Bean There … Working with Dried Beans
A pantry full of multicolored dried beans is beautiful and comforting. There, lying in wait for years if necessary, are satisfying, nutritious stores of food perfect for any season. They're a culinary security blanket at only pennies per serving.
Beans are an excellent source of protein and, combined with proper grains or “farinaceous” edibles, complete all the essential amino acids your body needs. They're also low in fat.
Years after buying them and socking them away in the cabinet, they may still be perfectly good to eat, but don't assume they last forever. Beans actually do grow stale after a time. Signs of this are extremely little water absorption when soaking them, or very long cooking times required to make them tender. Mostly, this is due to the gradual loss of the beans' minuscule water content as they age. Fresh dried beans cook much faster than older ones, and have an earthy flavor, not a dirty one.
To soak … or not to soak? That is the question. It is up to you whether 'tis wiser to suffer the long cooking time required of unsoaked beans in order to keep them whole and shapely, or to submerge them for convenience, cutting their required boil by as much as an hour. Some chefs soak beans as a matter of course, submerging them in enough water to cover them by two inches overnight, and discarding that soaking water before cooking. While the beans cook more quickly than nonsoakers, certain types tend to fall apart, or burst their skins during cooking this way (lima beans are the most egregious example).
Whether or not you soak your beans, it is always important to wash them thoroughly and check them visually for impurities. Small stones are tumbled with beans to remove shells and burnish the beans' surface. Occasionally, tiny remnants of these stones remain in the finished, bagged product, and must be removed by the chef's hand, lest a diner chomp down on one and crack a tooth. That can really ruin a meal.
Finally, cooked beans are very perishable. Cook and refrigerate them as quickly as possible. They keep in the refrigerator for about one week, but it's a good idea to give them the nose test any time. When spoiled, they give off an odor that's as close to spoilt meat as most vegetarians will ever encounter. One way of ensuring longer shelf life for cooked beans is to cook them in salted water, which acts as a natural preservative. Just remember that the salt concentrates in the beans as water evaporates, so more water should be added along the way if the beans require a long cook. Figure one teaspoon of salt to one pound of beans cooked in two and a half quarts of water.