The Secret Life of Beans

One of the best ways to improve culinary skill is to study just one ingredient or cooking method, trying to really understand how it works and how it can be integrated into disparate cuisines. I love doing this, despite the fact that it tends to lead toward me making all of the possible dishes that include, for example, lemons – and then having to eat them afterwards.

Your sacrifice shall not be in vain, my friends!

Recently, while casting about for a new subject, I decided that I didn’t know as much about beans as I wanted to. The timing was perfect – beans are considered a good luck food for New Year’s celebrations in a variety of cultures, representing money and prosperity (think about what “bean counters” are counting).

What is a bean, anyway? What makes it different than, say, peas or coffee? Is a green bean a bean? Are they really the musical fruit?

Anything that is not a legume – a plant in the family Fabaceae – is not a bean. Coffee, chocolate, and vanilla technically don’t create beans, though we do use this word for their products. Legumes – the family of plants that include peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, and the like – is typically divided into fresh beans, which don’t really have a specific name and are treated like vegetables, and “pulses”, which are legumes harvested specifically for their dried seed. Right now I’m mostly focusing on pulses, like black beans, lima beans, lentils, and so on. Since we’re mincing words, perhaps we should mention that there was once no such thing as a “pea”.1 You can use that trivia at your next party: it’s incredibly useful for killing those pesky annoying conversations and gaining looks of what I can only assume are awe.

And yes, all legumes are, botanically, fruit. The reason that they can be “musical” is that they are high in oligosaccharides – sugar polymer chains, like plastic molecules made from sugar. Humans aren’t built with the enzymes to break these down, but we do have bacteria in our gut which are more than happy to do this for us. The bacteria digest the enzymes and, as a by-product, give us gas.

Luckily, there are some ways to circumvent the problem. You can soak your dried beans either overnight, or by boiling them for a short time, and then letting them rest for an hour or so, in either case discarding the soaking water. (This is also one of the reasons that you drain and rinse canned beans) This method will leach out most of the water-soluble oligosaccharides, but also most of the water-soluble vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients. Well, that’s a bummer. The other option is to cook the beans for a prolonged period of time, during which the oligosaccharides will eventually break down into digestible single sugars. The idea with this method is to cook the beans in just enough water for them to absorb, with only as much liquid left over as you need for the appropriate texture for your dish.

Ever wonder why certain flavors and spices always seem to tag along with beans? Certain herbs and spices have ogliosaccharide-combatting properties, such as bay leaves, cumin, kombu and epazote. I find it fascinating how certain ingredients tend to be paired not only for taste but also for functionality.

Sorry, Prancer, Joe forgot to add the bay leaf again.

Beans are typically thought of as a great storage food – they dry and reconstitute well compared to other foods, which gives them the reputation of a post-apocalypic canned staple, whether they deserve it or not. While investigating beans, I discovered that there are a number of people who are devoting their lives to elevating them to a worthy food in their own right. A combination of articles, recipes and curiosity led me to expertise of Steve Sando and Michelle Ajamian.

I had the chance to hear Steve and Michelle speak at the second annual National Heirloom Expo back in September. Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, is charismatic, people-curious and bean-obsessed. Sando shared tales of growing heirloom beans himself as well as building bean-inspired relationships with farmers in Oaxaca, Yucatan, Vera Cruz, and Huasteca, Mexico. He talked at length about his encounters2 related to the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project, which is designed to breathe a renewed spirit into local food traditions and the diversity of native crops despite obstacles created by international trade policies and the distinctly un-sexy reputation of commodity beans.

Michelle Ajamian is the founder of the Appalachian Staple Food Collective, which focuses on a field-to-table approach to agriculture. Michelle began ASFC after noting that people in Athens County, Ohio were delighted to bring home interesting varieties of produce from the farmer’s markets, but they still had to trek to a more conventional location to purchase grains and beans. She discovered that the problem was more complex than lack of farmer interest: in order to move away from conventional growing, farmers faced a major obstacle in processing their harvest. Beans and grains require a grain mill to process and dry the crop that is not necessary when selling fresh food, but there were no local mills interested in supporting a small-scale heirloom operation. That’s when the ASFC refocused from finding farmers willing to grow beans to building Shagbark Seed & Mill.3 I loved hearing about the development of this entire concept. Sometimes we get really focused on solving the clearest problem, only to find that we’re asking the wrong questions.

In addition to gaining a deeper understanding and respect for heirloom beans I also learned why there are such varied cooking times between one bean and the next. If you’ve ever cooked dried beans there are varying methods described in recipes. One says to soak overnight and then cook for 6 hours, another suggests no soaking, and cooking for 3 hours. What is this all about? Michelle Ajamian pointed out that most conventional grocery stores sell dried beans that have potentially been in storage for years. Years! As in up to a decade! In that case, it’s no wonder that those beans do cook, but need a coaxing to revive from their hibernation. Rancho Gordo and the Shagbark Seed & Mill sell only the most recent crop of beans which cook faster and retain more of their nutrient content.

These beans... not so fresh. Simmer for 3 months, 2 weeks.

After learning all about the humble bean, I decided to acquire a couple of varieties from Rancho Gordo for my culinary experiments. Rancho Gordo offers nearly 30 varieties (!!) of heirloom beans, and I had been looking for an excuse to get my hands on some for my kitchen experiments. It was a tough decision to make, but we finally selected garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas – the main ingredient for hummus – and Sangre de Toro red beans. I’ve since been working on menus featuring the perfect way to use each of them, to honor their heritage and allow them to be the focus of a meal.

© Knife & Fork Project

Fresh Garbanzo beans.

© Knife & Fork Project

Simmering in veggie broth.

© Knife & Fork Project

Awesome hummus.

© Knife & Fork Project

Chickpea avocado sandwich with homemade bread and garden lettuce.

Although we think of beans as those things tucked in the corner of the pantry and stored indefinitely, buying good beans, just as in all food, really does make a difference in the taste. Who knows what happens to their lucky properties? Could it be possible that, in modern times, eating beans at the New Year is ineffective because our beans are old and dry? Something to think about at your next chili cook-off – where, depending on your beans and your oligosaccharide-slaying skills – your good or bad luck may be tested to the limit.


  1. There was originally no such thing as a “pea”. Peas were originally called “pease”, which comes from the latin “pisum”. You may remember the nursery rhyme about “pease porridge hot” – that is actually the correct ye-olde name of pea. Each little ball was a “pease”. However, over time, people retrofitted the word “pease” to “peas”, assumed it was plural, and invented the word “pea” to refer to just one tiny sphere of the pease pod.
  2. One of my favorite stories involved gaining the trust of a reluctant Mexican farmer, who was understandably suspicious of this American man approaching him to distribute his beans as an upscale product. Originally disinclined to participate, the farmer, his family, and ranch hands joined Steve and his entourage for a large meal during the warm Mexican midday. The farmer finally gave Sando his seal of approval after having been present when Steve awoke to the sound of his own snoring – the reasoning being that Sando must have a clean conscience to fall asleep so easily amongst strangers.
  3. The Appalachian Staple Food Collective are working toward building mills in each quadrant of Ohio. Without these support systems in place, it is much more difficult to encourage farmers to move away from the large crops of a single gene pool to diverse heirloom varieties. The current facility serves a 150-mile radius and houses all of the necessary equipment to process the grains and beans once they move out of the field, including a seed cleaner, a gravity table, and a de-huller. 

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