Fabales is is an order of only four families, three of which produce a few medicnals and obscure fruit trees. The fourth, Fabaceae, is a nutritional and culinary block buster - so big it's divided into sub-families, tribes, sub-tribes, groups and even sub-species. It's third largest after Daisies and Orchids - but with a whole lot more to eat.
Beans range from tiny herbs to massive trees 300 feet tall. All grow their seeds in pods, containing one to many seeds. They are just about all toxic, some mildly, some extremely, but some are edible in some forms or with special care. The edible part may be immature pods, mature seeds, young leaves, flowers or root tubers. Beans also provide a wide range of medicinals, flavorings and wood, such as Brazilwood and Rosewood.
More on Flowering Plants.
Most of the beans Americans are familiar with are from North, South and Central America, unknown to Europe and Asia until the 1500s. These include green (string) beans, navy beans, lima beans, peanuts, pinto beans, kidney beans and the like. Fava beans and Lupini beans were the beans known in Europe and the Mediterranean before discovery of the New World. In Asia a wide variety of tiny beans, like mung beans, were known, and a few in Africa.
Lentils, peas and fava beans were unknown in the New World until brought from the Mediterranean by European traders, as were beans of the Vigna genus (black-eye peas, mung beans, etc.). Peas and Lentils probably originated in Western Asia and/or the Near East, mung, urad and adzuki beans probably originated in India, while soybeans originated in China and black-eye peas in Africa, though they are an Asian type bean.
By far the largest selection of beans, peas and lentils in daily use is found in India where both New World and Old World pulses are a major and essential part of the diet over the entire subcontinent.
Particularly important to India is dal, the word for peas, lentils and beans that have been split and peeled. The dal version of any pulse requires just a fraction of the soaking and cooking time of whole dried pulses. This is very important in a fuel deficient country, but other benefits are a softer smoother texture and more subtle flavors. Dal, however, is a tricky word and is sometimes used for the whole unpeeled version.
An additional importance of legumes is their symbiotic relationship with rizobia bacteria. These bacteria live in legume root nodules where they are provided with oxygen and other nutrients in return for "fixing" atmospheric nitrogen into compounds usable for plant nutrition. By rotating legume crops with grain or vegetable crops growers can prevent the depletion of this essential nutrient in the soil. These nitrogen compounds are necessary for the formation of protein, essential for human and animal nutrition.
Fresh Beans (immature pods) should not be overcooked. Bring water to a boil and drop in the beans for just a few minutes until crisp tender. Quench in cold water immediately. Use them as is in cold salads or for cooked dishes add to recipes in the last couple of minutes. Keep in mind that not all bean pods are safe to eat, so don't experiment too much.
Fresh Beans ("shell beans") still need substantial cooking as they will have a bitter "raw bean" flavor. They should, however, need substantially less cooking time than pre-soaked beans.
Fresh Peas are not bitter as are most fresh beans, but still need some cooking time. Add them to recipes near the end with about 5 minutes or so of cooking to go.
Frozen Peas have already been lightly cooked and should be mixed into a recipe in the last minute or so to prevent them being overcooked.Working with Canned Legumes
Beans: These are actually pre-soaked and cooked dried beans. Dried beans are always used because they are tremendously easier to shell and process than undried beans. They are generally either fully cooked or over-cooked depending on brand. When you find a particularly good brand of any particular bean, try to stick with it. If you are concerned about salt or flatulence, discard the canning liquid and rinse the beans.
Green Beans: If you must use them, they are already cooked and should be added to recipes with just enough cooking time to bring them to temperature.
Canned Peas: These are an abomination to be used only to authentically reproduce recipes from Soviet era Russia, or American "cuisine" of the Eisenhower era. In general, use fresh or frozen peas whenever possible. Many brands of canned peas (usually proudly displayed in glass jars) can be found in markets serving communities from the former Soviet states.Working with Frozen Legumes
Peas: Frozen peas are fully cooked and should be added to recipes with only a couple of minutes to go. On hot days here in Southern California I will often eat a bowl of frozen peas straight from the freezer compartment - satisfyingly cold and much more healthy than ice cream.
Shell Beans: These will need more cooking than frozen peas, depending on size and type, but not a lot. An example: I cooked some thawed black eye peas. At 10 minutes they needed a little more. At 15 minutes they were fine, and they were still intact at 30 minutes.
Green Beans: These should be added to recipes with just a few minutes to go. Consider using fresh instead for better texture.Working with Dried Legumes
Storage: You would think dried beans last forever, but this is not actually the case - they should be used within about one year. When you buy them, label the container with the date. Beyond a year they become more and more difficult to cook tender. After about three years they have to be ground into flour to use, and the vitamin content will be almost entirely gone. I have found this true even for dal, so it not just the skin that's involved, as some say.
Salt or no salt? Some hold that if you cook unsoaked beans in water with salt added before they are completely cooked you will have tougher beans than with no salt. The Los Angeles Times kitchen says this is completely disproven by their tests, and other testers are of similar opinion.
Soak or not soak? We all have times we must cook dried beans without a pre-soak (8 hours or so for most popular beans), and they will cook OK, though it takes an extra hour or even more longer, the beans will likely break apart more, and there may be more farting after consumption. Mexican cooks do not pre-soak beans, but most ethnicities do. Necessary soaking times for particular beans will be found in the Varieties of Beans page. If your diet is not normally rich in beans, soak the beans, discard the soaking liquid and rinse well before cooking. This removes some of the complex sugars that result in flatulence.
Brining: This is a new take on soaking and highly recommended. This is a normal soak, but with 3 Tablespoons of salt per pound of beans added to the soaking water. Rinse after draining. The salt makes the skins more permeable resulting in beans that cook more quickly, more evenly and with less breaking up than any other method. In my opinion it also reduces flatulence. This method, developed by the Cooks Illustrated kitchens, has been confirmed by other testers.
Quick Brine: This method seeks the advantage of brining but taking less time. Put the beans in a pot with about the normal amount of soaking water and 3 Tablespoons of salt per pound. Bring to a boil and immediately take off the heat. Set aside for at least an hour before draining, rinsing and cooking.
Lentils are rarely soaked and if they are it's for no longer than an hour or so. Red lentils in particular are peeled so they cook very fast and are never soaked.
Dal: For southern Indian cooking, dal (split and peeled beans, peas and lentils) are not pre-soaked unless a particularly creamy texture is desired. In any case, dals need only a fraction of the soaking time of whole beans, peas and lentils.
Canned Beans: These are actually dried beans pre-soaked and cooked. Bean connoisseurs consider pre-soaking and cooking your own superior, but canned can be used in their place when you are in a hurry. They should be used cold or cooked for a very minimal time.Health & Nutrition
Toxicity: Pretty much all bean plants are toxic to some extent, from very mild to deadly. The FDA restricts some lima beans, for instance, from importation because they contain so much cyanide. Most mature bean seeds are at least slightly toxic, why they are bitter raw. Fortunately, most bean toxins are eliminated by cooking. Some beans need to be soaked for days or cooked in multiple changes of water to detoxify them, but the FDA doesn't permit the more dangerous ones to be imported.
Protein: Beans are high in protein and a very important food crop for much of the world. That protein is not complete, however, but its deficiencies are neatly compensated for by grains such as rice, corn and wheat. Grains are also deficient, but their strengths and weaknesses are opposite those of beans. Contrary to earlier advice, vegetarians need not eat the two together but the alternate should be be present in the next meal or so for maximum nutrition.
Farting: Flatulence is caused by indigestible sugars which vary in concentration from one variety of bean to another. The enzymes needed to break these down in the small intestine are often lacking in humans but can be added to the meal. A substance called "Beano" is marketed for this purpose - you don't add it to recipes but take some along with the beans. Some herbs, particularly Epazota, cooked with the beans are said to help.
The real cure is simple, healthy and cheap. Eat a diet rich in beans and cabbages which will build up your ability to precess these sugars. Cultures that eat a lot of beans don't generally ascribe flatulence to them.
Soy Bean Problems: Soybeans and many soy products are considered unsafe by some researchers. These products contain vegetable estrogens, toxins, mineral blockers and other substances that may cause health and child development problems. Traditionally, soy is eaten in moderation and only in fermented and precipitated (tofu) forms. For details see our Soybeans & Health page.