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21st century pulse: cooking from scratch

Categories: Expert guidance

To celebrate the International Year of Pulses, author and UN pulse ambassador Jenny Chandler explores these nutritional powerhouses and shares her tips on how best to prepare them. This month: cooking pulses from scratch

One of the miracles about pulses is that they can be dried and stored (ideally for months rather than years, or they can take an age to cook) until you’re ready to eat them.

The idea of soaking and cooking beans seems to be filled with foreboding for some but there are very few rules to follow. I remember my father’s cringingly embarrassing home leaver’s lecture: the dangers of bad boys, drugs and toxic red beans in chilli con carne were all covered in the same breath. I have to admit that I never did much more than open a can of baked beans as a student in any case.

You can, of course, pick up a tin or a jar of very acceptable cooked pulses pretty much anywhere which makes them incredibly convenient, but if you really are a legume enthusiast you will often find that they are tastier and most definitely cheaper if you start cooking from scratch.

To soak or not to soak? It’s perfectly possible to cook beans without soaking them at all; Mexicans who consume their frijoles by the tonne just throw them straight into the pot. However, soaking does cut down the cooking time, seems to give creamier results and is reputed to reduce flatulence, too.

Soaking your legumes takes no more than a little planning, once you’ve covered them with plenty of cold water you can get on with your life. I tend to leave them overnight but many beans don’t require anything like that long (although don’t worry, you can’t over soak them).

In general, the smaller the pulse the less time it takes to soak, but if you’re in any doubt here are some guide times:

No soak:
Split lentils

Optional soak:
Lentils, split peas, mung beans (30 mins)

Short soak:
Black-eyed peas, aduki beans (two hours)

Long soak:
Chickpeas, fava beans, soya beans (eight hours)

Drain away the soaking water, pour the pulses into a large pan and cover them by 3cm of cold water. Bring the pulses up to the boil for 5 mins (10 mins for red kidney beans in order to deactivate dangerous toxins) and skim away any scummy froth. Turn the heat down and simmer until tender (the water may require topping up from time to time).

Seasoning is best added once the beans are cooked—it’s said to toughen the skins and in any case, it makes it so much easier to gauge.

How do you know if they’re cooked? A cooked bean should be intact but the flesh should collapse into a creamy pulp when you squash it in your fingers, any slightly granular texture and it needs more cooking.

Pulses are fabulous for the budget conscious cook; you just need to get into the habit of boiling up a decent sized pot of beans and using them over a number of days in various different recipes, or even bunging a few in the freezer. You can throw your cooked legumes into any soups or stews to make them go that little bit further, or give them centre-stage in any number of dishes.

Click here for Jenny’s basic braised beans with black olives & lemon recipe