Monday, January 7, 2008

Cooking Legumes - The Long and the Short of It

Not everyone loves legumes, but just about everyone knows legumes are good for their health. A lot of people, however, say legumes just take too much time to cook, or the results are unpredictable (this is largely due to improper cooking methods).

We have to buy most of our legumes in dried form as only fava beans, black-eyed peas, mung beans, soybeans, and peas are available fresh. When legumes are purchased fresh, they don't need rehydrated and cooking times are much shorter.

Legumes can be prepared on the stove or in the oven, but due to the long cooking time involved, most cooks prefer to cook beans in a pressure cooker or in a microwave.

All dried beans need to be cooked in enough liquid to adequately rehydrate them. They must be covered in sufficient liquid to cook them evenly, and often oil of some kind is added for flavor. Oil also decreases the chances of the beans boiling over, which can be a problem. Butter, lard, ham hocks, or bacon, though not the healthiest of foods, are often added to beans to enhance the flavor.

Some chefs insist on adding salt to the liquid in which the beans are cooking from the very beginning of the cooking time, insisting that the salt greatly improves the flavor. Others wait until the beans have softened a bit and argue that adding salt at the beginning of cooking causes the beans to be less tender. It's really a matter of personal preference, but one thing is for sure - if salty meats, like ham or bacon, are added for flavor, then any added salt must be reduced.

The tenderness of beans is very important. For this reason, microwaves, while very convenient, are less reliable for cooking beans than pressure cookers. The high heat of a pressure cooker allows the beans to soften thoroughly and also reduces cooking time.

You can also save time when cooking beans by precooking them and storing them in the freezer. Then, all you have to do to enjoy is defrost and reheat rather than soak and cook.

If you're cooking beans to freeze, undercook them just a bit. Remember, you'll be cooking them again when you reheat them, so during the initial, pre-freeze cook, remove them from the heat with thirty minutes to spare. (In a pressure cooker, cook them only one to two minutes less than normal.) Beans will expand when frozen. Freeze them in small containers and don't fill them completely full.

Before freezing the beans, make sure they're covered with enough liquid to keep them moist. Defrost in the refrigerator or in a pan of warm water. After the beans have thawed, simmer them for thirty minutes on the stove or one to two minutes in a pressure cooker.

Don't use canned beans. These can be so convenient, but they just aren't good for you or your loved ones. Canned beans have less nutritional value than fresh or dried and they can take on a distinctly metallic flavor due to the can in which they've been stored. They're also packed with preservatives, sodium, and other ingredients no one really needs and shouldn't really want.

Legumes are really "coming into their own." Their variety is enormous and they are often interchangeable. They can often add an unusual or unexpected flavor to a very usual dish.

1 comment:

Aubrey said...

Do you have any good recipes using legumes that you'd like to share?