click here to skip the menu and go to the page content

rebecca's pocket

.: Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget --> archive

Week 2 - Friday - How to cook beans - 3 time-saving techniques

Bowl of fruit It's cold again. The fog doesn't lift until well into the afternoon. This is a typical San Francisco Spring. Heck, it happens from time to time during the summer, even here on the sunny side of town. Looking at a new home listing for a condominium up the street, I'm amused to read that in the Summer, residents here enjoy "warm nights". It's a lie. With the exception of the few 90-degree-and-above days we get each year, nights here are, without exception, cool. It's nice to get a break after a very hot day, but when I travel back East I always remember how much I love walking into a summer evening without a coat.

It's so cold inside the apartment that eventually I put on a second sweater and turn on the heat.

I've decided to make something simple tonight: refried beans. They're not authentic—I think Mexicans use black beans. But they're the kind I used to make when I lived in Seattle, and it's been a while since I've had them. The recipe will be easy to adjust to include my imaginary friend.

Beans are intimidating for some people, or so I've come to learn. But they really are one of the easiest foods to make. Start by rinsing and picking over the beans to remove any clumps of dirt or small stones that may be lurking there.

Next, rehydrate the beans. One way to do this is to soak them overnight, but I'm rarely that organized. Usually I use the Quick-soak method: Place 1 cup of beans in a pot with at least 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, and let cook for 1 minute. Cover, take off the heat, and let sit for 1 hour. Pour off the water and add 3 cups of fresh water, 1 teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and partially cover the pot. Cook until the beans are soft enough to mash between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. This will take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the type and age of the bean. (20 - 30 minutes for lentils and split peas.)

Experienced bean cookers are getting ready to hit the comment button and explain that when cooking beans, salt should never be added until the very end of the cooking time because it will slow cooking, or make the beans tough. I've read that too. Almost every single thing written about bean cookery will tell you the same thing.

But Cook's Illustrated's The Best Recipe claims that their tests with black beans showed no difference in cooking time or tenderness whether they added salt at the beginning or at the end. They felt the pre-salted beans were more uniformly seasoned, and so they recommend salting at the beginning, and that's what I now do. I haven't had any tough beans. You can try both techniques at home if you'd like, and see if you think it makes any difference.

Cook's Illustrated also claims that pre-soaking the beans doesn't cut the cooking time for beans. But other sources claim that pre-soaking and pouring off the soaking water can help to reduce the flatulence-producing qualities of beans, and I'm loathe to make the experiment, so I always soak.

Because of the long cooking (and soaking) times of beans, many people rely on cans, or just don't eat beans altogether. Here are three techniques that should enable anyone to routinely use the cheaper dried beans.

Make ahead: Simple. Cook beans on the weekend when you'd be hanging around the house anyway. You can make a big pot of soup or chili and freeze part of it. You can even make twice the amount of beans called for in your recipe and freeze the extras, plain. Try to think about the amounts you might need in the future: maybe 1/2 to 2 cup portions for lunches (depending on how many people you are feeding) and 3-4 cup portions for use in future recipes.

Cooking beans in a Pressure Cooker: I haven't tried pressure cooking beans, but this method is recommended by numerous cookbooks.
Put the picked-over, soaked, and drained beans into a pressure cooker with enough water or stock to cover them by about 1 1/2 inches. If you are using an older-type pressure cooker, add 1 1/2 tsp vegetable oil to prevent clogging. For modern pressure cookers, the oil is optional. The beans will expand, so don't fill the pot more than halfway full. Cover and lock the lid. Cook under high pressure for 10 - 12 minutes, then allow the pressure to release naturally. If the beans are not done, bring them back to high pressure for another minute or two.

Cooking beans in a Crockpot: Again, I haven't tried this, but with this method, your beans will be ready to eat when you get home from work.

Put the picked-over, soaked, and drained beans into a crockpot with water or stock to cover by about 1 1/2 inches. Set to high and cook for 1 hour. Turn to low, and cook until done, about 6 to 8 hours.

Of course, consult the directions that come with either of these devices to see if they give you more precise instructions for your particular model of pressure cooker or crockpot.

At the store today, there are so few things in my basket, I keep rechecking my list and mentally rechecking my meal plans for the coming week. My usual tendency is to buy extravagant amounts of staples whenever I am running low, but this week I find myself buying only what I need, even weighing beans to determine the exact amount I'll need for the coming week. The total comes to $21.51, reassuring after last week's sticker shock.

Some time ago, I found a large package of (non-organic) corn tortillas on sale—90 for $1.98 (2 cents each). I love corn tortillas, but don't use them regularly, so I bought the pack and wrapped stacks of 10 before putting them back in the bag and then into the freezer. When I get home, I pull out a small stack to thaw. These thawed tortillas are fine for using in recipes, but they are not pretty. They have a somewhat "flaked" appearance, so don't serve them to company or picky eaters.

My recipe for refried beans is simple: well-cooked pinto beans, mixed with garlic sauteed in olive oil, and seasoned with soy sauce—about a teaspoon for a cup (dry) of beans. I have salad and carrots vichy made with cilantro instead of parsley, and 3 warmed corn tortillas.

When I plate the meal, I discover the reason gourmet food writers favor black beans over pintos, or at least I develop a theory. The beans, as delicious as ever, lay on the plate like a pile of brown mush. There's really no way to improve it, no angle that will make them more attractive. Furthermore, I started dinner late, so it's dark by the time I eat, and I have no idea how to set the camera to compensate for the light. Try as I might, dinner getting cold, I can't get these pictures to come out right.

I'm no food photographer but these shots are below even my standard. I'm not showing them to you. Instead, I offer you a bowl of fruit.

Friday total: $4.90. Remaining weekly allowance: $32.95.

« Read the previous entry  [ 05.12.07 ] Read the next entry  »

TrackBack URL for this entry:


That's funny - I just finished cooking some beans for a white bean salad tomorrow.

I've tried a number of ways to cook beans (mostly canellini), and I've often been unhappy with the results. In three different slow cookers from different manufacturers, they simply don't cook all the way through, even after 12-14 hours. I find this method unacceptable. I like the pressure cooker, but the instructions that say 10-12 minutes are either mistaken or using a different kind of beans than I use. I've never had a pot of beans cook through in less than 30-40 minutes (measuring from when the pot comes up to pressure). Still, that's an improvement over the time it takes in a regular pot if you're pressed for time. If you don't have one already or plan to use it for other things, or make beans a few times a week, it's probably not worth it.

I'm told you can also use a rice cooker to make beans, but I've never tried that.

Hi Rebecca --

I'm a fellow San Franciscan, and I just happened upon your blog. I've read through the Thrify Organic posts from the beginning and am anxiously awaiting the rest.

My husband and I participated in the Pennywise Eat Local challenge a few weeks ago (not necessarily organic, but mostly local, or as local as we could) on $140-ish a week.

I enjoyed the planning and the exercise in frugality, but the accounting -- as you've said -- nearly killed me! And I did a LOT more fudging than you're doing. That. and the inability to eat out... argh.

Good luck to you in the coming weeks. We're rooting for you!

Aha! Beans.

My favored method is crockpot. Because I'm lazy.

I set beans to soak the night before (I always clean up the kitchen right before bed, so it's easy to boil a kettle of water to pour over the beans and cover).

In the morning I bang the beans into a crockpot with the salt (isn't Cook's Illustrated the bestest!?!), turn the pot on to high and cover the beans with boiling water. I let that cook all day. Beans then get portioned by two-cup measures and go into the freezer.

I rarely cook and eat beans in the same day. Because I prepare or bake something almost everyday for the pantry/freezer I'm not concerned about beans for supper. I'm concerned about beans for the freezer so I can have them quick when I want.

The only exception to this is ham and bean soup.
We greedily eat that the day I make it and for a couple days after. It never makes it to the freezer!

Harold McGee proved that the "don't salt beans" rule was a myth years ago, but it's one of those things that you have to keep repeating.

It's worth mentioning that one of the huge advantages of home-cooked beans is that you can season them as they cook. I always do mine with onion and garlic lightly sauteed in the pot before I add the water, and herbs like epazote or bay leaf or what have you added in as well. Nothing in a can comes close.

Also, the cooking water from black beans can be used for very good, and arresting-looking, rice dishes: Deborah Madison has one in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I love.

I too love beans! They are really yummy, healthy, and cheap..I'm actually cooking some right now in my pressure cooker. I've also tried various methods of soaking and cooking, and this has so far been my most successful and consistent method of preparation:
1 cup of beans and enough water to cover by about 1 inch
I bring them to boil and let them boil for 2 minutes. Then, I remove them from heat and leave them uncovered in their liquid for 1 hour. Drain liquid and and enough to your pressure cooker to fill the pot up half way. Then, I throw in some salt - I find it keeps the beans from foaming too much and clogging the exhaust. Snap on the lid and cook it on high...once it has reached full prassure, cook for 30 minutes. Remove from heat to let preassure subside...then they're done!

I find if you don't use the quick-soak method, the beans come out hard even in the preassure cooker. Beans that I have made with this recipe are: black beans, pinto beans, kiddney beans, and chick peas.

I hope this helps! Some time next week I'll probably post my beans on my food blog.

About making the beans look good - I see you are using a Canon PowerShot SD300. I too had been using a camera with a built-in flash, but when we upgraded, we chose a Nikon D40 with an external flash (SB 400) -and it makes a HUGE can make the most mundane food look good. We learner about it through this website that my husband came across that shows the difference a flash like this can make :

I always though that I would need lots of professional equipment, but we just needed a good flash!

Regarding cooking beans, I've found another way to cut their cooking times AND make them as soft as the commmercially canned variety: drain them after soaking and freeze until hard.

I usually cook up a pound or so at a time (makes ~3 recipes' worth). My technique is to wash the beans then cover with double their height of boiling water and leave to soak over night. I then drain them, pack them into a cleaned bread bag (useful size and a bit of home recycling), label it with the bean type and date then pop it into the freezer. I may do this step several weeks in advance.

Once I get home from work, I'll rip the bag off the still-frozen beans and dump them in the pressure cooker. Pour over boiling water to cover to the depth of approximately 3 inches (it'll also break up the frozen lump of beans). Put on the lid and bring up to full pressure, turn down the heat and cook for 30 minutes.

Bring down the pressure slowly, then drain. Divide the beans into three, use one portion, label and freeze two portions in suitable containers. (Note, I always cook multiple portions of beans, freezing the excess - it takes the same time as cooking one, so why not?).

- Pam

PS: Found your blog recently. Am fascinated by the challenge.

Your moderator is Rebecca Blood. Please be thoughtful and polite.

Comments are moderated.



» Subscribe to this feed


» primary link / supplemental information / internal link

my book

» the weblog handbook
amazon editors' best of 2002, digital culture

about this project

» How did it begin?
» Week 1: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $3.20
» Week 2: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $13.34
» Week 3: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $7.15
» Week 4: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $6.41
» Week 5: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Photos

other food challenges

» Above Average Jane
» The Eat Local Challenge
» The April 2007 Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge
» Half-Changed World
» Slow Food for Low and Moderate Income People
» Tinotopia's Food Stamp Diet

other food projects

Food is a Munition of War: living for one month on UK WWII rations

blogging by the book

comments? questions? email me