Health Encyclopedia

Beans: Nutritious and Delicious

It’s not enough to hear that beans are good for you. They certainly are nutritious—packed with protein, good carbohydrates, and micronutrients such as fiber and folate. But that doesn’t tell you how tasty they can be.

Red beans, white beans, pinto beans, black beans—legumes of many shapes and sizes play prominent roles in ancient and modern cuisine all over the world. Peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and soybeans are on the list, too. Imagine the possibilities that go way beyond just opening a can.

Lots of versatility

Dried beans are easy to cook and extremely versatile. They can be the basis for a side dish, an entrée, or a snack.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 suggests you eat several cups of beans a week and count them in both the vegetable group (think fiber) and the meat, fish, and poultry group (for protein).

Dried beans are inexpensive, nearly fat-free (exception: soybeans), and almost sodium-free. Compare that with canned beans, which come with added salt and often with other ingredients that add fat and sugar. All beans are similar in nutritional makeup, so pick the size and color you like. You can use a variety of beans to mix colors and textures.

A cup of black beans has 25 grams of fiber, close to a recommended daily level. It's best to start with small portions, especially if you haven’t been including much fiber in your diet. A lot of beans at one time could cause intestinal discomfort. Oligosaccharides, sugars in beans, cause flatulence in some people. Over-the-counter digestive aids can help.

Soups are a good way to get the benefits of beans. Add some to vegetable soup and you’ve got a head start on minestrone.

A hill of beans

  • Shipshape shopping. Buy dried beans at a store that sells a lot of them. If the bag on the market shelf looks dusty, chances are it’s been there a while. Old beans and beans that have been stored in high heat and humidity will take longer to cook than newer ones.

  • Measure for measure. A 1-pound bag of dried beans is about 2-1/2 cups. One cup of dried beans will yield about 3 cups of cooked beans.

  • Be picky. Dried beans are machine-sorted. Sometimes little pebbles sneak in, so look at the beans in your colander before rinsing to make sure you’re putting only beans in your pot.

  • To soak or not to soak. It may shorten cooking time for some beans and cut some of the properties that cause flatulence. For a quick soak, cover beans with water and bring to a boil. Let cook for two minutes and turn off heat. Let sit for an hour. Drain, rinse, and add fresh water to cover, then cook the beans.

  • All in the timing. Cooking time will vary from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the type of bean and how long it's been since the beans were picked and dried. If your beans are hard, cook them longer. If they look a little mushy, make dips or puréed bean soups.

  • Efficiency expert. Cook beans for more than one meal. Home-cooked beans in their own liquid freeze well in quantities that you can easily use in recipes. Tip: freeze in a 1-cup container for bean dip, a 2-cup container for red beans and rice, or a 3-cup container for soup.

  • Canned comment. If you choose to use canned beans, you can reduce the sodium content by rinsing them.