In the summer, I’m always looking for foods that are filling but not hot and not heavy, and cool bean salads fit the bill nicely. After cooking the beans and letting them cool in their broth, I strain them and toss them with all kinds of summertime ingredients: basil and tomatoes from my garden; corn and chiles from the farmers’ market; cooling yogurt and crunchy cucumbers from the fridge. The salads I make taste vibrant and light, but they have a meaty, substantial bite. I like these salads for a light lunch along with some bread—crusty French or Italian with the white bean salad, warmed tortillas with the black beans, and pita or naan with the chickpea salad.
Start with dried beans for the best flavor and texture
Look, you could easily make these salads by opening a can or two of beans and mixing them with the seasonings and dressings in the recipes. I’ll even give you a hint: 1 cup dried beans gives you 2-1/2 to 3 cups cooked beans. But with the exception of chickpeas, which actually take well to canning, most beans suffer, becoming quite mushy, when canned.
When you use canned beans, you also miss a chance to add extra flavor to your salads. Including a few aromatic vegetables and seasonings in the pot when cooking dried beans is an opportunity to add depth and character to the final dish. If you do use canned beans, try a few brands to see which you like best; I’ve been most impressed by the organic ones. Just remember to always rinse canned beans before using.
Cook dried beans a day ahead for best results. Most beans improve in flavor and texture when cooked a day in advance. If you plan to hold them for a day or so, refrigerate the beans once they’ve cooled. If kept at room temperature for too long, beans can sour and ferment.
To soak or not to soak?
Soaking dried beans before cooking has two benefits: most soaked beans cook faster—up to an hour less. And if the soaking water is poured off, the beans will be easier to digest because you’re leaching out and pouring off the oligosaccharides that cause gas.
If you are not like me and are good at planning ahead, by all means cover the beans in cold water and soak them for as little as four hours or as long as eight (the overnight in the direction “soak the beans overnight”). Drain and rinse the beans before cooking them.
There’s also a quick-soaking method. Cover the beans with water and bring them to a boil. Boil for a few minutes and then let them soak for an hour off the heat, drain, and then add fresh water and continue cooking. If you’re concerned about the digestibility of beans—they affect some people more than others—then you may want to try quick-soaking. But if you think a quick soak will save you time during cooking, then don’t bother. By the time you’ve boiled and soaked the beans, you could have cooked them that extra hour already.
If you decide to do a quick soak, here’s a way to save some time. After your beans have soaked for almost the full hour, bring a teakettle full of water to a boil. After draining off the soaking water, cover the beans with the hot water to give you a head start on the cooking.
The fresher the bean, the faster it will cook. Many people believe dried beans last forever. In fact, very old beans and those that have been stored in hot, humid conditions might never soften even after hours of cooking. Yet it’s almost impossible to tell the age of a dried bean. If you have a good whole-foods market that goes through beans quickly, you’d do well to buy them there. Boutique and heirloom beans are available by mail from small growers. They’re inevitably fresher than supermarket beans, and they rarely need soaking to cook in a reasonable amount of time.
A pressure cooker is another option. Pressure cookers can cook beans quickly and beautifully, giving them an almost silken quality. Follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully because debris such as floating bean skins can clog the apparatus. Also, using a pressure cooker makes it hard to gauge when the beans are done. For bean salads, where you want the beans to be tender yet whole, err on the side of undercooking in the pressure cooker and then finish cooking conventionally if need be.
What can toughen the bean: the myths and the facts
Food scientist Shirley Corriher, a Fine Cooking contributing editor, recently wrote about bean cookery for the magazine. In the article, she not only rejects the long and widely held belief that salt added at the beginning of cooking can toughen beans, but she also suggests the opposite is true, that salting beans early on—even during soaking—will make them more tender. Since I’m a believer in the flavor benefits of salt, I’m all in favor of her advice. I’ve tried it, and it’s true.
Avoid adding tomatoes or other acidic ingredients during cooking. Tomato sauce, wine, lemon juice, and vinegar prevent the starch on the inside of the bean from swelling and becoming tender. While I add many of these ingredients to my bean salads, they don’t go in until the beans are fully cooked and soft.
And speaking of acidic ingredients: I don’t dress my cooked beans until the day I serve the salad. Though the beans need some time to absorb the flavor from the dressing, too much time in contact with the acidic ingredients—and this includes yogurt—will make the beans mushy.
Brighten beans with vibrant flavors
Beans are eaten around the world with all kinds of flavorings and accompaniments. That broad thought was my guide as I developed these robustly flavored salads. Black beans, for example, seemed well-suited to a Mexican style salad, while the flavors of the Mediterranean—haricots verts, anchovies, basil, thyme, and fruity olive oil—enhance the creamy white beans. I chose Indian flavors—cumin, ginger, yogurt, cilantro—for the chickpea salad because chickpeas are used heavily in Indian cooking. I easily could have gone a Middle Eastern route, too—garlic, parsley, olive oil, and tangy feta, for example.
This brings me to my final thought, for the moment anyway, about summertime and beans: consider experimenting with a pot of cooked beans to create your own cool salads. One way to start is to substitute cooked beans for pasta in your favorite pasta salads. Like pasta, beans are fairly neutral in flavor and will take on the flavor of the dressing and the other ingredients in the salad. Or increase the amount of dressing for your favorite green or composed salad to accommodate a smattering of cooked beans; I guarantee you’ll find the dish more satisfying.