Our ode to beans - and how to cook them the Italian way.
Beans sometimes get a bad reputation—they take a long time to cook, and then there’s that, ahem, gastrointestinal side effect—but we believe everyone should eat more of this powerful little protein source. In Italian cooking, beans are a staple of cucina povera (literally “poor kitchen”), the philosophy that originated in the rural kitchens of southern Italy and resulted in some of the country’s most iconic dishes. Cucina povera makes the most of simple ingredients with a zero-waste mentality; for those who couldn’t afford meat regularly, beans were a nutritional godsend.
Chickpeas, lentils, and broad beans, of which favas and lupinis are most common, have been cultivated across Europe and Asia and have been a favorite in Italian cooking since the Roman Empire. But most of the bean varieties we know and love come from one species, Phaseolus vulgaris, which originated in the Americas. These were brought back to Europe by the explorers who visited the continent in the 15th and 16th centuries. Long a staple for the Mesoamerican people, their high protein content, relative ease of growing, and ability to be preserved for long periods by drying made them an instant hit with Italian peasants.
Today, we love beans for their delicious versatility. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re a nutritional superstar, packed with protein, B vitamins, and gut-healthy fiber!) In soups, pastas, and chilis, pureed for dips or in patties, beans can be dressed up with any flavor profile that suits your mood. When it comes to Italian cooking, while there are dozens of bean varieties to be found across the country, the two we come back to again and again are cannellini and borlotti.
With a thin skin and a creamy interior, cannellini beans are ideal for smooth purees or dishes that use beans for thickening. If you have a recipe that calls for “white beans,” cannellini are your answer! Also known as cranberry beans or Roman beans, borlotti have a distinctly beautiful pattern of tan and red markings. Their name is thought to have come from the verb borlare, which in the northern dialect means to fall or hang down—the way the bean pods do when they are ready to be harvested! With a thicker skin, borlotti are excellent in soups and salads, as they retain their shape perfectly when cooked.
While cooking with dry beans may seem intimidating, it’s a mostly hands-off process that is (nearly) as easy as opening a can. All you need is time! Before cooking, dry beans must be soaked in cold water—at least overnight, though you can leave them for up to 24 hours if your schedule requires. Discard any beans that float to the surface, then drain the rest and cover with lots of clean water in a large pot. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1-2 hours, until tender.
While canned beans are by no means expensive, it’s even more economical to buy them dry. Many canned beans are also high in sodium, which many people may want to avoid. But perhaps the best reason to cook your own beans is the flavor. Season the bean cooking liquid the way the Italians do with some garlic, celery, and hardy herbs like sage or bay leaf, then salt to taste once they’re tender, and you’ll have a major head start toward deliciousness.
To save time and effort, we recommend cooking a whole bag of beans at once whenever your schedule allows. Beans freeze beautifully—portion them into freezer bags with their cooking liquid so you’ll always be prepared (for reference, one 15-ounce can of beans contains about 1 ½ cups of cooked beans). You can also use any leftovers to make a delicious snack like Giada’s Italian white bean dip.
If you’re in a pinch, of course, there’s nothing wrong with using precooked beans. If you can find them, beans packaged in paper boxes are a better choice than those in aluminum cans. Many cans are lined with BPA or BPS, which is linked to a myriad of negative health effects. Cans also lend a tinny taste to beans, which can mar your finished dish. Paper packaging doesn’t leach the flavor in the same way, leaving your beans fresh-tasting and ready to use in pasta e fagioli, minestrone, or tuna and white bean salad.