Improv Cooking Basics: Beans!

Beans are friggin’ great.

Yeah, I said it.

Now, your next question should be, why, Laura? Why are they so great? Allow me to elaborate, if you don’t already agree with my perfectly correct statement:

  1. They are cheap cheap cheap, especially if you’re getting dried beans. These are super easy to buy in bulk, too, so you’re not having to go through cans or plastic bags. Yay!
  2. They are an excellent source of cheap, animal-free protein. Meat is tasty and all, but a) we eat too much of it for our bodies and environment to handle well and b) it’s nice to have a source of protein sometimes that doesn’t require slaughter. Or, at the very least, sanitizing your counters after dealing with the raw product. Raw meat juice is pretty gross. Bean juice is only slightly gross, sometimes.
  3. They can be used in so many dishes, or be a dish on their own.
  4. They take on whatever flavor you want in said dishes, while adding their own–errrr–beaniness? It’s a word now because I typed it.
  5. I like their texture. Fight me.

I like to use dried beans because they’re cheaper, I can control the amount of salt and flavorings more easily, and because I like the way they feel running through my hands, like I’m rich rich RICH with beans! (Okay, that’s really weird, but have you tried it? Because you should.) But canned beans are certainly fine, too, and I’m not above them whatsoever, especially for a really fast meal or side dish. I like to make big batches of beans so I can use them throughout the week for whatever I desire – beans on rice, beans on the side, beans in tacos, etc.

As with the other Improv Cooking recipes, you can really use whatever you have on hand to make these beans – experiment and go nuts! (Or don’t, and be simple. That’s fine, too.)

So here, I’ll give some basic bean recipes and preparations for the stovetop, as well as suggestions for what to do with said variations.

[insert terrible bean pun here] Let’s go!

Basic Stovetop Beans

This recipe makes about 3 cups of cooked beans. I usually make more so I’ll have lots of leftovers to play with. You do you.

You will need:

  • 1 c dried beans (black, pinto, black-eyed peas, navy beans, etc.)
  • 2 c hot water
  • 1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • 2-3 c water, broth, or beer


  1. Place dried beans in a heatproof bowl (I use a Pyrex bowl, usually), picking through to make sure there are no small stones or other debris in the beans. (Yes, this does happen. No, don’t skip this step unless you want broken teeth.)
  2. Pour the hot (yes, this can be boiling, if you want) water over the beans, and allow to soak for at least 2 hours or up to overnight. You can even use cold water for this step – just know it will take longer to soften the beans.
  3. You have two options here: one, use the same bean water and pour the whole shebang into a medium saucepan, adding water enough to cover the beans by 1/2-1 inch. Two, you can drain and rinse the soaked beans and use new water, broth, or beer, covering the beans as stated. The first option will give you more bean flavor, and the second option gives you more variation in liquids, but both options work perfectly well. Add salt to taste.
  4. Bring the beans and water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer on medium-low, cover, and cook for 20-30 minutes or so, checking occasionally for doneness and stirring to prevent sticking.
  5. Uncover and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, adding liquid as necessary to prevent sticking and give you the amount of sauce you desire. (I like a good saucy bean, so I add water and salt accordingly.) The beans are done when they are soft and tender upon testing. With your mouth.

Now, of course, those are just basic beans.

But Laura, you shout to the heavens, that sounds pretty boring! Can I make my beans less, y’know, dull?

But of course! First, the basics: you can add spices and vegetables to the recipe above in step 4, while the beans simmer. Depending on what flavor profile you’re going for depends on what you add. Some variations below for some of my favorite applications:

Mexican-style beans: Add 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/4 tsp black pepper, and 1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne pepper. I usually use black beans or pinto beans. You can use beer, broth, or water for the liquid. I use them for black bean tacos, nachos, and just plain eating over rice as a side.

Dominican-style beans: (Or, what I’ve observed my mom do for years – thanks, mom!) Also sometimes called habicheulas guisadas, or “stewed beans,” these are super tasty over rice. If you look up a recipe for these beans, you’ll probably see other ingredients that I’m not using. Why? Because I’m lazy and I have learned this through observation and tasting rather than a recipe. Fight me (again). Anyway, here’s the variation: Use pinto beans for the soaking directions above. Heat 1 tbsp oil or fat in the saucepan over medium heat. Add 1/2-1 c sliced bell pepper (green or red) and 1/4 c sliced onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and fragrant, about 5-7 minutes. Add 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Add 1-2 cloves minced garlic and cook for another 30 seconds until fragrant. Add pinto beans, 1/2 c tomato sauce, and enough broth (yes, use broth here) to cover the beans by 1-2 inches. Proceed with simmering, covering, uncovering, and liquid-adding steps above, salting to taste. (I’m also known to use Adobo seasoning in place of salt here, which is pretty grand. You do you.) This is meant to be a pretty saucy recipe (as in, about the same amount of liquid as beans!), so go nuts and don’t be afraid to keep adding broth/water/beer to achieve this consistency. Serve over rice.

Stewed Black-Eyed Peas:

Another recipe I’ve done through observation and pure laziness, these beans are great as a side with stewed greens, fried or braised meats, or by themselves over (you guessed it) rice! Use black-eyed peas for the soaking steps. In a Dutch oven or similar heavy-bottomed pot, heat 1-2 tbsp oil or fat over medium heat. Add 1 c chopped bell pepper (red or green is fine) and 1/2 c chopped onion, if desired, and cook until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add drained beans to the hot oil, stirring and cooking for 3-5 minutes until coated and slightly toasty. Add liquid (preferably broth or beer), 1-2 tsp salt to taste, and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Boil, simmer, cover, and uncover as directed above until beans are soft and there is an obvious “bean gravy” happening. Mmmm.

Play with different types of beans, different seasonings, and different liquids to see what you like best. Happy cooking!


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