Beans 101: A Guide to Enjoying the Stockpile Staple

couple cooking beans
Photo by fizkes / Shutterstock.com

Beans are cheap, filling, low-fat, high-protein and, when prepared well, delicious. They also can keep for up to a decade when stored well.

In short, beans are one of the most worthwhile things to stockpile, or to buy during a monthslong pandemic that pushes you to pinch pennies.

So, following is everything you need to know to embrace this perfect food and start working more beans into your diet — from how to avoid digestive gas to how to cook homemade beans.

Canned beans versus dried beans

Reach for canned beans when convenience is your priority. Pop open a can and sprinkle beans on your salad, throw them onto a tortilla with cheese, or toss them into a casserole, chili or soup.

If cost or taste is more important to you than convenience, go with dried beans. If shelf life is key, go with dried beans as well: They can keep for up to 10 years, while canned foods usually expire within two to five years of their manufacture date, as we detail in “10 Foods That Can Keep for Years.”

You don’t have to cook beans every time you want to eat them, though. Cook up a batch and freeze the beans in small portions. You’ll enjoy the convenience of canned beans at a fraction of the cost.

The Bean Institute ran the numbers a few years ago and found that a family of four eating beans once a week will save around $80 a year by using dried beans over a national brand of canned beans.

Here are the institute’s price comparisons for pinto beans:

  • Dry — $0.15 per serving
  • Canned (store brand) — $0.34 per serving
  • Canned (national brand) — $0.48 per serving

Homemade dried beans are also tastier than the canned equivalent.

“Canned beans are never going to be as good as home-cooked dried beans, no matter how many seasonings you add to your pot,” raves The New York Times food writer Melissa Clark. “They’re like any other convenience food … fine in a pinch but never transcendent.”

Yet another advantage of dried beans is that you get to decide what else goes into the pot — which is important if you are trying to cut down on sodium.

Gas-free beans? Really?

Digestive gas that you might experience after eating beans is caused by fermentation in your digestive tract — specifically, fermentation of complex carbohydrates in the beans called oligosaccharides, says Berkeley Wellness.

But there are many ways to avoid or decrease digestive gas and, ultimately, to condition your gut to welcome beans without this potentially embarrassing aftereffect. Here are a few tips:

  • Rinse canned beans: It will reduce the amount of oligosaccharides present, Berkeley Wellness reports.
  • Soak dried beans: This too will reduce oligosaccharides, according to Berkeley Wellness. The publication suggests soaking beans in water for at least six to eight hours — and as long as overnight — and changing the water at least once before cooking the beans. The Bean Institute recommends the hot soak method as the most effective step against gas and offers detailed soaking directions on its website.
  • Try adzuki beans: They are relatively easy to digest and thus should not give you gas, according to the website of integrative health expert Dr. Andrew Weil.
  • Try black-eyed peas: A 2011 study published in the Nutrition Journal investigated “perceptions of flatulence from bean consumption” by having participants eat a half-cup of pinto beans, vegetarian baked beans or black-eyed peas every day for at least eight weeks. The first week of the study, 50% of participants who ate pinto beans and 47% of those who ate baked beans reported increased gas — compared with only 19% of those who ate black-eyed peas.
  • Eat beans regularly: In the 2011 study, the participants reported less gas over time. In fact, at least 70% of the participants who experienced gas reported that it dissipated by the second or third week of daily bean consumption. Berkeley Wellness reports similarly: “If you eat beans on a regular basis, your body will learn to handle them more efficiently over time. But increase your intake gradually.”
  • Consider enzymes: Products like Beano or generic equivalents contain an enzyme that helps break down oligosaccharides, Berkeley Wellness says.

Cooking couldn’t be simpler

As you’d guess, dry beans are an excellent excuse to get out the crockpot. Turn it to low to cook them for three to six hours, depending on your cooker and on the beans. Or use the stove-top. Or a pressure cooker. Or even a rice cooker. These instructions apply, regardless:

  • Cover with water: Combine your soaked or unsoaked dry beans with an extra 2 inches or more of water or broth. Keep an eye on them while they cook, and add liquid if necessary.
  • Add salt at the beginning: Salting early penetrates the beans better than if you wait until they’re cooked. In fact, salting the soaking water breaks down beans’ skins, speeding up cooking, food writer Melissa Clark says. At any rate, salting the cooking water won’t prevent beans from cooking, as some hold.
  • Let them simmer: Boiling will break beans apart. Low and slow is the way to go for creamy, well-cooked beans.

Bean-a-licious recipes

With a little attention, beans can help both your health and your food budget — and make a delicious addition to the dinner table. To get started, try some of these sources for bean recipes:

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