How to cook with beans and lower your food bills

Time and patience make for bean-cooking mastery

Here’s an example of what puts people off cooking with beans: You’re making a chili, you’ve added plenty of onion, tomatoes, ground beef and spices – it’s looking and smelling fantastic. Hey, why not throw in a handful of those dried beans sitting unused in the pantry for a little fibre?

“They’ll never cook,” says Maynard Kolskog (Cooking ’82), research chef with NAIT’s Centre for Culinary Innovation. “Like, never.”

The results: crunchy chili and a bloated stomach.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

Kolskog knows that beans tend to be the butt of more than a few jokes. He also knows that, with the right approach in the kitchen, they need not be a punchline or the undoing of a good chili. Instead, as a fulsome protein source when properly prepared and paired – and at a fraction of the cost of meat – they’re a tasty way to pare back your grocery bill.

A nice long soak

beans soaking in a glass bowl

Soaking beans, which are part of a family of “superfoods” known as pulses, is essential to success. Otherwise, “it’s really difficult to cook them properly.”

The outside of a bean is made of a tough coat of complex carbohydrates that is not easily softened by conventional cooking, let alone digested by stomachs. Let beans sit in water on the counter overnight, says Kolskog, before adding them to the dish you’re planning.

(Alternatively, you can skip the soak if you use a pressure cooker, Kolskog concedes, and get the same results in about an hour.)

An exercise in slow food

beans cooking in pot

“We’re always taught, don’t overcook your vegetables,” says Kolskog. “So people look at a bean and go, ‘It’s a vegetable – I don’t want to overcook it.’ But that’s probably the best thing you can do. The more you cook them the more nutrients are going to be available, the less gas you’re going to have, and the flavour is so much better.”

Kolskog recommends cooking for at least two hours in most cases, rendering the beans soft if pinched. “Really think about it as slow food,” he says.

Make meringue

Aquafaba, the starchy liquid from canned beans, can be whipped into a stiff foam for making meringues, macarons and other baking. “And then you have the beans as well,” says Kolskog. “When you look at it that way, canned beans are pretty good value.”

If you are considering meringue, chickpea or white kidney bean aquafaba is a good choice, esthetically speaking. “If you have a can of black beans, [the meringue] will be grey.”

Canned beans can be great

Canned beans tend to be slightly more expensive than dried but are nevertheless cheap and nutritious. What’s more, they’re ready to use. “Canned beans are a great convenience product,” says Kolskog. “You just open up the can and drain off the aquafaba.”

(What’s aquafaba? You might not want to pour it down the drain – check out the sidebar.)

Who needs a cookbook?

There are likely as many recipes online for preparing pulses as there are beans in the bag you bought.

“You don’t have to buy yourself a cookbook,” says Kolskog. He recommends a look at the recipe finder on the Canadian section of Western Canada, he adds, is a major producer of many of the pulses you’ll find there.

To get you started, Kolskog also offers a beans and rice recipe below – a food pairing that adds up to the same complete protein profile found in meat.

Practice makes perfect pulses

bean dish

Don’t be surprised if your first few forays into cooking with beans yield results that are no laughing matter. It can take time and patience, says Kolskog. But that patience will be rewarded – and not just with savings at the grocery store checkout.

“Once you master cooking pulses – and a lot of that mastery is just really, really cooking them – there’s so much variety out there,” says Kolskog. “You can have pulses a couple of times a week. They can be soups, side dishes, whole dishes. Every meal can be different.”

Pro tip: Add acids last

Acids such as citrus juices or vinegar are commonly used to flavour bean dishes. But they can also react with the bean’s outer coat, toughening it. “It makes it incredibly hard to … cook the beans properly,” says Kolskog. Instead, add acids shortly before serving.

Recipe: Classic beans and rice

Yields 8 servings

rice and beans

Beans and rice combine to offer a full amino acid profile, says Kolskog, providing all the protein of meat without the high price. Use them to reduce the meat in a dish (such as sausage) or leave the meat out. Here, he offers a dish commonly found in cafés of the southern United States.


  • 1 pound dry kidney beans (or any type of red bean)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon dried sage
  • 1 pound andouille sausage, sliced (optional or substitute Italian sausage or chorizo)
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups long grain white rice


  1. Rinse beans, then soak in a large pot of water overnight.
  2. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic in olive oil for 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Rinse beans and transfer to a large pot with 6 cups of water. Stir cooked vegetables into beans. Season with bay leaves, parsley, thyme, Cajun seasoning, cayenne pepper and sage. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 2 1/2 hours.
  4. Stir sausage into beans, and continue to simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, prepare the rice. Bring water and rice to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve beans over steamed white rice.

Banner image by FotografiaBasica/

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