came out just about the same. In comparison to the soaked beans, the unsoaked beans cooked more evenly, didn’t fall apart as much in cooking, and were firmer to the bite.
Color: since I discarded the soaking water, the soaked beans came out much paler compared to the unsoaked batch. I somewhat expected this to happen since the pigment in the skins of legumes is water-soluble.
My results were similar to those of Russ Parsons, a food journalist, who states that “letting dried beans sit overnight in a bowl of cold water does nothing to improve their flavor or their texture. In fact, it does quite the opposite.” (10)
Clearly, for the best tasting and looking beans, do not soak.
To Drain or not to Drain
Another “big” question is whether to discard the soaking water or not. Obviously, this won’t matter if you decide not to soak your legumes. However, if you do (and I highly suggest that you do), you’ll be faced with conflicting opinions once again.
Personally, I prefer draining the soaking liquid and cooking legumes in fresh water. The question to ask yourself is why you’re soaking legumes in the first place. Since soaking water contains elements that you were trying to eliminate, it only makes sense that you also drain the soaking water.
So all of the points for soaking apply to discarding soaking water as well. Yes, you’ll lose some desirable nutrients. Yes, you’ll lose some dark pigment. But you’ll also decrease flatulence and the potency of anti-nutrients found in legumes.
To get the most flavor, consider cooking legumes in stock or broth instead of water.
To Salt or not to Salt
Yet another controversial issue – does adding salt to legumes affect cooking time? Some chefs advise not adding salt until the very end of cooking because salt keeps legumes from softening. Other chefs advise to add salt in the beginning of cooking for the best flavor. To add to the confusion, some suggest salting the soaking water, but not adding salt to the cooking water until close to the end of cooking.
More testing on my part was necessary. This time I cooked two batches of unsoaked beans – one unsalted and one salted. Result? The beans that were salted early on came out as tender as the batch that was not salted at all. Adding salt had no effect on tenderness.
As LA Times note, “Conventional wisdom dictates that dried beans should only be salted toward the end of cooking, because the salt draws moisture from the bean, producing an unpleasantly dry texture. But exhaustive tests done by Times columnist Russ Parsons showed that beans cooked with a teaspoon of salt per pound compared to beans cooked without salt cooked to exactly the same degree of softness in almost exactly the same time. Moreover, the beans salted during cooking required half as much salt.” (11)
You have soaked your legumes (or maybe not), you have drained the soaking water and rinsed the legumes (or maybe not), you have covered them with fresh water and salted them (or maybe not) and now they are ready for some heat.
Some of the methods for cooking legumes include:
Put legumes in a pot and cover them with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and remove any foam that forms. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until tender (the cooking time will vary depending on the legume). Never let your legumes reach a strong boil; this could lead to unevenly cooked legumes with burst skins.
Put legumes in a slow cooker and cover them with at least 2 inches of water. Add any herbs and spices you like into the pot. Set the slow cooker to the low setting and cook until the legumes are tender (the cooking time will vary depending on the legume).
Note: if you’re cooking kidney beans, you need to boil them on the stove for 15 minutes first before adding them to the slow cooker. Kidney beans contain toxins on the outer skin when raw.
Put legumes in a pressure cooker and cover them with at least 2 inches of water. Add any herbs and spices you like and a tablespoon of neutral oil to help keep the foam from clogging the vent. Cook at high pressure anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes for small legumes to up to 35 to 40 minutes for larger beans.
Put legumes in an oven-safe pot and cover them with at least 2 inches of water. Bring the pot to a boil on the stove.
Note: if you’re cooking kidney beans, you need to boil them on the stove for 15 minutes first before adding them to the slow cooker. Kidney beans contain toxins on the outer skin when raw. Place the pot in a 325°F oven, cover, and bake until tender.
And just to warn you: if you ever try cooking legumes at home, you’ll have a hard time going back to the canned variety. Cooking legumes from scratch is cheaper, fresher, tastier, and more nutritious .