… the more you eat, the more you toot. Nursery rhymes and rude jokes aside, shell beans, or “shellies” as they are known in old-time southern lingo, are one of the loveliest vegetables around. The term “shell beans” refers to bean varieties with mature, fat seeds that are typically shelled (removed) from their pods and eaten either fresh or dried, as opposed to pole beans such as string, snap, and wax, whose tender pods and immature seeds are eaten fresh.
The digestive difficulties of beans are legendary, and for several reasons. In their raw state, all shell beans except favas and soybeans contain natural plant toxins that can result in food poisoning–like symptoms, and so they must be properly cooked before eating. They also contain complex sugars that some people lack the digestive enzymes to break down, which results in the infamous bloating and flatulence; over-the-counter supplements like Beano work by providing that natural enzyme. Proper soaking, draining, and cooking are also instrumental to easing unpleasant gut explosions.
But don’t shy away from shellies—they are delicious, versatile, extremely nutritious, and should be eaten more often. Shell beans cooked fresh from their pods are a creamy, truly seasonal treat in summer and early fall—don’t pass them up when you see them. An extremely diverse plant family, shell beans come in a wondrous sizes, shapes, and colors; you never know what lovely heirloom types might show up in your winter CSA box, farmers market, or even in the dry-goods bulk section of your local food store. Some of the more common types include black, black-eyed pea, cannellini, cranberry (or horticultural and Borlotto), garbanzo or chickpea, Great Northern, lima and butter, kidney, navy, pinto, and soybean.
Since sadly, we’re about six months away from the dog days when fresh shellies will be available, here are some tips for cooking their dry versions:
Soaking Dry Beans
Although it is not absolutely necessary, dry beans do benefit from a good soaking before cooking to rehydrate them, reduce their cooking times, and make them more digestible (fresh shell beans don’t require it). Long soaking is traditionally done, but you can do quicker versions if you lack the time, according to the US Dry Bean Council. For the traditional soak, pour the beans in a bowl or pot, and add at least three times the amount of water (thus, 2 cups of beans requires 6 cups of water). Discard any beans that float to the surface. Soak them for 8 hours or overnight. By now the beans will have absorbed most of the water and swollen to several times their original size. Drain the beans in a colander, discard the soaking water, and rinse with fresh, cool water. It’s normal for the beans to appear wrinkled after this kind of rehydration.
For a quick soak, place the beans in a large pot and add 10 cups of water for every 2 cups of beans. Bring them to a boil and keep boiling for 2 to 3 minutes. Then drain and discard the soaking water, and rinse with fresh, cool water.
Or you can hot-soak them, which reduces cooking time and consistently produces tender beans. Place the beans in a large pot and add 10 cups of water for every 2 cups of beans. Bring them to a boil and keep boiling for 2 to 3 minutes. Then remove the beans from the heat, cover, and let them stand for 4 to 24 hours. Drain and discard the soaking water, and rinse with fresh, cool water.
Cooking Dry Beans
Soak and drain dry beans, as outlined in the soaking instructions above. Fill the pot with enough fresh water or stock to cover them, add aromatics if desired, and gently simmer or boil. A tablespoon of vegetable oil or a bit of butter stirred into the cooking liquid prevents the beans from foaming and boiling over (the brownish foam is not dirt—just coagulated proteins).
Taste them often to test their texture. Add warm water as necessary while the beans expand and cook, and stir them occasionally to keep them from sticking. Refrain from adding any ingredients high in acid or calcium, such as lemon juice, vinegar, tomatoes, ketchup, molasses, or wine, until the beans are fully cooked, as their presence can prevent the beans from becoming tender.
The cooking times listed below are estimates only; exact times depend on the age and condition of your dry beans, how long they’ve soaked, and your preferences in texture. These times also assume you are cooking them on the stove at a gentle simmer. Because beans vary so much, it’s best to cook them for 30 minutes, then taste them and do a “bite” test. If the beans are still chalky inside, set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, then test them again. Pressure cooking is also one of the fastest ways to cook dry beans, sometimes in as little as 20 minutes; consult the manufacturer’s instructions for more information.
- Black: 60 to 90 minutes
- Black-eyed peas: 60 to 90 minutes
- Cranberry and horticultural: 45 to 60 minutes
- Garbanzo (chickpeas): 60 to 90 minutes
- Great Northern: 45 to 60 minutes
- Lima and butter: 60 to 90 minutes
- Kidney and cannellini: 90 to 120 minutes
- Navy: 90 to 120 minutes
- Pinto: 60 to 90 minutes
Incidentally, 2016 has been declared a the International Year of Pulses by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. To celebrate, try these delicious recipes: Harlow House Baked Beans, White Bean and Basil Salad and Mexican Black Bean and Tomato Salad. And you can find more information on shell beans and tasty recipes in Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook.
Picture credits, from top to bottom: Cranberry beans, by Ludovikus, Adobe Stock; kidney beans, black beans, and Job’s tears by Glowonconcept, Adobe Stock; white bean soup, by Voltan1, Dreamstime.