Every fall my soup pot gets a workout. But of all the soups and stews I concoct to keep my friends and family warm, everyone’s favorites are the hearty bean and vegetable soups. Endlessly variable, this winning combination delivers delicious, nourishing soups that please almost any appetite. And happily for me, they’re easy on the cook, too. The straightforward method shows you how to make a satisfying bean soup using ingredients you like. Beans’ gentle, earthy character makes them a perfect backdrop for a range of flavors, from bold and spicy to rich and mellow. So by simply varying the ingredients, you can create a winter’s worth of comforting soups.
Another reason to add bean and vegetable soups to your repertoire is convenience. Make a big pot on the weekend (they take some time, but it’s mostly unattended simmering), then refrigerate the leftovers and reheat them for easy meals throughout the week. Like many slow-cooked dishes, these soups taste even better the next day or the day after that. And you can easily freeze them for longer storage.
The best soups start with dried beans. Certainly canned beans speed up the process, but this is one of those instances where the extra step of starting with dried beans makes a big difference. First of all, they yield better flavor and texture: Freshly cooked beans are plumper, creamier, and truer to their natural flavor than canned. Dried beans also retain their shape better and are less apt to turn mushy. Another advantage of cooking your own beans is that you end up with a rich-tasting bean broth that goes right back into the soup.
Choose any vegetables and seasonings you like
It’s always a good idea to think of flavor affinities before you start assembling ingredients. If you’re leaning toward Mediterranean, you might select fennel, rosemary, and garlic, while a Latin American-inspired soup could include cumin, coriander, and chiles. I also like to keep things seasonal, relying on the hearty vegetables available in fall and winter, such as cabbage, parsnips, carrots, and cauliflower.
Instead of adding vegetables to the simmering beans, I prefer to cook the beans separately and add them to the soup later. If you cook them together, it’s easy for the vegetables to overcook before the beans are ready.
Yields 9 to 10 cups; serves 6.
Soak the beans
Soaking allows the beans to soften gently and plump up, shortening the cooking time and helping them cook evenly. Although many recipes call for soaking beans overnight, four hours is plenty. I often soak the beans in the morning of the day I plan to make soup.
Sort through 8 oz. (1-1/4 cups) your choice of dried beans (see options below), discarding any little stones or clumps of dirt, and then give them a quick rinse. Transfer to a large bowl, add enough cold water to cover the beans by 3 inches, and soak for 4 to 12 hours.
Choose one type of beans
Baby lima beans
Black beans (turtle beans)
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
Cranberry beans (borlotti or Roman beans)
Great northern beans
Kidney beans (red, pink, or white)
Cook the beans
Drain and rinse the beans and transfer them to a 3- or 4-qt. saucepan. Add 1 medium garlic clove (smashed and peeled), 1 bay leaf, and 6 cups of cold water. Partially cover to limit evaporation and simmer gently, stirring every 20 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and almost creamy inside, without being mealy or mushy (see box below for approximate cooking times). The beans’ cooking time will vary depending on how long they’ve soaked and how old they are. The older the beans, the longer they take to cook. But the longer you soak them, the shorter the cooking time. So the safest way to determine when the beans are done is to taste them as they cook.
Season with 3/4 tsp. kosher salt when the beans are about three-quarters done. If at any time the liquid doesn’t cover the beans, add 1 cup fresh water.
Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid, and discard the bay leaf (the garlic clove can stay). If you cook the beans in advance, refrigerate the beans and the cooking liquid separately until you make the soup (you can cook the beans one day ahead).
Bean cooking times (Times are approximate.)
Baby lima, flageolet, yellow-eye: 3/4 to 1 hour
Black, cannellini, cranberry, great northern, kidney, navy, pinto: 1 to 1-1/2 hours
Chickpeas: 1-1/4 to 2 hours
Create the flavor foundation
No matter what type of soup I make, I find that a bit of cured or seasoned pork (such as bacon, pancetta, or sausage), while not absolutely necessary, adds depth and an irresistibly savory edge to the soup. I cook it in a little olive oil to create a flavor base. Then I remove it, set it aside to add back later, and add aromatic vegetables.
Heat 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter in a 4- to 5-qt. soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 1/4 lb. of your meat choice, if using (see options below). Cook, stirring often, until the fat is rendered and the meat begins to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Pour the meat and fat into a small strainer set over a bowl, and set the meat aside. Spoon 2 Tbs. of fat back into the pot, and return it to medium heat. If you’re not using any meat, skip to the aromatics.
Choose one meat (optional)
Bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Thinly sliced pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Fresh Italian sausage, out of its casing and crumbled
Fresh chorizo, out of its casing and crumbled
Smoked or cured sausage (such as andouille, chorizo, or kielbasa), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Add the aromatics and seasonings
Add 1-1/2 cups your choice of aromatic vegetables (see options below) and season with a pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften but not brown, 4 to 6 minutes.
Stir in your choice of seasonings (see options below) and spices (see options below) and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. If you like, you can also add 1 Tbs. tomato paste along with the seasonings, which adds a concentrated sweetness and also helps deepen the muddy color of certain beans, like pink and red beans.
Choose two to four aromatic vegetables (for a total of 1-1/2 cups)
Choose up to three seasonings for a total of 1 Tbs.
Choose up to three spices for a total of 1 tsp.
Add vegetables & broth
Add 3 cups vegetables (see options below), stirring to incorporate with the seasonings and aromatics, and then add 2 cups of the broth (see options below), partially cover, and simmer until the vegetables are just barely tender, 10 to 20 minutes.
Choose up to three vegetables for a total of 3 cups
Canned diced tomatoes, drained (save the juice to add to the broth)
Carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick half moons
Cauliflower, cut into 1/2-inch florets
Celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Escarole, coarsely chopped
Fennel, coarsely chopped
Green cabbage, thinly sliced
Parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Red or white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Swiss chard, stems chopped and leaves sliced
Turnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Choose one broth
Add beans and more broth
Add the beans and then add 3 more cups of broth, plus 1 cup of the reserved bean-cooking liquid. If you have less than 1 cup bean liquid left from cooking the beans or if you’re adding the juice from canned tomatoes, adjust the broth for a total of 4 cups liquid.
Return the cooked meat to the pot, if using. Stir to combine and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes to meld the flavors.
Give the soup a finishing touch
After everything has simmered together, you have a final opportunity to personalize and add flavor to your soup. Stir in some lemon juice, vinegar, or hot sauce for a splash of acidity or heat. For a burst of freshness and color, toss in a handful of chopped herbs. And if you like, finish each serving with a drizzle of good olive oil or flavored oil, a handful of croutons, or even a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir in a finish (see options below) and/or a fresh herb or two (see options below). Ladel the soup into bowls and sprinkle with a topping, if you like (see options below). The soup will keep in the fridge for three or four days, tightly covered. Or you can freeze it for up to three months. (If making ahead, wait to add the finishing touches until ready to serve.)
Choose one finish (optional)
Choose up to two herbs for a total of 1/3 cup (optional)
Choose one topping (optional)
A drizzle of good-quality olive oil per serving
A drizzle of toasted sesame oil per serving
A drizzle of chile oil per serving
A drizzle of herb-infused oil per serving
A small handful of croutons per serving
1 Tbs. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano per serving
Don’t have at least four hours to soak beans? You can quick-soak them. In a saucepan, add enough cold water to cover the beans by 2 inches, bring quickly to a boil, remove from the heat, and let soak for one hour. The results tend to be less consistent than those you’d get from a cold-water soak, but it’s a good trick in a pinch.
Substituting canned beans
If you don’t have time to soak and cook the beans, you can use canned beans, though the flavor of your soup won’t be as rich. You’ll need two 15-ounce cans to make the 3 cups cooked beans needed (you may have leftover beans). Rinse and drain before using.