Cooking Beans with Great Texture

Last week I cooked myself a big pot of beans. My wife Julie had gone to Seattle to visit her sister, and taken the kids. Cooking for myself for the first time in eight years, I found myself oddly indecisive about meals. For the first couple of nights, I ate standing with my head in and out of the refrigerator. By the third night, I needed a proper meal, and I settled into cooking some comforting beans.

I love cooking beans. I used to imagine, if I ever became destitute, I could still eat well with just simple legumes. Thanks to the recession, I’ve had the opportunity to test that theory more regularly.

The important thing about cooking beans is texture, and making sure to get the beans fully cooked and soft, but still retaining their shape and integrity.

How to get good bean texture:

• Cooking beans involves changing a hardened starch (the beans) into a softer gelatinized starch. This process is referred to as gelatinization.

• Adding acids such as wine, vinegar, or tomato to the cooking liquid deters the gelatinization (softening) process and leaves beans crunchy, even after long cooking times.*

• Perfectly cooked (gelatinized) beans will hold their texture with the addition of acid to the cooking liquid. Example: A gently warmed pot of beans can sit in a crockpot during the duration of the Super Bowl, and with the addition of acid, not turn to mush. Ever bought a bag of beans? Did you notice the recipe on the back of the bag almost always calls for a dash of vinegar added at the end? That dash of vinegar helps hold the texture.

• For this reason, make a basic pot of beans with beans, water, and maybe some onion, garlic, and bay leaf. Once the beans are cooked and soft (gelatinized), add a dash of vinegar. I often cook a large batch of beans and then reheat them throughout the week in different meals, without much change to the texture. Add cooked beans to a chili base with ground meat, or to onions and tomatoes cooked into a thick marmalade, or a curry mix sizzling with chili peppers and spices.

The beans, rich with cumin and onions, took longer than I had planned, and without my noticing, I got kind of hyper with hunger. In my family-free home, I couldn’t decide where to eat. The kitchen table didn’t feel right without the kids, and the computer at my desk seemed crowded and risky. Hot soup, my elbows and a computer, seemed a bad combo. I headed for the good ole’ television. Deciding I would want second helpings, I carried the full cast-iron pot of beans into the living room. I set it onto the upturned leaf extension of a small side table next to the couch. The weight of the full pot immediately disengaged the leaf from the table. The beans hit the floor hard and splashed across the room, hitting an ottoman, the couch, and four throw-pillows before finally spraying the painted wall and a framed photo.

I picked up the overturned pot, grabbed the wooden spoon off the floor, and fished out a bite or two still clinging to the sides; no more than a few beans. They were well gelatinized.

*For in depth information on kitchen science, check out Harold MacGee’s famous book, On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of The Kitchen.