Learn All About Bean Science for Healthy Meals

Classic white bean soup

The Spruce

Beans are legumes! Legumes are plants that produce pods; the beans are the 'seeds' inside the pods. Beans are delicious and nutritious. In fact, the FDA Food Pyramid recommends that American diets should be heavy on beans and legumes. Together with whole grains, beans contribute different amino acids so a combination of beans and grains provide complete protein for nutrition.

different types of beans
Illustration: Ashley Deleon Nicole. © The Spruce, 2019

Dried beans can be soaked overnight before cooking to reduce a type of indigestible complex sugar that causes gas. Make sure to discard the soaking liquid and cook the beans in fresh water if you use this method. This method may or may not work for you - only trial and error will prove it. Beano is a commercial product that is the enzyme that breaks down the sugars. If you eat a few drops of "Beano" while you are eating beans, you won't have any trouble. As with many vegetables, the more beans you eat, the more your body will become adapted to the foods, and gas may reduce in time. You can also 'quick soak' dried beans; bring them to a boil, cook for 1 minute, then cover and let stand. Cook's Illustrated found that the 'quick cook' method tends to result in more split beans. One cup of dried beans yields two cups cooked. You can also cook dried beans in the crockpot for a foolproof method.

As beans cook, the starches in their cells absorb water. The heat and water break down cell structure, causing pectin, or the glue that holds cells together, to become soft and dissolve. That's what makes beans tender. Acid (like tomatoes), salt, and calcium reacts with the bean surface, preventing water from entering the bean and cooking the starch. Boston baked beans can be cooked for hours and still retain their shape because of the acidic sauce that surrounds them. So add salty, acidic, and dairy ingredients at the end of cooking time in bean dishes. Or you can use canned beans, rinsed and drained, in dishes that use tomatoes and other acidic ingredients.

There are many different types of beans; here's a brief overview.

  • Anasazi Beans: These multicolored brown, black and white beans are bit sweeter than pinto beans and take less time to cook. They are considered an "heirloom bean", one with origins with native Americans in the four corners region of the U.S.
  • Black Beans: These beans are also called turtle beans. They are black on the outside, but a creamy color inside. Sort through the beans before cooking to remove any small pebbles or dirt. Then wash them well and cook in a lot of boiling water until tender.
  • Black Eyed Peas: These peas are shaped like kidney beans; their white color is punctured by a black dot. Hoppin' John is made with these peas. It's considered good luck to eat black eyed peas on New Year's Day. I used to be able to find fresh black eyed peas; they make a wonderful cold salad with peppers and a mustardy dressing.
  • Butter Beans: Also called fava beans, this bean is used in minestrone and Italian cooking. The texture is very smooth and the beans have a mild flavor.
  • Cannellini Beans: These creamy white beans are very common in Italian cooking. Their texture is smooth and velvety. You can use dried or canned beans in recipes.
  • Garbanzo Beans: Also called chickpeas, these beans form the basis of Hummus, a Middle Eastern Spread. Available dried or canned, these beans are excellent in chili and cold salads.
  • Kidney Beans: Chili wouldn't be chili without kidney beans! These beans can be light pink to dark red; the color isn't an indication of quality. I prefer using canned kidney beans because I like the texture.
  • Lentils: There are many different varieties of lentils. Puy is a blue-green slate colored legume. Split lentils are called dal, used in Indian cooking. Green lentils take longer to cook than other lentils. Brown lentils are the most common; they can become mushy if overcooked.
  • Lima Beans: The much-maligned lima bean is smooth and velvety, with a nutty flavor. They are harder to digest than other beans, which may be part of their unpopularity. However, I love them!
  • Navy Beans: Senate Bean Soup is made with navy beans. They're also called Boston Beans. They are small, white and round, with a mild flavor.
  • Pinto Beans: Light brown with darker brown streaks. They are used to make Refried Beans, which are cooked beans that have been mashed and cooked in oil until smooth and creamy.