- Today’s Lesson: Cooking Beans and Grains
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It’s Day Seven of Cooking School, and today we’re covering beans, rice, and other grains — the trusted friends of good cooks everywhere. These humble pantry staples are easy to keep on hand and, when cooked well, are extremely satisfying and nourishing. If you’ve ever wondered whether you really have to let those red kidney beans soak so long, or suspected that side of rice on your plate could be a little tastier, today is your day.
Why Grains and Beans?
Chances are you’ve got a bag or two of rice and some cans of beans in your kitchen cupboard right now. There may even be some quinoa, and dried beans. And it’s likely that whatever your method for cooking these staples are, you learned it a while ago and, other than double-checking ratios, haven’t given it much thought since.
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This is a shame. Beans and grains are more than just meal-padding sides, soup fillers, or a way to turn a few pieces of sesame chicken into a filling dish. Made well, they are delicious mains in their own right, providing plenty of flavor and a filling base of protein, fiber, and healthy carbohydrates.
Start Here: Grain and Bean Basics
Beans, of All Sorts
Let’s get this out of the way off the bat: Canned beans are great! They’re incredibly convenient, not terribly expensive, easy to use, and they taste … fine. I mean they’re fine. But there’s just no comparison to dried beans in terms of flavor or variety. There are dozens upon dozens of dried beans, from adzuki to yellow eye, each with their own subtle flavor and texture. And when you cook them yourself, you have the ability to flavor them with a variety of aromatics and spices. Each has its place. If you’re making something fast on a weeknight, by all means, open a can. But if you want to make a special dish for a party or simply something slightly nicer, it can be worth taking the time to soak and cook dried beans.
If you have never prepared dried beans from scratch, especially an heirloom variety, prepare yourself for one of the quieter mind-blowing discoveries of the kitchen. When you cook beans from scratch they make a saucy “pot liquor” and develop deep, unexpected flavors that can rival meat for satisfaction and depth.
In terms of the beans themselves, you’re probably familiar with the main varieties:There are medium-sized beans like black beans, red beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans. Then there are small beans, such as split peas, and various lentils (botanically, lentils and beans are different kinds of legumes, but culinarily they are treated the same). And finally there are great big beans like fava, lima, and Royal Corona beans.
The flavor of beans can vary greatly depending on the specific kind — chickpeas are nutty and a bit sweet, green lentils are grassy and earthy, black beans are umami-rich and earthy. When cooked properly, the texture of beans should be wonderfully creamy, but firm, with zero grittiness. If you don’t like one variety, try another — there are plenty to choose from!
Grains, of All Sorts
Let’s start with the real basics here. What we call grains are the seeds or kernels of cereal crops like wheat, rice, barley, sorghum, and so on. (See how grain goes from field to bread.) A “whole grain” consists of the outer bran, the endosperm, and the germ, all of which are edible. Highly-milled grains like white rice and pearled barley have had the outer hull and much of the germ removed. They have less nutritional value, but they cook more quickly and some people feel they are more palatable. Whole grains are generally brown-colored, while milled grains are generally white or very light brown.
Why You Should Rinse Dried Beans & Grains
Most grains and beans available for purchase should be rinsed before cooking, not just because they’re likely dusty from time spent in processing plants and factories (they are), but because it will result in a better-tasting dish at the end. Rinsing removes some of the starch from the surface of the grain (particularly rice), which would otherwise make the grain sticky. To rinse rice, just put the grains in the pot you’re using, add water, swirl it around with your hand, then drain and repeat until the water runs clear.
Rinsing also removes a compound from quinoa that can make it taste bitter. Your recipe should usually specify if the grains need to be rinsed. And canned beans almost always need to be rinsed of the viscous canning liquid before being used in a recipe.
Why Most Recipes Call for Soaked Beans
While small beans, such as lentils, do not need to soak, we recommend soaking medium- and large-sized beans by covering them in three to four inches of cool water and a little baking soda, and leaving them at room temperature for between six to eight hours — or overnight — before preparing them. The baking soda tenderizes the skins and makes them easier to digest.
Do you need to soak dried beans before cooking with them? No. You can cook most beans in the oven, in an Instant Pot or stovetop pressure cooker without presoaking — or with a shorter quick soak — and they will be perfectly edible.
But there are several advantages to taking the time to soak them (and if time is a factor you might consider using canned anyway). When you soak dried beans, you reduce the active cooking time considerably. They’ll also swell to about 2.5 times their size, and they end up being much more easy to digest. (Given beans’ well-deserved reputation for causing gas, this is relevant). All of these advantages result in a much better ingredient for your soups, stews, or bean salads. (Plus, you can used the reserved bean water, if you’re making chickpeas, as a vegan egg white replacement!)
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
If you want a big burst of flavor from any grain you’re cooking — from rice and barley, to millet and steel-cut oats — toast them first. Toasting dried grains on a sheet pan in the oven takes about 15 minutes, gives them a much richer flavor, and has the added benefit of making your whole house smell wonderful. Simply preheat an oven to 350°F, spread them evenly on a baking sheet, and then pull them out when they begin to give off a warm, nutty aroma. Grains can even be toasted right in the pot — here are instructions using oats.
What You Don’t Need to Learn
Believe it or not, you don’t need to learn or even worry about ratios of water if you’re cooking grains on the stove. Most grains can be cooked just like pasta: Bring a big pot of water to a boil, add some salt, and then simmer your quinoa, barley, farro, or what have you. As long as you have a fine-enough sieve, you can simply drain the grain when it’s tender, and it’s ready to go.
With rice, you can use the pasta method or another equally easy trick: the one-knuckle method. Pour the rice you’re going to use in the pan, level it out, and touch the top of the rice with your finger. Then pour water until it rises up to your first knuckle. For most pots, that will be the right amount of water. Neat!
Level Up! Bean and Grain Pro Tips
Okay! We’ve gotten through the basics of selecting and preparing beans and grains for cooking. Now let’s talk a little about how to make them taste great.
First, and possibly most frustratingly, you should plan to let cooking beans be a project: The variety and size of the beans you are using will affect how long they take to become tender — and so will the age. Beans continue to dry out as they age, so “fresher” dried beans will cook faster. When you’ve got a pot simmering on the stove, just check it every once in a while by taking out a bean and tasting it, to see if it’s done.
Second, both beans and grains benefit from additions of flavor. This starts with giving the liquid some salt before cooking (yes, even the bean water should be salted), but you don’t need to stop there. Grains soak up the liquid they’re cooking in, so don’t restrict yourself to plain water: Broth or stock can add plenty to depth, but so can coconut water or practically any other liquid from fruit juice to tea! Stock doesn’t tend to affect the flavor of beans as much, but adding aromatics such as bay leaves, onion, garlic cloves, or herbs will make a big difference, and the resulting liquid practically becomes a broth in and of itself!
And when they’re done cooking, this is when you should taste them, and begin to add even more flavor: Think about the flavors in the rest of the meal you’re making, and then look for complementary additions. Perhaps a little acid, such as lemon juice or tomato. Maybe a touch of sweetness from brown sugar or maple syrup. If the pot needs a little extra salt, add it a pinch at a time, tasting as you go.
Finally, to keep beans from overcooking and splitting or falling apart, place the entire pot in an ice bath in your sink. They will quickly cool in their own liquid, maintaining just the right texture. Extra beans can be stored in their liquid in the fridge, or frozen in containers for longer storage. And cooked grains can be frozen just as easily.
Our Favorite Gear
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.
- Rice cookers can actually cook a variety of grains, and are great if you want to free up a stove burner, or don’t want to pay attention while it’s cooking.
- Higher-end rice cookers with timers and warming functions can be used for making overnight oatmeal, or coming home to already-made rice.
- An Instant Pot is useful both for making rice, and for pressure-cooking beans.
- Fine mesh strainer.
5 Recipes to Help You Make Beans or Grains Better
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?
- How To Make Rice in a Rice Cooker
- How To Make a Simple Rice Pilaf
- How To Cook Beans on the Stove
- How To Cook Rice on the Stove
- The Easiest Way to Boost the Flavor of Rice and Grains
30-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Make a simple rice pilaf: Follow the directions for rinsing the grains, toasting the rice, and cooking it in broth. If you don’t have any stock or broth available, try using the next best liquid. Use water only if you have no other choice.
Check your work: When the rice is ready, taste it. Write down your best description of the flavors. How does this rice compare to your most recent experience of plain rice? How does it compare in difficulty?
(More than) 60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Give yourself an afternoon where you will be home, and prepare a pot of stovetop beans. Choose beans for which there is a canned version, and make sure you also have a can on hand. Follow the instructions for soaking overnight, adding aromatics, and simmering. Beginning just after one hour, and continuing every 15 minutes, pull out a couple of beans. When you are able to smash one between your fingers, taste one until it is fully tender. Cool in an ice bath.
Check your work: Open the can of beans, rinse them off, and warm them slightly. Then taste the stovetop beans and compare to the canned beans (if the canned beans are unsalted, season them for better comparison). What are the differences in textures? What are the differences in flavors?
What It Takes to Be a Grain or Bean Maestro
Good cooking is often about patience and attention, and there are few ingredients able to teach you better about both than beans and grains. Although not difficult to make, these foods resist shortcuts: They taste their best when the time is taken to cook them thoroughly, and when the care is taken to bring out the full range of flavors they have to offer. Not every meal can be an hours-long process, but it’s valuable to know what is possible when you have time to make a dish.
Meet Your Classmates
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