As a vegetarian now progressing toward veganism, I have always eaten a lot of beans. It’s a good thing I love them!
Until this past summer, I never had any digestive difficulties with any foods at all including beans. During the summer of 2014, I was unfortunately sick for four months, and my digestion and eating patterns were severely disrupted. Now I’m back to normal — almost. While my difficulties aren’t severe, my digestion isn’t quite what it used to be. In particular I have some unresolved issues with beans.
Years ago, I used a particular routine for cooking beans:
- Rinse the beans and soak them in water overnight.
- Pour off any excess water, rinse the beans again and place in a pot with water to cover.
- Bring the beans to a boil, remove from heat, pour water and beans into a colander to drain, return beans to pot.
- Repeat step 3 at least one more time (twice if there wasn’t time to soak the beans the night before).
- After the final boil, return the beans to the pot, cover with water, bring to a simmer and cook until done.
While I was working with my vegetarian Cafe, I didn’t have time for this process and usually just rinsed the beans, put them into a pot covering them well with water, brought them to a boil then turned the heat to simmer and cooked them until they were done.
When I continued to have difficulty digesting my own food after I was sick, I thought I might return to my old method and see if that helped. It did! One day in particular I noticed that I had considerable digestive difficulty after a visit to a favorite restaurant where I can enjoy vegan burritos. The next day I made a bean dish in my own home preparing them as I described above, and I had no difficulty at all. Sounds like a good discovery, right?
I decided to check out the science of my own experiment. There must be an explanation for my experience, right? Among others, I read an article from the LA Times called: “Don’t Soak Your Dried Beans – Now Even the Cool Kids Agree!” I didn’t let the title put me off — soaking isn’t essential to my method. Boiling and throwing off the water multiple times before cooking will work just as well. I saw right away that the article contained the scientific explanation I was seeking:
“…beans contain complex sugars called alpha-galactosides. The human body does not produce enzymes to digest these sugars. Mainly raffinose and stachyose, they pass through the stomach undigested until they reach the large intestine. There they ferment, producing gases…It was thought that soaking beans in cold water leached these sugars out of the bean. Throw away the water and you throw away the gas…”
That information coordinated well with what I learned through going on the Low FODMAP Diet of Monash University in Australia over the summer: some sugars in carbohydrates can cause difficulty for some people. Although I never had been one of those people before, I was at the time I found the Low FODMAP Diet, and the diet helped me tremendously. Never mind that the next sentences of the LA Times article stated: “Unfortunately, it isn’t true. These sugars are part of what the bean uses for nourishment as it grows into a plant, and the bean does not part with them gladly.”
OK, I can accept that and eliminate the soaking overnight. But then boiling briefly, allowing to stand and soak for a couple of hours, then pouring off the water and repeating the process does remove those pesky alpha-galactosides, at least 90% of them. Aha! That explains it.
The article went on to note, however, that this blanch-soak, blanch-soak method did not consistently reduce intestinal distress. Furthermore, the method reduces flavor slightly so is not preferred. The author of the article recommends just rinsing and cooking beans.
I’m left, though, with the experiential fact that when I eat beans that have not been boiled and the water thrown off multiple times, I experience intestinal distress. When I prepare the beans properly, I don’t. Maybe my former excellent digestion will return some day — but for now, I will prepare all my beans like this:
- Start with dried beans. Place them in a colander and rinse.
- Move the beans to a heavy pot with a lid. Cover well with water.
- Bring beans to a boil, turn down heat and simmer for 3 minutes.
- Allow beans to stand and soak (the article recommends 2 hours – I shorten this time, sometimes to just a few minutes – seems to work for me)
- Pour beans into colander, draining water.
- Repeat the process.
- After the second blanch-soak procedure, place beans in pot and cover with water.
- Bring beans and water to a simmer. Cook on low heat until done.
I do agree that some flavor is lost. I check the seasoning and adjust it at the end. I find I also need to adjust the water content of my dishes. Most of my recipes from the Cafe are designed around just rinsing and cooking the beans. When I use the blanch-soak method, I reduce the liquid content of recipes somewhat. I can always add it in again at the end if I want to thin a soup or a dish.
So…my current recommendation for cooking beans: just rinse and cook if they don’t cause you any difficulty. If beans do cause you difficulty, don’t soak overnight but do blanch and soak (for some amount of time) at least twice.