Beans are an under championed ingredient. Perhaps it's because they're so common and affordable, it’s easy to take them for granted. Or possibly because there are an overwhelming variety that it’s tempting to just simply go for what you know.
This guide is an antidote to any bean woes, so let’s start off with the basics. What is a bean? Beans are a type of pulse, which is to say, the edible seed from a legume. Legumes (and by extension beans) are a wonder crop in many ways, from their ability to resist drought to their strong nutritional profile. They are a top source of plant proteins, as well as rich in vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins and iron.
Beans can be found in one of three ways: fresh, canned, and dried. Each option requires not just different storage and preparation requirements, but ultimately boasts different textures and flavors. Fresh beans are often found seasonally since canned and dried varieties are offered year-round. As a result, they’re a tad niche, so your seller should have ready insight on how to store and prepare them. Canned beans are the great savior of many last-minute meal planners, but the benefit of convenience costs you the ability to control their texture and often, their taste. Dried beans require more preparation and planning, but this effort often pays off. Many dried bean varieties are best when soaked for at least a few hours before they’re cooked, which allows the bean to cook faster, as well as maintain its shape and texture. Another benefit to soaking is that it reduces certain oligosaccharides, or carbohydrates, making them easier to digest and removing some of their “magical” qualities.
When you’re shopping for dried beans, choose those that have smooth skin and are unbroken, two factors that indicate their age and how well they’ve been treated. Store them in airtight jars and out of direct sunlight and aim to eat your dried beans within a year. That said, dried beans don’t go bad, they just simply shrivel up to an impossible degree, which no amount of soaking and simmering can cure. Read on for tailored advice on nine different types of popular beans.
Chickpeas are one of the oldest varieties of beans and to this day, one of the most popular. As a result, many cultures dub them differently—Spain says garbanzo, India says chana, and if you’re in Italy, it’s ceci. The two most common chickpea varieties include kabuli and desi. Kabuli is typically found in the U.S. and is larger, milder in flavor, and is almost always what you get if you buy them in a can. Desi chickpeas are smaller, have rougher skin, and come in a range of colors, including green, speckled, and black. This delicious legume holds up well when canned so if you don’t have it in you to soak dried ones, no sweat. Chickpeas cook up soft and starchy so they go well in curries, like the classic chana masala. On the flipside they roast well too, so they’re an excellent crunchy snack and topping on dishes like cumin cauliflower soup.
Great Northern Beans
Of the four main varieties of white beans, Great Northern beans are the most versatile. They are medium-sized and when cooked, are neither dense nor creamy. They are adequate in the can, but you’ll never steer wrong for starting with dried. You can choose to prepare your dried Great Northern beans using the quick-soak method or the traditional overnight soak, using twice the amount of water as beans. Next, bring them to a boil and reduce the heat, allowing them to cook for an additional 90 minutes. Enjoy them in almost any dish that calls for white beans, from vegan dips to meaty soups and sides.
Kidney beans get their name from their resemblance to kidneys but if organ meats make you squirm, no worries, that’s where their similarities end. Cannellini beans are simply white kidney beans and are popular in Italian kitchens. Kidney beans have a firm skin and fluffy inside, so they readily hold up in meaty dishes like chili, Andouille sausage with rice and beans, and even a veggie burger patty. All beans contain lectins, which are proteins that can be toxic if the beans are not cooked thoroughly. That said, red kidney beans are particularly high in one type of lectin, so take care to prepare them properly. To this end, soak your beans for 24 hours before boiling them on high for at least 20 minutes.
Black beans are rich in protein and contain three kinds of anthocyanins, which are a type of antioxidant that imbue black beans with their color. They come in several varieties, including the black adzuki bean found in Korean cuisine, the black soybean used to make the classic Chinese condiment black bean sauce, and the black turtle bean, which is the most common in the Americas. The black turtle bean becomes especially creamy when cooked, so they’re great for refried beans and soups. Due to their natural creaminess, you can also easily skirt by using the canned stuff.
Lima beans are a source of much contention. Some won’t go near them, some wait until they’re fresh and in season, while still others swoon over them fresh, dried, or frozen. But we contend that just like other beans, they’re perfectly delicious when well prepared. Lima beans come in three sizes: large, small, and dwarf, and generally, the larger the Lima, the starchier and earthier it will taste. You’ll also notice they have several monikers, including sieva beans, Carolina beans, and butter beans if you’re in the American South. Use your lima beans to soak up the flavors in saucy sides and soups, like a classic succotash or ham and lima bean soup.
Pinto beans are medium in size and when dry, they have a speckled beige and brown exterior. Interestingly, they transform in the pot and turn completely brown as they cook. Pinto beans were originally cultivated in Peru before they were spread throughout the Americas. Today, it’s the most popular bean in the United States and is particularly well known as the bean of choice for refried beans and burritos. But this certainly doesn’t limit you, the Turkish also enjoy them in this simple dish of pinto beans, dredged in olive oil. You can also try them in Texas cowboy pinto beans—they’re smoky, sweet, and if you ask us, equally as integral to any cookout as the barbecue. Pinto beans have a mild, nutty flavor and a velvety texture when cooked, so they readily take on the flavors you cook with.
Fava beans are also referred to as faba or broad beans. They are integral to many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, like the popular Egyptian dip ful medammes, or the fennel infused Sicilian soup macco. You can find them fresh when they’re in season, or canned and dried year round. Fresh favas have a lovely green color and grassy flavor, while canned and dried varieties have a nuttier, heartier flavor. Unless the label on your package or can states your fava beans have already been hulled, they will likely each have a skin. You can choose to eat them, but their skins do cause your beans to be tougher and more bitter. To hull them yourself, simply boil your fava beans for 5 minutes before shocking them in cold water—you should be able to pop each skin off with relative ease.
In their unadulterated form, mung beans are small, round, and have a green coat. They can be sprouted and enjoyed in classic Asian dishes like Japanese enoki and shitake soup, hulled and split to stew into curative Indian dishes like kitchari, and even made into powders and pastes for smooth treats like Korean mung bean jellies. Apart from their versatility, they standout nutritionally, delivering high levels of iron, magnesium, and a whole host of B vitamins per serving. You can readily find mung bean sprouts in the store, but if you want to guarantee their freshness and save money, learn how to sprout them using this guide. Whole mung beans benefit from being soaked for at least 4 hours before being cooked for about 40 minutes, while if you’ve got a bag of hulled and split mung beans, you can skip soaking them and expect them to cook up even faster.
Lentils are not technically a bean, but they are a legume so in spirit, beans and lentils share many qualities. Lentils are quite a diverse bunch, ranging in flavor from nutty to peppery in taste, depending on the variety. Commonly found in whole and split forms, lentils also come in a host of colors including red, green, brown, and even black. What’s more, they don’t require soaking—a simple rinse to remove any debris will do. Most varieties will soften up in about 20 minutes, ready to eat in dishes like shahi daal or lentil pâté. To serve them in a salad, cook them only until they’re al dente.
Also referred to as black-eyed beans or goat peas, black-eyed peas are small in size and white in color, save for a black blotch at their center. Despite their confusing name, black-eyed peas do in fact taste quite bean like, which is to say, starchy and earthy. To prepare them, soak them overnight and simmer them for 45 minutes. Then you’ll be free to dress them up in dishes like the Hoppin’ John, a celebrated food of the American South, or in Texas caviar, a delicious vegan side.