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Need help- cooking beans with more than just water?

Hello all, I was hoping for suggestions on getting more flavor out of dried beans (it's going to be black beans in this particular case, though I suppose this could apply to any type of bean).

I am trying to make vegan & vegetarian bean dishes, and every recipe I've seen calls for cooking beans in water until tender, then using those beans in whatever your final dish is. However, let's say I'm making a black bean burger. I'd love to cook the beans in something more than just water, so that the beans themselves will be infused with more flavor. Most of the dishes I'd be making with beans are not going to be long-simmered, so it's not like there's a lot of flavor developing there.

I've seen suggestions to add a ham hock to the water, but that won't work for me here. I've also seen suggestions to add acids or salt late in the cooking process, but I need more clarification on that...Anyone have good recipes or suggestions they'd be willing to share? Can I just throw some onions and garlic into the water with the beans?

Thanks much...

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  1. you can add any kind of aromatic (in fact you should) and you can add salt at any point in the cooking process.

    Do not add acidic foods, however (like a can of tomatoes) -- the acid interferes with the softening process and leaves you with a pan full of bullets that will never, ever boil out.

    2 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      Thanks Sunshine...so would you add onion/celery/carrots/garlic for example? And would you just throw everything together in the water, or should I saute the aromatics before adding the beans and water? Wouldn't the aromatics get all mushy after simmering for 1-2 hours?

      1. re: TBusidan

        I usually just throw everything in the water, but sauteeing them would bring out some of the oil-based flavor profiles. Either way -- beans are very much a "however you want", other than not adding the acid until they're already soft. I usually throw a bay leaf in with all the other stuff, too.

        yes, they get mushy -- but frankly after that much time, they basically just dissolve into the stock.

    2. Salt, yes. Aromatics, yes. Veggie stock, yes. Spices, yes. Acid, not until the end.

      For a smoky flavor, try chipotles or any smoked chiles, or smoked paprika/pimenton.

      2 Replies
      1. re: LauraGrace

        hmmm, awesome idea on the chipotle!

        I'm amazed that in my 5 or 6 vegan cookbooks, not a single one mentions anything like this...they all just say to cook in water...

        1. re: TBusidan

          That is disappointing.

          You might want to supplement your vegan cookbooks by looking at some of the plant-based writing by authors known for cooking, period -- Deborah Madison (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Savory Way), Anna Thomas (Vegetarian Epicure, Love Soup), Alice Waters (Art of Simple Cooking, Chez Panisse Vegetables), Marion Morash (Victory Garden Cookbook). Try the library before investing in any of these, to see which if any of them speak to you.

      2. Ditto what sunshine said. Depending on what my end use is depends on what I add. Usually I dice and brown an onion before I add water. If no onion a whole clove of garlic goes in when the beans go in. For a Tex-Mex flair I'll add a dried chili or two, coriander seeds, cumin and a bay leaf with black beans. For white beans I add rosemary, peppercorns and a bay leaf. A million variations, but I just add whatever sounds like it will go well with the rest of my meal.

        1. You can put more flavor in the beans, but should also consider using beans with more flavor.

          As far as adding flavor, a big "yes" to salting early in the process. The beans will absorb the salty water as they cook, which will dramatically improve their flavor. The notion that salt prevents beans from cooking is an old wives' tale. Ditto with aromatics. Onions, garlic, celery, carrots, mushrooms, you name it. You can cook them along with the beans, or make a veggie stock to use in place of water.

          But what about using more flavorful beans? Most of what's found on the grocery store shelves is commodity stuff. As far as most people are concerned, beans is beans - freshness and flavor don't matter. But recently I've been trying heirloom beans (Rio Zape, Good Mother Stallard, etc.), and they taste great all by themselves. That doesn't stop me from trying to gild the lily, but no matter what else goes in your bean pot or your final recipe, better beans will give you better end results.

          3 Replies
          1. re: alanbarnes

            Thanks Alan, I appreciate the input. I did see some heirloom varieties in Whole Foods (I think they were heirloom, they definitely weren't the run-of-the-mill varieties), but they were way more expensive. As someone who eats very little meat (and therefore relies on lots of beans for protein) I'm trying not to break the bank. Maybe I can find them cheaper at the farmer's markets...definitely something to look into...thanks!

            1. re: TBusidan

              It took me years to start eating heirloom beans for precisely that reason - they cost far more per pound than the commodity stuff. And I haven't seen 'em any cheaper at the farmer's markets, either. Seriously, who would pay $5+ for a pound of beans?

              Me. IMO it's worth it. I rationalize that opinion by comparing the cost of heirloom beans to other foods instead of commodity beans. First, you've got to figure that dry beans soak up about 1.5 times their weight in water during the cooking process. So the cost for cooked beans is about $2 a pound. Which is cheaper than anything in the meat or cheese case, and compares favorably to most fresh veggies.

              I understand that quadrupling or quintupling the price of one of your staple foods can have a big impact on the grocery bill at the end of the month. But it doesn't cost that much to try just one pound of the good stuff. If the budget dictates that they be reserved for special occasions, at least you'll have found a good special-occasion bean!

              ETA: ditto to pikawicca's suggestion for Rancho Gordo. Depending on where you're located, you may be able to buy them locally, if not, mail order is an option. Here's the page with a list of retail outlets: http://ranchogordo.com/html/rg_market...

              1. re: alanbarnes

                Yeah that's a great point. "More expensive" isn't the same thing as "expensive". I'll definitely give it a go and and see if the extra price is worth it for me. But right now I've got something like 4 lbs of black beans in the house lol. Gotta get through these first. :-)

          2. What Alan said. Checkout ranchogordo.com for some fantastic beans.

            1 Reply
            1. re: pikawicca

              Yep, and check out Anasazi beans while you're at it.

            2. I cook like to add coffee or beer to cooking liquid

              1. I have had luck throwing in many different kinds of things while my beans simmer - vegetables and herbs, mainly. But one of my favourite cookbooks (nevermind it is vegan) usually integrates the simmering broth into the main dish. She has a recipe for creamy adzuki beans which are simmered with kombu, onion, cumin, tomato and coconut milk. I always heard not to simmer with acidic ingredients, but it may just take longer than normal and I haven't had much problems other than extra time.

                Recipe: http://rhiw.blogspot.com/2011/01/crea...

                1. Once you get beyond your black beans, give some more love to black eyed peas. They have such a unique taste compared to most beans, and mix well with greens. +whatever on the chipotle or smoked paprika.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: DiveFan

                    Oh, blackeyed peas! So, so yummy. One of my faves.

                  2. Also, cook them in chicken broth, and add a few cloves of crushed garlic. I also add hot sauce (a green habanero i like) to the cooking water.

                    1. I agree about the 2 suggestions for trying Anasazi beans and black-eyed peas. I have successfully cooked black eyed peas with tomatoes, for what its worth.

                      You can buy a pretty good vegetarian broth--Pacific Organic Vegetable Broth. If I couldn't use commercial chicken broth, the Pacific is what I would use. Obviously you can add aromatics and herbs such as Turkish bay leaf to the broth to strengthen the flavor.

                      If you cook beans from scratch, you will have to simmer them a long time to get them done, except for blackeyed peas or lentils. I pressure cook my beans, and I think the product turns out fine. If I want to add beans to a chili or other similar dish, I like to cook them separately and then chill them overnight. They will firm up but still be tender. And, if you chill them in their cooking liquid, they will also be quite flavorful.

                      Have fun cooking beans.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: sueatmo

                        If you soak the beans over night, it only takes an hour or two to get them to tender.

                        (and yes, I know...sometimes remembering to soak the beans can be an issue in itself)

                      2. Shortly after our very amicable split, my now ex-wife came out to what had been our country house to bring our son for the weekend and to stay for dinner. She had gone vegetarian-by-preference at that point, and I was going to serve beans and cornbread. So instead of my usual pork products I chopped onion, celery, carrots and garlic (plenty of garlic!) and sautéed all that in olive oil with a big three-digit pinch of dried thyme, then poured in the soaked beans and water. When she tasted the result, she said, "Well, I guess you just can't do this without meat, but that's okay." Took a lot of talking to convince her there was no animal flesh at all in there, and then of course I had to write out the recipe … and now that it's okay to salt the soaking water this comes out even better. Yes, I still do this, even for me and my fellow carnivores; I save the bacon for the cornbread!

                        1. My black beans are always soup-ready. I start with "instant" vegetable broth: I whiz up a couple carrots, an onion, few cloves of garlic and some celery stalks in a food processor. I saute this in a little oil with cumin and whatever other dried herbs or spices I want before I add the water for the beans. Tasty every time.

                          1. I often use vegetable or mushroom stock for cooking the beans.
                            Ditto to adding sauteed aromatics, such as onions, celery, fennel, garlic, ginger or chilies, at the beginning of cooking.
                            Smoked paprika is a wonderful thing. Just sayin'

                            1. Onions are amazing when added in three additions, first chopped and raw when simmering, second sautéed until golden brown with spices of your choice , and just at the end raw again for a crunchy bite. When adding the sautéed dip a spoon into the beans and add them to the sauté pan so they bubble. Then dump them back into the bean pot. Garlic can be added into this process, but I don't prefer it to get brown so I add it at the very last minute of the sauté .

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: jill kibler

                                It sounds as if you have onions down to a science!

                                I cooked 1 C of Anasazi beans tonight. I added onion slivers, but I sauteed them first in the bacon grease I had fried off some bacon slices. I also did this with green pepper bits. I added smashed and chopped garlic directly into the pot along with one chopped, seeded chipotle. I also added some grated carrot. I added the bacon and the soft onions and pepper, and cooked slow for about an hour. (The beans had been slightly precooked and left to sit for several hours.)

                                My goodness they were good!

                              2. In addition to ellabee's book suggestions, I would also recommend the cookbook Bean by Bean by Crescent Dragonwagon. I am honestly not sure if I will purchase it for my permanent collection but my public library purchased it at my request and it is quite good - especially for providing inspiration.