Spilling the Beans: A Guide to Our Favorite Legume
What makes beans a superfood, plus tips for adding them to your next meal
The bean, perhaps because of its somewhat bashful personality, still hasn’t reached the same level of fame and health-nut-mania as other superfoods—say kale or avocado. It’s rare to cross paths with an outspoken bean lover, which is remarkable to me, since it’s no secret that beans are tasty nutritional powerhouses.
These tiny morsels are chockfull of fiber, folate, protein, potassium, iron, and magnesium, are low in fat, and cholesterol-free. They also have a low carbon footprint, making them one of the earth's most sustainable sources of protein. As a vegetarian, beans are my go-to for boosting many dishes, as they nourish the stomach, heart, and immune system. I try to sneak them into my dinners at least twice a week, which isn't difficult given their long shelf-life, affordability, and versatility in the kitchen. You can smash them, bake them, roast them, smear them, prepare them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert—the possibilities are practically endless.
So the question is, what’s not to love about beans?
What are beans?
Beans are the contained seeds (in a shell or pod) of the flowering plant family Fabaceae, which puts them under the legume umbrella, alongside lentils, peas, and peanuts. In addition to the sustenance legumes provide us (most notably via protein and fiber), beans are charged with lots of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
The word for bean and its cognates has existed in West Germanic languages as early as 950 BCE. As one of the earliest cultivated crops in history, there are now over 18,000 species of legume plants, so it’s no surprise that beans are commonplace in dishes all over the globe. From the robust and zesty bean-rich stews of Brazil, to the sweet and creamy red bean paste buried in Chinese moon cakes, read on to learn about some of our favorite beans and find recipes to familiarize yourself with this magical fruit. If you really want to nerd out about beans, check out this piece about the heirloom beans of Mexico.
Dried beans vs. canned beans
Whether they’re sold dried or canned, all beans are processed the same way. After the plants have sprouted, pods are cut at the base, dried, deseeded, washed, and finally, packed for consumption. Dried beans are then sent to bulk bins, but canned beans will need to be blanched, sealed, and cooked in a pressure cooker.
When preparing dried beans, we suggest picking through them first to discard any debris before cooking. Rinse the beans after sorting, and depending on the variety of bean, you may want to soak them in cold or room temperature water.
While some beans are soft enough to skip soaking, all raw beans contain certain carbohydrates that are harsh on your digestive tract. Soaking them neutralizes the starches and keeps your tummy a happy one. Consider soaking heartier beans (black, kidney, garbanzo) overnight to allow enough time for the skins to soften. Alternatively, you can also do a quick-soak by bringing a pot of water to a boil, adding the beans, removing from the heat, covering, and letting them soak for an hour before use.
Don’t forget beans soak up fluids like a sponge; one cup of dried beans will amount to around 3 cups cooked. Store cooked beans in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 8 months.
Canned beans are favorable if you’re tight on time or don’t want to deal with the “hassle” of soaking. Bear in mind, the beany liquid in many cans contains high levels of sodium. To cut some of this out, thoroughly wash the beans in a sieve before using or serving—except for chickpeas (garbanzo beans), more on that later.
Our favorite types of beans
All beans are protein and fiber-rich but ones with darker seed coats contain more antioxidants and black beans (also known as black turtle beans) specifically, possess compounds that are said to improve your nervous system and brain function. Regular consumption of these satiny black nuggets may reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, and foster healthy bones.
Native to the Americas, you’ll find no shortage of black beans in Creole, Caribbean, South American, and Louisiana Cajun dishes. Because of their dense, meaty texture, black beans are also a popular alternative to meat and make a great addition to salads that lack a textural oomph.
Although you can quick-soak dried black beans, soaking them overnight will help preserve their shape. If you plan on seasoning with something particularly acidic (think citrus, tomato, vinegars, or wine), add it near the end of your recipe, as adding it too soon can make the beans take longer to become soft and tender.
This hearty, slightly sweet bean gets its name from none other than its shape. Although most people recognize kidney beans from their dark red skins, they can also come in a variety of light red, speckled, or white skins—often called cannellini beans. Brimming with complex carbohydrates and vitamins, kidney beans also boast a lower glycemic index than other carbs, which helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
Kidney beans are durable even in tough cooking environments, making them the perfect companion to stews and soups. We suggest simmering kidney beans, like in this Tuscan white bean soup, to give them proper time to soak up the surrounding flavors.
Tip: Raw kidney beans contain high concentrations of phytohemagglutinin, a toxin that can damage your liver. If using dried beans, change out the water every couple of hours and wash thoroughly after soaking.
Having grown up in a Chinese-Vietnamese household, soybeans were found in a variety of forms in every corner of my parents’ kitchen. From frothy soy milk to silky tofu blocks and dewy soybean sprouts, this legume, no bigger than a dime, may look and taste mild and modest, but don’t underestimate its versatility and utility.
Soybeans, affectionately called “meat of the field” or “meat with no bones” were first cultivated in China over 3,000 years ago, though it wasn’t until the 20th century when we started to see soy production in the West. Today, the soybean is the highest produced legume in the world. Perhaps the reason for this is its versatility: soybeans can be cooked, fermented, or sprouted to make such products as tofu, tempeh, and miso—just to name a few.
Nutritionally speaking, soybeans outshine their fellow beans for being the only legume to contain a complete protein. This means they contain all 9 essential amino acids required for our bodies to build and repair muscles. Soybeans are also one of the few sources of isoflavones, a compound that helps promote bone health and lowers low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) while raising high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol).
Tip: Soybeans take the longest time of any bean to soften. Always soak these overnight in the fridge to avoid fermentation.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to the grocery store, only to be stumped by the legion of white beans there are to choose from. From the small white ovals of navy beans (also called pearl haricot, boston, or white pea bean) to the Great Northern and the cannellini (white kidney bean), it’s almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. The good news is that despite the endless options, all white beans virtually share the same characteristics, save for some subtleties in taste, meaning they can be used interchangeably without worry.
High in iron, potassium, and a slew of anti-inflammatory properties, white beans are natural diuretics. We love their velvety quality when baked or mashed for dips and spreads.
The bean of many guises (hummus and falafel, anyone?), these rotund pellets are buttery, nutty, and dense with vitamins K, C, B6, and choline, which aids with sleep, inflammation, and memory. Given their slightly toasted flavor and creamy interior, chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) pair well with curries, salads, and as supplements to smoothies, pastries, and spreads.
There are broadly two types of chickpeas: Desi and Kabuli. Desi are small, dark, and harvested in India, while Kabuli are a bit larger, lighter, and are typically found in Mediterranean dishes. For a more comprehensive overview of chickpeas, peek our guide on chickpeas here.
Tip: Aquafaba, or the viscous liquid found in canned chickpeas, should be reserved as it can come in handy the next time you bake or have a craving for chocolate mousse.
Other beans we love
Common in Chinese and Indian cuisines, these moss-colored pebbles have a tender texture and lightly saccharine coating. They’re an excellent source of essential amino acids, phosphorus, magnesium, and provide a platter of B vitamins. Unlike other beans, mung beans are delicate enough to eat raw, cooked, or sprouted. In fact, sprouted mung beans contain even more antioxidants and amino acids than unsprouted, and their crunchy, juicy texture makes them a coveted summer snack or supplement to soups and stir-frys.
Dried borlotti beans (also known as cranberry beans) can be spotted from a mile away by their scarlet dappled skin, which disappears when cooked. Loaded with calcium and potassium, these soft-skinned legumes can be thrown in a pot and cooked within half an hour. Rampant in Italian and Portuguese cuisine, they taste a bit like chestnuts, straddling the line between savory and sweet.
In the American South, eating black-eyed peas (no, not the band) with collard greens on New Year’s Day brings good luck as the ivory-coated beans symbolize coins, while the dark, leafy collard greens symbolize dollar bills. Characterized by their black-eyed centers and fine wrinkles, these beans provide rich amounts of manganese, copper, and folate.
Like borlotti, black-eyed peas also have a soft skin, so go ahead and skip the pre-soak. To highlight the smoky, earthy aromas of this bean, season it with Cajun spices, like cayenne, smoked paprika, garlic, and onion.
Fava or broad beans
Here’s a fun fact for you: Fava beans were commonly served at funerary feasts and sacrifices in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician responsible for giving us a² + b² = c² (remember that?), even refused to eat fava beans because he believed their flesh-like texture carried the souls of the dead.
Another fact, although not nearly as fun, is that prepping fava beans takes a lot of time. After plucking the beans from their pods, you’ll have to blanche them and remove the outer shell of each individual bean. It’s an operation, but it pays off once you get a taste of these starchy, full-bodied beans. Marinate fava beans with olive oil and your favorite herbs and sprinkle them over a bed of rice or opt out of de-shelling and braise the whole pods in a stew.
Would a green bean by any other name—snap bean, string bean, or Haricot Vert—taste as delicious? With over 130 varieties of green beans, these legumes are a popular side dish for when the leaves begin to change, the air is crisper, and holidays are just around the corner—yes, we’re calling you out green bean casserole. In addition to being fiber and magnesium-rich, green beans also have plenty of vitamins A, C, and K, which are responsible for boosting your immune system, vision, and bone health.
When sorting through green beans at the store, make sure to look for bright green ones that are smooth, sturdy, and free from brown spots or bruises.
Vanilla extract, the reigning flavor in many baked goods, candles, and perfumes, is a derivative of the vanilla bean. Although it doesn’t come from the bean family (vanilla beans come from orchids) we couldn’t resist giving a shout out to this centuries-old, delightfully toothsome flavoring agent.
A labor-intensive crop that requires meticulous processing done by hand—including hand pollination in some places— it’s no wonder only 1% of vanilla consumption worldwide derives from the bean itself. Still, you can easily find these thin, fragrant brown pods in the spices section of the super market, and it’s worthwhile to know all parts of the bean can be used. Throw a split vanilla bean in your custard to add depth, or scrape the beans into your next batch of cookie batter for an aromatic after-work snack.
Get cooking with these bean-laden recipes
Published on March 16, 2019