By Dawn M. Swidorski
Legumes are a special class of plants belonging to the family Leguminosae. They have seed bearing pods with edible seeds that come in two types: 1) immature, which we eat straight from the garden, such as green beans and peas; and 2) mature, which we eat when dried.
Legumes are grown throughout the world and were one of the first cultivated crops. Each region of the world has developed its own special favorites. Although legumes are an important part of traditional diets around the world, they’ve been neglected in Western diets for the past 50 years.
Legumes include green and yellow beans, peas, lentils, soybeans and many varieties of “shell” beans, which are used in dried form. They are among the most versatile and nutritious foods, available. Legumes are typically low in fat contain no cholesterol, and are high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. They also contain beneficial unsaturated fats and are rich in dietary fiber and important phytochemicals. Legumes are inexpensive, nutrient-dense sources of protein that can be substituted for dietary animal protein.
Legume plants are notable for their ability to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen because of a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria found in root nodules of the plants. This ability reduces fertilizer costs for farmers and gardeners who grow legumes, and makes legumes valuable in crop rotation to replenish soil that has been depleted of nitrogen.
Numerous clinical trials have shown that the consumption of low-glycemic foods, such as beans and lentils, decreases food intake and increases the sensation of fullness compared to high-glycemic index foods, such as potatoes and rice. Legumes also delay the return of hunger.
There are literally thousands of varieties of legumes, used in every single cuisine world-wide. Each has their own slightly distinctive flavor, appearance and cooking attributes. Because dried beans are always slow-cooked with liquid there is plenty of opportunity to infuse multiple layers of flavors and additional textures.
Black beans are medium-sized, oval beans with black skin. They have a slightly sweet flavor and are often used in soups, or served with rice. They are included in many Mexican and Latin American dishes.
Black-eyed peas are medium-sized, oval beans that are cream colored with a black dot. They have a sharp flavor and smooth texture. They are usually served with rice or eaten as a side dish and are a southern U.S. favorite.
Garbanzo beans, also called chickpeas, are medium-sized, round beans that are beige in color. They have a nutty flavor and firm texture. Garbanzo beans are used in soups, salads, Indian dishes, and popular Middle Eastern dishes, such as hummus and falafel.
Kidney beans, also called Mexican red beans, are large and kidney-shaped with a strong flavor and soft texture. Kidney beans are used in soups, salads, chili, Creole dishes, and traditional rice and beans.
Lentils are lens-shaped seeds. Lentils come in a wide range of colors, though two are very common – one is small and brown and the other is larger and yellow. Lentils taste delicious in side dishes, soups and stews. They are commonly used in Africa, India and Asia.
Navy beans (or great Northern beans) are small, white, oval beans with a mild flavor and powdery texture. They are often used to make soups and stews.
Pinto beans are medium-sized, oval beans with a spotty beige and brown color. They turn completely brown when cooked and are used to make re-fried beans and other Mexican bean dishes.
Dried legumes can be stored just about any place they stay dry. Jars or bags are fine storage mediums and will keep for at least one year. Some legumes are actually so colorful and beautiful they make vibrant counter displays if placed in glass. Legumes can be used beyond one year, though they might require a bit more soaking or longer cooking time.
Fresh legumes should be refrigerated and used within a few days.
Preparing Dried Legumes
Dried legumes require a quick wash and sort before cooking to remove any random stones that might have got into the bag. Also remove any discolored or really shriveled beans or lentils.
Many people recommend soaking beans in room temperature water before cooking. This step re-hydrates the beans, which allows them to cook more evenly or reduces the overall time. That isn’t necessary for all beans and for some lentils it can actually ruin the dish!
Depending on how much time you have, choose one of the following soaking methods:
Slow soak. In a stockpot, cover 1 pound dried beans with 10 cups water. Cover and refrigerate 6 to 8 hours or overnight.
Hot soak. In a stockpot, bring 10 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 pound dried beans and return to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover tightly and set aside at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours.
Quick soak. In a stockpot, bring 10 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 pound dried beans and return to a boil. Boil 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour.
Gas-free soak. In a stockpot, place 1 pound of beans in 10 or more cups of boiling water. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Then cover and set aside overnight. The next day 75 to 90 percent of the indigestible sugars that cause gas will have dissolved into the soaking water.
After rinsing (and/or soaking) add beans to a stockpot. Cover the beans with three times their volume of water (or stock depending on recipe). Add herbs or spices as desired. Bring to a boil. Then, reduce the heat and simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender. The cooking time depends on the type of bean, but start checking after 45 minutes. Add more water if the beans become uncovered.
- Add salt or acidic ingredients, such as vinegar, tomatoes or juice, near the end of the cooking time, when the beans are just tender. If these ingredients are added too early, they slow the cooking process. Beans are done when they can be easily mashed between two fingers or with a fork.
- To freeze cooked beans for later use, immerse them in cold water until cool, then drain well and freeze.
- One pound of dried beans yields about 5 or 6 cups cooked beans. A 15-ounce can of beans equals about 1 1/2 cups cooked beans, drained.
Davidson, Alan. Penguin Companion of Food. 2002. New York, NY
Oregon State University – Linus Pauling Institute