Of course, it's a lot more convenient to buy canned beans. Trouble is, they tend to be slightly overcooked, which makes them mushy. They also cost significantly more than dried beans. A 16-ounce bag of dried beans yields nearly 6 cups of cooked beans. Whereas a 15-ounce can of beans yields roughly 1 1/2 cups. Cup for cup canned beans are almost twice as expensive as dried.
But we all know these things. So why don't more people cook beans from scratch? Many people worry that cooking dried beans just takes too darned long. And in fact, it does indeed take time to cook them properly. The good news is that little of that is hands-on time. And if you make it a weekend project, you can cook up a large batch of dried beans and freeze them in 1- or 2-cup portions.
I like to cook a pound of beans at a time. Here's how I do it:
I start by sorting through the beans to pick out any random little stones or debris. Then I soak them overnight in salted water. To do this, dissolve 3 tablespoons of salt in 4 quarts of water, then add the beans. You may have heard the myth that salting beans prevents them from getting tender, but that myth has been debunked. The salt (along with the long soak) actually ensures a tender skin, a more evenly cooked bean and a shorter cooking time.
After the beans have soaked overnight, all you have to do is drain and rinse them, put them in a large pot, add plenty of cold salted water (and maybe some chopped onion, carrot, a celery stalk and a few smashed garlic cloves), bring them to a boil and let them simmer gently until tender.
Depending on the bean, this will take anywhere from one to two hours (the bag should tell you). If there is no cooking time listed, start testing the beans for doneness after 1 hour. Covering the pot, even partially, will speed up the time, but you will end up with more broken beans. Once the beans are tender, drain them and store or use as you like.
One caution — avoiding adding any acidic ingredients while cooking the dried beans. Acidic ingredients inhibit the cooking process and your beans will never get tender. Also, If you happen to have bought your bag of beans in a dusty store with slow turnover, they might be old, which means they'll take much longer to cook.
If you intend to turn your cooked beans into soup, don't drain them after cooking them. Instead, save the thick liquid that developed in the pan. Add this to help thicken and flavour your soup. But however you use them, I think you'll be delighted with the taste, texture and price of beans cooked from scratch.
BEANS AND GREENS GRATIN
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (40 minutes active)
1 1/4 cups fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and ground black pepper
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
4 cups packed, coarsely chopped chard, kale, mustard greens or collard leaves, or a mix
2 cups cooked pinto, white beans, kidney beans, black beans or chickpeas
1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
Heat the oven to 375 F.
In a small bowl, toss together the breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the pepper flakes, and a bit of salt. Set aside.
In a large ovenproof skillet over medium, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the onion and cook until caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the greens in batches and cook until they are wilted.
Mash 1/2 cup of the beans with a potato masher or fork and add the mashed beans along with the whole beans, broth, cheese, tomatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the mixture and bake on the oven's middle shelf until the top is lightly browned and the beans are bubbling, 25 to 35 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 280 calories; 110 calories from fat (39 per cent of total calories); 13 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 14 g protein; 950 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."