Cooking With Beans: A Guide to Fearless Enjoyment of Nature’s Perfect Food

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Cheap, nutritious and delicious. Beans are the perfect food -- once you know how to get around the gas.

Beans are cheap, filling, low-fat, high-protein and, when prepared well, delicious. Some of the world’s oldest and most venerable cuisines — think Middle Eastern, Mexican and East Indian, for example — are built on this nutritious staple.

Trying to cut back on meat? Join the club. After the World Health Organization recently confirmed that red meat is a likely cause of cancer, beans have gained new luster. They’re high in fiber, which is great for our guts. And they’re full of disease-fighting antioxidants and nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, selenium and folate.

Health food

Check out beans’ protein and fat content compared with beef:

  • A half-cup serving of pinto beans delivers 8 grams of protein and zero fat.
  • 3-ounce portion of round steak has a whopping 25 grams of protein but also 8 grams of fat. Roasts and briskets contain as much as 20 grams of fat or more in 3 ounces (and how often do you order a 3.5-ounce McDonald’s hamburger instead of a 4-ounce Quarter Pounder or 5.7-ounce cheeseburger?)

If the thought of beans doesn’t get you excited, consider all the bean-based comfort foods you loved growing up, like chili, baked beans, bean soup, hummus, Mexican rice and beans, Cuban black beans, three-bean salad and Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas), to name a few examples.

Gas-free beans? Really?

Digestive gas is caused by fermentation in your digestive track. There are many ways to work around it and, ultimately, to condition your gut to welcome beans without the potentially embarrassing aftereffect.

1. Start small: Your gut may be unaccustomed to handling the amount and type of fibers from beans. Start slowly, eating as little as 2 to 4 tablespoons a day. Ramp up gradually but steadily.

2. Eat more beans: Yes, eating beans more regularly teaches your digestive system to cope, resulting in less gas. Start small and keep exposing your gut to beans.

3. Choose an easy bean: Integrative health expert Dr. Andrew Weil’s blog recommends adzuki beans as easy to digest. Mung beans are easy on the stomach, too. Chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black-eyed peas, red lentils and pintos also are reputed to be easier to digest. The firmer the type of bean, the tougher it is to stomach.

4. Try mashing: Breaking down the beans’ fiber by mashing them — think refried beans, hummus or Indian dhal — helps with digestion of the beans.

5. Soak beans first: Soaking isn’t necessary. You can just toss beans into a pot and get going cooking. But soaking helps if you’re having trouble digesting beans, and it shortens cooking time by an hour or two, depending on the type of bean. If you’re struggling with gas, try this: Change the soaking water several times, rinsing the beans between (soaking water contains oligosaccharides, the gas-causing sugars that cause so much trouble). Throw out the cooking water, unless your recipe calls for using it, and rinse the cooked beans, too. The Bean Institute describes three soaking methods and recommends hot-soaking as the most effective against gas.

6. Rinse canned beans: Unless they’re canned with a sauce, put canned beans in a strainer or colander and run tap water over them.

7. Chew your beans thoroughly: Chewing, like mashing, breaks down food before it hits your stomach, making it easier to handle.

8. Use these spices: Fennel, anise, cardamom and caraway are particularly effective at reducing digestive gas. It probably is no coincidence that they are common in bean-heavy Indian cuisines. You’ll notice that Indian restaurants typically offer raw anise seeds to patrons after meals.

9. Try digestive enzymes: When eating beans give your digestive system a boost with a tablet or squirt of digestive enzymes — Beano is one example.

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