Often, the simplest foods, such as rice and beans, are the ones that daunt us—many people end up buying them either precooked or canned, respectively. To be fair, preparing rice can be tricky, but beans are a snap, as long as you think ahead. And I’m here to let you in on the secrets to perfectly cooked beans, no matter their form or purpose.
The first thing is making sure the dried beans are clean of stones or debris. Then, if you want a simple and traditional plate of whole beans (perhaps my favorite), the key is to soak the beans ahead of time with plenty of water. I usually soak mine for eight hours, which is great because you can set it up right before going to bed and by the time you wake up, they’ll be ready to cook. After the soak, simply drain the beans, place them in a pot (preferably a clay one), add water, onion and garlic and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour and 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the onion and garlic. Add salt, to taste, and enjoy this comforting classic, which in Mexico we call frijoles de la olla (pot-cooked beans). These beans are whole, but some will break and others will dissolve completely, giving the dish a thick consistency.
For truly whole beans that retain their firmness and body, soak them in salted water (one tablespoon for every pound of beans) also for about eight hours. Afterward, rinse the beans completely and cook them in fresh water. The cooking process will be the same as for the frijoles de la olla—about one hour and 20 minutes for smaller beans such as pinto and black. The cooking time for larger beans will be longer. Check the package directions. Because of the firmness that this method gives to any type of bean—from black beans to black-eyed peas—these beans are ideal in a salad.
For baked beans that remain whole and firm, soak the beans in unsalted water for eight or more hours. Strain the beans but reserve the soaking liquid, which you will bring to a boil by itself. Place the beans in an ovenproof baking dish, cover with the boiling reserved water and add some salt and any seasonings you like. Cover, but leave the lid slightly ajar and bake at 200° for approximately four and a half hours.
Though preparing beans is simple enough, sometimes there’s no time for the eight-hour soak. Luckily, there’s a faster option: Place the beans in a pot with onion and garlic, add enough water to cover the beans and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let sit for one hour. Return the pot to the stove and, once the liquid boils for the second time, lower the heat. Simmer until ready—about an hour and 45 minutes.
To personalize and flavor the beans, try adding herbs and aromatics. In Mexico, for example, we add epazote—a light and flavorful herb that livens the beans and offers the added bonus of helping the body digest the beans more easily (i.e., it helps relieve gas). In Oaxaca, we add some dried avocado leaves, which give the beans a hint of anise flavor. You can also try some cilantro or different chilies—either fresh or dried—bay leaf, thyme or even rosemary. And for depth of flavor, try a protein such as bacon or pancetta.
Beans don’t have to be relegated to a side dish. Try a hearty main course of bean soup, comforting and filling on its own, made with either black beans or pinto beans. Below are our recipes for frijoles de la olla, which we serve for brunch at Restaurant El Naranjo, and frijoles puercos (dirty beans or pork beans), which can be served as a one-plate meal. The recipe after that is one of my, and many of our customers’, all-time favorites: black bean soup from Oaxaca. Now that you know the secrets to cooking great beans, they no longer seem so intimidating, do they?
By Iliana de la Vega and Isabel Torrealba • Photography by Jenna Northcutt