Brining Beans For Tenderness
Autumn’s fog, wind and rain makes hearty soups especially appealing. The soup pot is almost always on the stove these days; right now, dried beans shelled by my grandkids (they love hands-on tasks like this) are simmering away. Later, the tender beans will be added to sauteed vegetables, chopped apple, and turkey stock with a piece of Parmesan cheese rind to make a hearty minestrone. I enjoy trying out new ideas and experimenting with old favorites, but I can’t seem to make a SMALL pot of soup to save my life. Thus, I feel blessed to live in a community where soup sharing is part of the culture. If anyone is known to be feeling under the weather, soups will appear on stoops and porches. It’s culturally correct to offer soup in glass jars or yogurt tubs or anything that doesn’t need to be returned, so the recipient can simply enjoy the gift with no strings.
This year, my small garden produced surprisingly generous crops of green beans as well as golden wax beans. I also harvested lots of lovely soup beans, which cook up buttery and tender without broken skins. Store-bought beans may have been in storage for a long time, and such beans don’t always cook properly. It’s frustrating to go through the bother of soaking and simmering only to end up with mealy or tough-skinned results. I love beans and was delighted to find the solution to bean problems in Harold McGee’s fascinating kitchen classic, On Food And Cooking; the science and lore of the kitchen. If you aren’t familiar this book, see if your local library can lend you a copy. (Ask them to buy this book if they don’t have it, as it’s a must for curious cooks.) In a lengthy article on the ways beans are used in various cultures, McGee lists many reasons for them to turn out tough, hard, or mushy. He suggests that brining-soaking them in salted water-before cooking can help. It also reduces the oligosaccharides that cause uncomfortable intestinal gas in some people, so it’s a very helpful technique.
A Salty Soaking
To ensure tender, easily digestible beans, soak dry beans in salted water over night, then soak again in plain water and rinse them well before cooking them in plain (unsalted) water. Dried beans will absorb about half the water they are going to in a couple of hours, but need a slow 10-12 hour soaking to fully hydrate. One they’ve had their overnight bath and rinse cycle, they cook up quickly and are perfectly tender, with whole skins and a pleasing texture. In fact, if you use a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, brined beans can cook up in as little as 10 minutes.
The rule of thumb is to add 2-3 tablespoons of kosher salt to a gallon of soaking water. Stir in the salt until fully dissolved, then add the dry beans and let them sit overnight. The next day, turn them out in a colander, rinse them, then soak them briefly (3-5 minutes) in cold water, and rinse again. Since excess cooking liquid leaches out bean flavor, just put them in a pot with water to cover by about an inch. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender. Depending on how dry (or large) the beans were, this could be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
Adding salt at this point will help bring out the bean’s flavor without causing toughness. However, I find beans taste better when I add some shoyu or soy sauce instead, especially if I store beans in the fridge for a day or two, since the flavors will meld intriguingly. For a less-salty but still luscious flavor, try adding coconut aminos instead. This yummy stuff is something like Bragg’s, but is soy free and according to the label, it contains 65% less sodium than soy sauce. I use a kind called Coconut Secret Raw Coconut Aminos which lists as ingredients only organic coconut sap and sea salt but has a magical, complex flavor that my whole household is crazy about. It’s stupendous on steamed cauliflower or roasted turnips or in salad dressings or pretty much anything you can think of.
You can also build bean flavor by adding chopped shallots, garlic, or onions at the very end of the cooking time, along with fresh or dried herbs. I like to add thyme to red beans, rosemary to white beans, and oregano to pinto beans, while summer savory (Satureja hortensis) is a classic herb for fresh or dried beans. Savory is easy to grow and fresh or dried, it tastes a bit like a blend of thyme, parsley, oregano and basil and is often used in Herbs de Provence blends. You can also borrow a tip from French cooks and drizzle cooked beans or bean soups with a little lemon- or garlic-infused olive oil and some finely chopped apple. Other delicious bean garnishes include garlic croutons, fresh cilantro and soft goat cheese or skinny ribbons of fresh basil and chopped cherry tomatoes in summer or roasted pumpkin seeds tossed with curry or chili powder.
A Hearty Italian Bean Soup
Make this flavorful white bean soup as chunky or smooth as you prefer by using an immersion blender, which can puree most soups without any need to add thickening agents. It’s far easier to clean than a blender or food processor, but be sure to keep the blade under the soup’s surface or you’ll have splatters everywhere!
Italian Cannellini Bean Soup With Garlic Croutons
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 shallots or garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
2 cups cauliflower florets
3 cups cooked Cannellini beans (or any) with cooking liquid
1-2 tablespoons garlic-infused olive oil
1/2 cup garlic croutons (see below)
In a soup pot, heat oil, onion and salt over medium high heat and cook for 2 minutes. Add garlic and rosemary and cook to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add potatoes, carrots, and cauliflower, reduce heat to low, cover pan and cook for 5 minutes to sweat vegetables. Add water to cover vegetables by half an inch, cover pan and cook until vegetables are tender (10-15 minutes) Stir in beans and their liquid, bring to a simmer and simmer for 15-20 minutes to meld. Puree to desired consistency with an immersion blender or use a potato masher. Serve hot, garnished with garlic-infused oil and croutons. Serves 4-6.
Who doesn’t love the crunch and savor of herb and garlic flavored croutons? Homemade croutons are a snap to make and taste much better than store bought ones (which are apt to be a bit stale, if not rancid). I often make a batch when the oven is in use; any bread ends or rolls will make good croutons, and if you don’t care for rosemary, just leave it out….
Crunchy Garlic Croutons
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
2-3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon rosemary, minced (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups cubed day-old (or older) bread
Pour oil into a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with garlic, rosemary (if using) and sea salt. Gently toss the bread cubes and any crumbs in the oil with your hands to coat fairly evenly. Bake at 225 degrees F for an hour, at 350 for 15-20 minutes, or at 400 for 8-10 minutes or to desired crispness. Store in a tightly sealed container (preferably glass) for up to a week. Makes about 2 cups.