Learn how to cook Italian beans, and never look back.
Okay, okay. Having your life changed by beans might sound a touch hyperbolic. However, if you haven’t made Italian beans from scratch before, and your extent of cannellini bean experience is from the canned stuff, then yes – this is gonna change your perspective on the humble bean forever! There’s a reason white beans are such a staple in the north of Italy, and you’re about to find out why.
Beans can be scrape-the-bottom-of-the-pot-clean delicious, and they have so much more to offer than even the best brands of canned ones in the store. Not to say we don’t love canned beans for their own reasons: it’s a pantry staple we always have on hand for quick salad additions, weeknight chilis, bean dips and more. However, if it’s a special occasion and beans are the star of the show, you simply have to make them from scratch. It’s one of the simplest recipes you’ll ever make, and it will take beans from a food you feel indifferent about to something you genuinely crave.
Lastly, in case you needed more convincing – dried beans are so inexpensive, it’s actually more cost effective to make them from scratch than to buy cans. Win win.
It all starts with the bean
If you’re going to spend the time making beans from scratch, it all starts with a good quality bean. In general, we prefer to stay away from the big bags buried in grocery store aisles that could have been sitting for months and months – it’s hard to say how fresh those are. We prefer to get them from the bulk bins in health food stores, as the high turnover means they get replenished frequently. While smaller packages of high quality beans are more pricey, those are a great choice as well.
For a splurge, nothing beats heirloom beans (Rancho Gordo is a fabulous brand!). What makes a bean an “heirloom bean” is that they’re grown from seeds that have been passed down through generations of farmers. These beans are often the most flavorful, have the best texture, and are generally the most fresh, as the shops that sell them are often supplied directly from the growers.
For this Italian bean recipe, we generally opt for Cannellini beans. However, the same method could work with just about any white bean like cranberry beans, Borlotti, Navy or Great Northern.
To soak, or not to soak…
This might be a hot button topic, but our opinion? If you have the time to soak your beans first, wonderful – soaking your beans in the fridge overnight will cut down on cook time, and could produce more evenly-cooked beans. People also report that soaking them can help reduce any unpleasant bean-side effects in your stomach (we all know what I’m talking about here).
However, we don’t think it’s 100% necessary to produce great beans – and sometimes we don’t have that kind of foresight when we want to cook them. Giada doesn’t opt to do it in her white beans with cavolo nero, and they’re always delicious. Additionally, our team has never personally had issues with gut troubles after eating un-soaked beans, as long as they’re cooked through all the way. However – it’s up to you! Our opinion? Try it out both ways – see what suits you.
Don’t skimp on the oil and salt!
You’ll find most bean recipes call for oil, and with good reason. A generous glug of olive oil seasons the broth and the beans, and imparts a sumptuous velvety texture onto them as well. Additionally, a layer of oil on top your pot helps keep the beans submerged in water, which promotes even cooking. Even after the beans are totally done cooking, we think it’s essential to add another hearty drizzle of your favorite olive oil.
Like all starches, beans need a lot of salt. Some say salting the broth too early can result in tough beans – so, we opt for salting near the end. The beans still have some time to soak up the salt, and they remain perfectly tender. You might need a lot more salt than you think – start small, and keep tasting!
Make it your own
Giada’s recipe is a starting-off point – it results in absolutely delicious beans, so you certainly don’t have to change up the recipe one bit – but you can bump up the flavor even more with your favorite aromatic ingredients. Other fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano or a bay leaf are wonderful additions. A charred lemon or onion half will add an incredible depth of flavor, and a Parmesan rind adds that unbeatably savory quality.
Okay – we think you’re ready. Get to cooking your Italian beans, and report back once your life has been changed!