Spilling the beans on beans

Do you find beans challenging to digest? Many people do, and it’s usually because the beans aren’t adequately prepared. Beans, peas, and lentils need to soak before cooking, and the soaking times vary from about half an hour to about two days. Not only that, but beans generally need two separate rounds of cooking. Have you heard that beans have lectins, and that lectins are evil? The truth is a bit more complicated than that, but the preparation methods described below will remove most of the lectins. A recent study compared no-soak techniques to standard soaking techniques and found that there was no significant difference in digestibility, while the unsoaked cooked beans had far more flavor. The soaking technique examined in the study was far shorter than what I recommend, and this is probably why it didn’t help much with digestion. As for flavor, read on! Once you jazz up your beans with some spices, oil, and seaweed or sea salt, they should be quite flavorful.

Peas, lentils, and mung beans require the least prep. Sort them to make sure there are no pebbles or other undesirable things in your batch and then pour on a bit more than enough water to cover then; while they soak, they absorb some of the water, and your goal is to have more soaking water than the pulses can absorb. After half an hour, you’re ready to strain them and toss the extra water, or give it to some of your plants.

Next, put them into your pot, pour on water, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a tad and let them simmer for about an hour. Stick in a fork and taste. If you approve of the texture, you’re ready to strain them if broth wasn’t part of your culinary plans, and add whatever other ingredients you choose. You should add coconut oil, ghee, or some other saturated oil to enhance absorption, and / or serve them with avocado. Toss in a bit of local seaweed or sea salt and whatever spices your palate is craving, and voilà! Your beans, peas, or lentils are ready.

Of course, we can improve on this. While your lentils, peas, or mung beans are soaking, you can dice some ginger, garlic, perhaps cayenne, and onions, and put that into your pot to sauté with olive oil and other herbs and spices; I recommend nigella sativa, coriander, cumin, and cardamom. Then, you may add your strained pulses and sauté them with the onions and spices for a minute or two before adding the water. Next, add your salt. If you want, you can include some burdock or dandelion root as well. Part way through cooking, throw in some nettle, either dried or fresh. If available, add other greens as well. At the very end, you can perk up both the nutritional profile and the flavor by adding some rose hip powder.

Adzuki beans are the next easiest beans to prepare. Sort and then soak them for an hour or two before tossing the soaking water, putting the strained beans into a pot with fresh water, and bringing to a boil. Strain, discard the water, replace the beans in the pot, add fresh water, and bring to a boil once again. Turn the heat down a notch and simmer for about an hour or until the beans are coming apart. While it’s cooking, add some seaweed, such as digitata kelp, the North Atlantic equivalent of kombu. Another way to test for readiness is to see whether you can mash the bean between two fingers. Add the saturated fat of your choice and use as desired. I like to mash adzuki beans and combine with garlic and other spices, miso, and honey for a bean paste to spread on crackers or use as a dip for crudité and taco chips. Sometimes we use adzuki as the basis for a soup. If we’re making a soup, I often toss burdock and / or dandelion in to the pot while the beans are simmering. I may sauté onions and vegetables separately and then combine them with the beans and broth, or I may take the lazier but more efficient route of simmering them along with the beans. I often add greens about five minutes before turning off the flame.

Black beans and great northern beans require a bit more preparation. They need to soak for at least five hours and preferably overnight. Strain the beans and discard the soaking water (or give it to your plants. Put the beans into a pot with fresh water and bring to a boil. Boil hard for two or three minutes and then strain the beans once more. Toss out this water, too. (Yes, you could use it for aqua fava… but should you? Let your stomach and guts decide.)

Now, throw the beans back into the pot again and add more water. A lot more, because they’re going to cook for a long time. Bring the water to a boil yet again and turn down to a simmer. Add some digitata kelp or other local seaweed. If you’re making soup or a stew, chop up all the other ingredients while the beans are cooking. I like to include onions, ginger, copious greens, and sometimes hot pepper and / or sweet potatoes or beets. My daughter swears by celery. Many people include tomatoes. Nigella sativa, cumin, and coriander are lovely additions, as are garlic and paprika. You can add them all to the pot directly, sauté them all separately before adding, or sauté the vegetables and add the herbs directly. You’ll probably still want at least a little sea salt, and you’ll certainly want to add some saturated fat; I usually add coconut oil. I like to incorporate some nutritional medicinal herbs as well, such as nettle and rose hips; they raise the nutritional profile considerably and also enliven the taste. Nettle adds a very subtle saltiness and a less subtle vegetal flavor. In season, you can forage for it and use it fresh, but the rest of the year you can get in in bulk dried, either cut and sifted or powdered. Experiment with the different forms to see what you like best. Rose hips add a hint of sour, similar to vinegar or lemon juice; both nettle and rose hips brighten the overall flavor of the soup or stew. I prefer my rose hips powdered. Sometimes I add some linden leaves, often powdered, for a slightly creamier or gumbo texture combined with a calming influence, strengthening of the heart and the nervous system, aid for the throat, and a boost for the immune system. Astragalus powder thickens the broth a tad, perks up your immune system, and helps to protect you and your dinner guests from Lyme. While you’re adding all of your yummy herbs and veggies, keep simmering the beans. By the end, they should start to disintegrate. When the beans have all disintegrated, or when they’ve passed the finger mushing test, they’re ready. Usually they need to cook for about two hours. After that, you may want to add a garnish, such as cilantro, unless you’re in the “cilantro tastes like soap” club, in which case try lovage.

Pintos need to soak for longer. Ten hours would be the absolute minimum, but really, twenty four would be optimal. In the summer, you may need to change the water in the middle of the soak. Once the soaking is complete, proceed as for black and great northern beans, changing the water after soaking and again shortly after it reaches a boil. (If you let the first boil continue too long, the broth will be significantly less flavorful.)

Kidney beans and garbanzos require still more extensive preparation. They need to soak for 48 hours! In the summer, that means changing the water a few times before you’re done. I usually change it in the morning and evening. If it’s really hot, keep it in the refrigerator while soaking, but still change the water a couple of times. For garbanzos, it’s relatively easy to remove the hulls as part of your soaking procedure, and this will help remove the phytic acid and trypsin inhibitor activity, so it’s a good idea. Once you complete the marathon soaking session, proceed as for black and great northern beans.

Soybeans become most digestible when fermented. While fresh edamame is not a fermented product, tempeh, natto, and miso are all fermented and both tempeh and miso are readily available; you may have to head to a Japanese specialty store to find natto. Tofu is not fermented, but if you marinate it for a couple of hours in fermented tamari, then it will start to ferment. For more fermentation, leave it on the counter in the tamari overnight. Better still, you can make a soft tofu cheese, tofuru, by putting the tofu with tamari, a little wine, and the spices of your choice into a crock pot on the “warm” setting and leaving it overnight; instead of the crockpot, you can put it into your oven with the over turned off while you use your stove, and then leave it overnight. The best way to become comfortable with fermenting is to experiment.

Soy milk is not a fermented product. You can ferment it by leaving it in a warm place for 12-72 hours, preferably with some sea salt. You’ll probably get a soy kefir. Experiment a little; you may like it better with a pinch of vanilla, or perhaps with some ginger, or maybe both.

What about canned beans? Canned beans and inadequate soak times are undoubtedly the source of the bad reputation beans have, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely. They shorten the cooking process considerably, but not entirely. The canning substitutes for the soaking and the first boil. Strain the canned beans and proceed according to the instructions here for the second boil. Even if they’re adzuki beans or lentils, strain them and boil some more. Your body will thank you.

What if you’ve been cooking beans merrily for decades with shorter soaking times and only one boil? If you and those you feed feel fine after eating them, that’s fantastic. Eating beans regularly over time trains your system to handle them better than you might otherwise. If anyone among you has been nurturing upset stomachs, however, or has low energy or other symptoms suggesting you’re not getting the full nutritional value from your food, then give these methods a try.

What if you’ve given up on beans entirely? If you’re happy avoiding them, feel free to continue. If, however, you’d like to add them back to your diet, these suggestions should make that possible.

What about lectins? Are they really evil? Not exactly. Beans do indeed have lectins and, depending on the bean, may also have protease inhibitors; both lectins and protease inhibitors interfere with protein digestion and absorption. Beans also have phytic acid, which binds minerals and prevent their absorption. Adequate cooking removes lectins and the inhibitors. Soaking reduces phytic acid and saponins, but not lectins; cooking and straining further reduces saponins.

Lectins are actually not only anti-nutritious but also anti-inflammatory, anticancerous, and immunomodulant. In other words, they help prevent cancer, prevent and lessen inflammation, and promote optimal immune function. Fortunately, while cooking removes them, it does not remove them entirely, so by cooking your beans adequately, you reap the benefits of the lectins while still absorbing the wonderful nutrition that beans, lentils, and peas provide.

Do you want to review a bunch of scientific articles on how soaking and cooking remove the antinutritional factors from pulses so as to allow you to absorb the nutritional oomph of your beans and lentils? Here’s a short bibliography:



Admassu, Emire Shimelis, and Sudip Kumar Rakshit, “Effect of processing on antinutrients and in vitro protein digestibility of kidney bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) varieties grown in East Africa,” in Food Chemistry, Volume 103, Issue 1, 2007, Pages 161-172, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2006.08.005

Concepcion, Vidal-Valverde, Juana Frias, Isabel Estrella, Maria J. Gorospe, Raquel Ruiz, and Jim Bacon, “Effect of processing on some antinutritional factors of lentils,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 1994 42 (10), 2291-2295, DOI: 10.1021/jf00046a039

D’Adamo, Christopher R, PhD; Sahin, Azize, MD., “Soy Foods and Supplementation: A Review of Commonly Perceived Health Benefits and Risks,” in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Supplement 1; Aliso Viejo Vol. 20, (Winter 2014): 39-51, https://search.proquest.com/openview/6deee9a78c94b33cac0f7bff4566c732/1
Embaby, H.ES. Food Sci Biotechnol (2010) 19: 1055. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10068-010-0148-1

Hassan, Sherif M. (2013). Soybean, Nutrition and Health, Soybean – Bio-Active Compounds, Prof. Hany El-Shemy (Ed.), InTech, DOI: 10.5772/54545. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/soybean-bio-active-compounds/soybean-nutrition-and-health

Messina, Virginia, “Nutritional and health benefits of dried beans,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/100/Supplement_1/437S.short

Montet, D. (Ed.), Ray, R. (Ed.). (2017). Fermented Foods, Part II. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Muramoto, Koji, “Lectins as Bioactive Proteins in Foods and Feeds,” Food Science and Technology Research, Vol. 23 (2017) No.4, p. 487-494, http://doi.org/10.3136/fstr.23.487

Reddy, N.R. and M.D.Pierson, “Reduction in antinutritional and toxic components in plant foods by fermentation, Food Research International, Volume 27, Issue 3, 1994, Pages 281-290, https://doi.org/10.1016/09639969(94)90096-5

Sharma, Alka and Salil Sehgal, “Effect of processing and cooking on the antinutritional factors of faba bean (Vicia faba),” https://doi.org/10.1016/0308-8146(92)90311-O


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