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The battle of the beans: Which are best?

Learn how to choose, cook and store beans
/ Source: TODAY
Various pulses - chickpea, lentil and beans; Shutterstock ID 148764941; PO: today-foodShutterstock / Magdalena Kucova

Beans are hot these days! This food is high in soluble fiber, low in fat, and has no cholesterol. Sodium is naturally low, but some canned beans have up to 590 mg of sodium per half-cup serving or about one fourth of a day's recommendation for those without hypertension, so read those labels.

Beans are an excellent source of protein (7 to 8g or 21 percent and up), complex carbohydrates (65 percent and up) and have about 225 calories per cup. Soaking the beans before cooking is essential to avoid flatulence. If you're new to cooking dried beans, introduce them into your diet in small amounts until you build a higher tolerance, and always serve them with grains or rice.

Beans are part of a food category called legumes and grow in pods then are shelled and dried. Other legumes are peas, which are round and generally sold fresh or frozen, and lentils, which are flattish and round, are sold dried, and come in various tones of gray, green and coral. Beans are either round, kidney-shaped, or oval shapes with varying degrees of size and thickness. They come in many colors, flavors and textures and add a great deal of nutrition to any meal, primarily protein and complex carbohydrates. Because they do not have essential amino acids, it is important to combine them with grains.

Varieties of beans:

Beans are very inexpensive, and offer at least six cups of cooked beans for six to 12 servings. Most packages are for a pound, but some are 12 ounces, so check the label if quantity is essential to the dish you want to prepare.

KIDNEY beans are large, almost 3/4 inch, and have a definitive kidney shape and are nearly maroon in color. This is the bean to use for chili because they're hearty, and take well to spices. Long cooking time, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

LIGHT RED KIDNEY beans are similar to their darker relative and are the bean for the Southern dish red beans and rice. Same cooking time as kidney beans.

PINTO (pink) is the staple of Mexican cooking, and is a pinkish-mauve color that turns brownish when cooked. Some variations are mottled, being and brown medium ovals. Cooking times vary from one to two hours depending on size. This is the favored bean for whole or refried beans in burritos and tacos.

Special note on Refried Beans or frijoles refritos: Refried beans begin with onions and garlic sautéed in lard or oil, to which spoons full of cooked pinto beans are added, mashed, and cooked until they are thicker than mashed potatoes. Sometimes a little broth or water is added. The intriguing thing is that they are not re-fried at all. One theory for this misnomer is that in Mexican Spanish, "re" is a way to emphasize doneness, such as these beans are well done or cooked thoroughly. They are not, however, fried two times.

CRANBERRY (Roman bean) is a favorite in Italian recipes. This medium, mottled tan and red bean is oval in shape, takes to spices well, and is very tender with modest cooking (45 to 60 minutes.)

GARBANZO beans (chickpeas), popular in Middle East cuisine, are the basis for hummus, the bean spread spiked with garlic and olive oil. They're an imperfect round, beige and give both a nut-like flavor and firm texture. Use whole in soups or salads or grind up cooked beans for hummus or for frying for falafel balls. Modest cooking time of 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Skins should be discarded because they're difficult to digest.

BLACK-EYED BEANS (black-eyed peas) are the ones to bring luck into your life on New Year's Day as the southern custom asserts. These beans are white with black dots and have a light, very smooth texture. They cook quickly, from 30 to 60 minutes.

BLACK (turtle beans) are medium-sized black oval beans, that are popular in Caribbean cooking and adapt well to South and Central American dishes for which a heartier, earthier, smoother bean is desired. Medium cooking time of 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

NAVY beans are not navy blue as one would expect, but small white ovals that add a mild flavor to soups and salads and could be used in baked beans. They belong to the haricot bean (white bean) family, and cook in 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

GREAT NORTHERN beans are another relative of the haricot bean (white bean) family, but larger than navy beans, yet offer a similar mild, white bean taste that is great in soups and stews and in the classic French dish, cassoulet. They cook quickly, about 45 to 60 minutes.

LIMAS are plump, slightly curved beans that are pale colored and come in two sizes: small (baby lima) white, with a creamy smooth texture, or slightly larger (butter beans) that are pale green to white. Both are good alone or added to soups or casseroles. Modest cooking time 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

RED LENTILS cook in under an hour and are a great in soups and casseroles.

The battle of the beans: Canned vs. dry

Nearly every bean that is sold in dried form is sold pre-cooked in cans including garbanzo, red kidney, Great Northern white or black beans, pinto, and navy beans. Also available in cans are whole, and both French and Italian cut green beans that are not available in dried form, but also come fresh or frozen. Organic, low sodium and low fat varieties are also available.

Although dried beans are a very inexpensive source of protein, it's hard to argue with the additional expense of buying precooked beans in cans. With the convenience of saving time soaking, cooking, and seasoning beans, all you need to do is open a can and use them in salads, or heat them up in other dishes. So, while you could get four cups of cooked beans from a package of dried beans for under 60 cents, and you get only one cup for 90 cents to $1.50 for canned beans, it's still such a modest investment that convenience here makes sense.

How to choose:

Dried beans should look even in color, shape and size. It's important to rinse them before soaking to determine if there are any stray pebbles or dirt that escaped the packager. Beans that look wrinkled or misshapen should be avoided. Soak dry beans according to directions, usually several hours to overnight, and cook completely from 1/2 to 2 hours. Salt after cooking to avoid toughening. Once cooked, they can be stored in the refrigerator for several days and added to salads, rice, pasta, or stews as desired.

Canned beans can have a tremendous amount of sodium, from 140 to 500mg for a half-cup serving, so consider rinsing canned beans thoroughly with cold water before using them in your recipes although that won't eliminate all the salt cooked into the beans. Canned foods have been around for more than one hundred years and are generally safe; however modern improvements to the materials offer some advantages. You might want to consider those cans, especially from organic suppliers, that use non-reactive enamel linings rather than the conventional cans made with bisphenol-a, an epoxy resin that can disrupt endocrine levels. In addition to high quantities of added salt, even in "low salt" versions, some canned beans contain soybean or canola oil, and textured soy flour or autolized yeast for thickening the sauce which are perfectly acceptable ingredients. Some products use disodium EDTA, calcium chloride, and sodium sulfite and their value is not conclusive. All that is necessary to preserve cooked beans in cans are the beans, water, and salt.

Storage tips:

Store unopened bags of dry beans in a cool, dark cupboard for a maximum of one year; after that they will lose some of their natural moisture and need longer cooking times, although the nutrients will remain. Once the package is opened, either store the bag inside a zipped plastic bag, or pour out the leftover beans into a porcelain, glass or stainless steel canister with a tight seal.

Store all unopened cans in cool dark cupboard. Store leftover refried beans in a separate container with a well-fitting lid and refrigerate. Use within five days. Always buy cans that are clean and well-built; there should be no rusting or bulging, which indicates botulism is present.

Phil Lempert, The Supermarket Guru, reports on food and retail trends and consumer behavior. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. For more 101's on your favorite foods and for more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit