Legumes — a class of vegetables that includes beans, peas and lentils — are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available. Legumes are typically low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. They also contain beneficial fats and soluble and insoluble fiber. A good source of protein, legumes can be a healthy substitute for meat, which has more fat and cholesterol.
If you want to add more beans and other legumes to your diet, but you aren't clear about what's available and how to prepare them, this guide can help.
Types of legumes
Many supermarkets and food stores stock a wide variety of legumes — both dried and canned.
|Type of legume||Common uses|
|Adzuki beans, also known as field peas or red beans||Soups, sweet bean paste, and Japanese and Chinese dishes|
|Anasazi beans||Soups and Southwestern dishes; can be used in recipes that call for pinto beans|
|Black beans, also known as turtle beans||Soups, stews, rice dishes and Latin American cuisines|
|Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas||Salads, casseroles, fritters and Southern dishes|
|Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo or ceci beans||Casseroles, hummus, minestrone soup, and Spanish and Indian dishes|
|Edamame, also known as green soybeans||Snacks, salads, casseroles and rice dishes|
|Fava beans, also known as broad beans||Stews and side dishes|
|Lentils||Soups, stews, salads, side dishes and Indian dishes|
|Lima beans, also known as butter or Madagascar beans||Succotash, casseroles, soups and salads|
|Red kidney beans||Stews, salads, chili and rice dishes|
|Soy nuts, also known as roasted soybeans or soya beans||Snack or garnish for salads|
Dried beans and legumes, with the exceptions of black-eyed peas and lentils, require soaking in room-temperature water, a step that rehydrates them for more even cooking. Before soaking, pick through the beans, discarding any discolored or shriveled ones or any foreign matter. Depending on how much time you have, choose one of the following soaking methods:
- Slow soak. In a stockpot, cover 1 pound dried beans with 10 cups water. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Quick soak. In a stockpot, bring 1 pound of dried beans and 10 cups of water to a boil. Cover and set aside and let beans soak for 1 to 4 hours at room temperature.
After soaking, rinse beans and add to a stockpot. Cover the beans with three times their volume of water. Add herbs or spices as desired. Bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender. The cooking time depends on the type of bean, but start checking after 45 minutes. Add more water if the beans become uncovered. Other tips:
- Add salt or acidic ingredients, such as vinegar, tomatoes or juice, near the end of the cooking time, when the beans are just tender. If these ingredients are added too early, they can make the beans tough and slow the cooking process.
- Beans are done when they can be easily mashed between two fingers or with a fork.
- To freeze cooked beans for later use, immerse them in cold water until cool, then drain well and freeze.
- One pound of dried beans yields about 5 or 6 cups cooked beans. A 15.5-ounce can of beans equals about 1 2/3 cups beans, drained and cooked.
No time to spare?
Lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas don't need to be soaked. In addition, some legumes are "quick-cooking" — meaning they have already been pre-soaked and redried and don't need extra soaking. Finally, canned legumes make quick additions to dishes that don't require long simmering. Just be sure to rinse prepared and canned legumes to remove some of the sodium added during processing.
Adding more legumes to your diet
Consider these ways to incorporate more legumes into your meals and snacks:
- Prepare soups, stews and casseroles that feature legumes.
- Use pureed beans as the basis for dips and spreads.
- Add chickpeas or black beans to salads. If you typically buy a salad at work and no beans are available, bring your own from home in a small container.
- Snack on a handful of soy nuts rather than on chips or crackers.
If you can't find a particular type of legume in the store, you can easily substitute one type of legume for another. For example, pinto and black beans are good substitutes for red kidney beans. And cannellini, lima beans and navy beans are easily interchangeable. Experiment with what types of legumes you like best in your recipes to make your meals and snacks both nutritious and interesting.
Reducing the gas factor
Beans and other legumes can lead to the formation of intestinal gas. Here are several ways to reduce the flatulence-inducing quality of legumes:
- Change the water several times during soaking. Don't use the soaking water to cook the beans. The water will have absorbed some of the gas-producing indigestible sugars.
- Try using canned beans — the canning process eliminates some of the gas-producing sugars.
- Simmer beans slowly until they are tender. This makes them easier to digest.
- Try digestive aids, such as Beano, when eating legume dishes to help reduce the amount of gas they produce.
As you add more beans and legumes to your diet, be sure to drink enough water and exercise regularly to help your gastrointestinal system handle the increase in dietary fiber.