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Know how the phrase “hill of beans” refers to something of negligable importance? A lot of us would disagree—for many reasons, whether those run more epicurean or economical.
Dried beans are actually something deserving quite a lot of recognition—although they also aren’t something a lot of us take the time to make on a regular basis. So we often forget the little tips and tricks that tend to lend the best results. Or maybe some of us never sussed this information out in the first place.
So we asked Steve Sando, author of Heirloom Beans founder of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Foods (hint: they sell the most exquisite varieties of beans) to talk us through some common and often quite perplexing questions regarding how to select and cook beans.
Once you’ve secured your stash of beans and the knowledge Sando imparts, don’t forget to expand your repertoire with our 23 most reliable bean recipes…they may just surprise you!
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Darling little children:
Beans, beans the magical fruit.
The more you eat, the more you toot.
The more you toot, the better you feel.
So eat your beans at every meal.
Renee Schettler: David, you have a special relationship with beans, don’t you?
Sexy Male Voice: Oh, la la.
David Leite: I beg your pardon. You mean a fetish or something? A special relationship?
Renee: I mean because you’re Portuguese.
David: Well, yeah. Well, of course, that’s culinary profiling. You realize that, don’t you?
Renee: Guilty as charged.
David: But yes I do. I love beans. They were a staple growing up. My mom baked them, she made soup, she made stews. They were fantastic.
Renee: What was your favorite thing she’d make?
David: Oh, my mom’s baked beans. Ah! I loved them so much. The recipe’s in my cookbook, as a matter of fact.
Renee: A little self-promotion there, David?
David: What ever do you mean?
Renee: Oh, brother.
David: The New Portuguese Table by David Leite available everywhere books are sold.
Renee: Okay. Back to your mom’s baked beans. What were they like?
David: Uh-huh (affirmative) Oh, Renee. They were just amazing. There was paprika in it, and there was bacon in it, and there was Portuguese chouriço, which is our spicy sausage, and tomato paste, and they were rich and red like that ruddy-red color of brick. She would bake them, and bake them, and bake them and, oh my God, they were so creamy and so luscious. They were thick. They weren’t a very loose, brothy kind of bean. And, oh, they were Sunday supper all the time.
Photo: David Leite
David: What about you?
Renee: I grew up on my mom’s chili with ground beef and canned kidney beans, and I hated it. And I would feign illness when we had it. So, I was a late, late convert to beans.
David: To beans? Why did you hate them?
Renee: They were canned. She probably didn’t–I don’t know if it’s possible to mess up canned beans, she doesn’t listen to this podcast, thank God–but if it were possible, she probably did mess them up.
Renee’s Imaginary Mother: Oh, Renee, stop!
Renee: And so, they just weren’t as good as they could have been. But I’ve since had amazing bean dishes, at restaurants–black beans. You know I live in Phoenix now. I do Mexican all the time. So, I have been wooed over.
David: So maybe your mom should listen to this podcast because today we’re talking about beans, beans, beans. And you can’t talk beans without Steve Sando.
David: Steve’s the head honcho at Rancho Gordo up in Napa, California, the producer of heirloom beans to the stars…and the rest of us mere mortals. Beauties with names like Black Caviar, Rio Zape, Good Mother Stallard, and the incredibly popular Marcella bean. Welcome, Steve.
Steve Sando: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
David: So Steve, for those who aren’t acquainted with Rancho Gordo, can you explain a bit about the company and what heirloom beans are, and can you please, please explain the inspiration behind your incredible logo?
Steve: Yes, I’ll do my best. Well, starting with the logo. I can not tell you because I have to kill you! Because this is a secret.
Steve: I don’t say that lightly. But I was really interested in Mexican food and it seemed to me I didn’t want someone with a donkey or a serape taking a nap by a cactus, just sitting there. So I thought what other aspects of Mexico could we do? And also sort of universal. But heirloom beans are open-pollinated seeds that you can save. If you plant it, you’ll get the pure thing and there’s a place for hybrids, like the early-girl tomato is a famous one that people love, but heirlooms tend to have more interesting flavors and are bred for flavor rather than ease of growing. I’d say that’s pretty true. And most of them are generations old and you can pass them down. And I came to it from without an AG background, without a cooking background. I just was a frustrated home cook who started gardening. And this was 21 years ago, I would have to say.
Renee: I love that. There’s a sort of bittersweet story behind your Marcella beans, from what I understand. Can you tell us about it?
Steve: Yes. Well, I was going through my orders one day and we were small enough at that point, we were still checking through them. And I’m looking, “This is Marcella Hazan?” No. That can’t possibly be. Because as a young person just cooking at home, her classic Italian cooking books were just like my Bibles. And sure enough it was her. So we became buddies. We started emailing back and forth and we both are in love with an Italian pop singer named Mina. And was still around, but she was really big in the sixties and seventies. And we became buddies. And at one point I said, “What’s the bean you miss the most from Italy?” And I thought for sure she’d say zolfino, which is a famous bean in Tuscany, or lamon, which is a cranberry bean from Venice. And she said, “No, no, no, it’s serrano.”
Steve: And we looked forever for seed. We finally found it and we started growing it. And the first year we had crop failure and the second year right as where you were harvesting it, she died, unfortunately. She did get to taste a little of the test beans, but at the point we harvested, she unfortunately was dead and her husband Victor was around. So I had talked to him and I said, “I know she didn’t do any kind of endorsements and I don’t want this to be construed as one, but we’d like to call this bean Marcella.” And that was an honor of the farmers in Italy who really deserve a terroir issue and also an honor Marcella. And he laughed and said, “She’d be honored to have I bean named after her.” So, that’s what we did.
Renee: That’s beautiful.
David: And I have made many a dish with the Marcella beans.
Steve: Oh, that’s so great.
David: Many a dish.
Steve: It’s a great bean. It’s not for beginners, though, I think, because it’s very delicate. You can cook it and it’s fine, but you really want to push it just a little bit further and it gets almost dairy, like, it’s so creamy. And–
David: It is.
Steve: But then it’s got a super-thin skin. So, it could just explode and you can have pudding. But for a bean freak and an Italophile, I still think there’s none much better than this.
Renee: I think even for beginners, even basic beans can be tricky. So can we do a little myth busting?
Steve: Well sure. I’d say it’s “intimidating.” I don’t think they’re actually tricky. My thing is you simmer till done. And that’s what you do. And there are all sorts of legends, and folklore, and people with–I would say it’s like martini drinkers. If you’ve ever met someone who loves martinis, it’s their way is the way and they really don’t want to hear about it. And I think for a lot of cooks, if you figured out how to turn our hard rock into something creamy and delicious, they think their way is the way. So everyone’s a big advocate of the way they do it. But the longer I do this, the more I realized it’s just it’s simmer until done. It’s really the most basic instruction you can have.
How can I tell if my beans are fresh?
Renee: Well now, a lot of people talk about the time that you have to simmer beans depends on the age of the beans. But how are you supposed to know when they’re sitting there on the shelf at the supermarket or the farmer’s market?
David: That’s my question. Yeah.
Steve: Well, when I first started doing this, there was no such thing as the best-by date on beans. I mean, I’d never seen one in my life and now we’ve sort of instituted that. You really want to have it within two years of the harvest, if you can. You can still cook them, but that’s when you get into the gambling thing. I don’t know how long this is going to take.
Steve: Our beans are all a year at this point, so the age is appropriate. So you just need to know your bean person. I would go to, if you don’t know who the vendor is or you’re not really confident, make sure you go to a store, maybe with a culture like a Latino store that turns beans really fast. But if you’re going to a food co-op in Tulsa, you might have different issues with the freshness of the beans. Actually, that’s probably not even fair. Because I’m sure they eat pintos, too.
David: That’s true.
David: I know that when I was writing my book, the times varied so much on cooking beans that I had to have this wide, wide range and it kind of really pissed people off to think, yeah, anywhere between an hour and three hours. And they really couldn’t plan dinners.
Steve: So, not that I don’t have sympathy, but it’s sort of like, just get over it. Beans take a while. And is your water hard? What kind of pot are you using? There are so many variances. And when I say bring it to a rapid boil, what does that mean to you? I mean, to different people, it means a different thing. So, my advice, in general, is to cook them on Sunday when you don’t have a lot going on.
Steve: Start them in the morning. It won’t hurt to cook them for a longer time at a really low temperature and you can kind of get to know each bean, and your water, and your situation. Some people love to use a Le Creuset, or an enameled cast iron, and that’s a great technique, but it’s going to be really different. I believe in making my life as hard as possible. So, I only cook in clay pots.
David: There you go.
Steve: So, yeah.
David: Yeah, that’s easy.
Steve: But it doesn’t take that much longer.
Should I soak my beans?
David: So tell me, must beans be soaked? This is a big question people always ask us.
Steve: If you want to soak them, I’d say soak them. Yes, they make things go faster. But at the same time, you’ve now waited eight hours that you could have been cooking. So you can or can’t. Some people really believe it helps the texture. I haven’t found that to be so, but I’m eating new-crop beans all the time. So maybe if you were concerned with older beans that you weren’t 100% sure where they came from, maybe that’s a good idea. And if you do soak them, the question is then do you change the water? So, if you’re an Italian grandmother, I think the answer is always yes. And if you’re in Mexico, no, no, you’re throwing something out, possibly.
Renee: So does it make a difference? I’m all for saving cooking water if you can.
Steve: It might. Everyone wants to know about the digestion issues and a lot of people believe if you soak them and throw the water away, that helps. In McGee’s On Food and Cooking, he talks about it’s so minimal the amount that gets fixed that it really isn’t worth the risk because potentially you are losing vitamins and maybe even flavor.
Steve: Like, when you soak black beans, you’ll see the water is dark. Well that’s there for a reason, maybe. I don’t think we want to get rid of that necessarily. But I used to be very adamant about how to cook beans when I was younger, but as I go into my thirties, oh wait, forties, oops, there’s a lot more than that! As I age gracefully, I don’t care. I think as long as you’re cooking, you are so way ahead of the game.
Steve: So if you want to soak and change the water, that’s fine with me. There’s a quick soak method where you pour hot water on the beans and then let them soak and then remove that. And some people believe that helps. But to me, your beans in hot water is cooking, so you might as well be cooking. This is what I think. But my thing is if you’re cooking, you’re so far ahead of the game and if you’re cooking beans by yourself, you’re not doing it in a can. And a can is okay in an emergency. But the fact that you have to rinse the muck off them–most instructions will tell you to rinse the beans–but when you’re a bean cooker, you know that the bean liquid is gold and you can use it to poach eggs as a soup stock. And it’s just a wonderful thing.
Should I soak my beans in stock?
David: This is something I do, but I want to know if I’m wasting my time. I soak my beans in stock, let’s say chicken stock or beef stock, to give them more flavor, and then I cook them in that stock. Now, am I just wasting my money by doing that?
Steve: Well, I’d say if you’re using heirloom beans–some of them are known for their bean broth alone and you use the bean broth for other things–I think in a weird way that is, well clearly, I think that’s a waste, I would say in that situation. But if I were buying kidney beans at a modern grocery store, I might do what you’re describing. But if I was using beautiful new-crop cranberry beans or borlotti, I would never do that.
Steve: In fact, I’m a confirmed omnivore. I’m not going anywhere. But I almost insist the beans be made vegan. Usually in the bottom of my pot will saute olive oil with garlic and onion. If I’m really doing something super European, I would add other aromatics like carrots or celery. And once they’re soft, I add the beans and the water, usually a bay leaf. Then, I bring it up to a really hard boil for about 15 full minutes, and that makes sure the beans understand that you are the boss. And there’ll be some back and forth, but in the end, I’m going to win. And then I turn it down as low as it will go and still just have a very, very gentle simmer. And usually that takes about an hour and a half, I would say. If it’s a bigger bean or an older bean, it can be up to three hours, but it’s Sunday and I don’t really care because there’s a Bette Davis film festival on TCM–
Bette Davis: Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.
Steve: –I got gardening to do. Beans should be a loving, slow, leisurely sort of thing you do, and you shouldn’t be waiting for the dinner for the beans to be cooked. Because that’s a level of anxiety that shouldn’t go with beans, I’d say.
Steve: Not that I’m opinionated!
David: No. You’re a quiet wallflower.
Does cooking beans with the lid off create more flavor?
Renee: So, what about the old wives’ tale? That cooking beans with the lid off creates more flavor?
Steve: Well, I’ve never heard that. But the interesting thing is I use the lid to help regulate the heat, but you do want it off for part of it because the evaporation is going to condense the liquid and that’s going to make it more flavorful, for sure. And everybody’s using the Instant Pot now and it’s fine except for the bean broth is sort of dead, which is kind of hard. So I use an old Deborah Madison trick where you cook it for 20 minutes under pressure, do a natural release, which takes about 15 minutes, and then flip the lid and then let it simmer in the open for about 15 to 20 minutes. And it’s still longer than a regular pot, but you have something much more delicious than if you’d just done a straight 20-minute cook. And it just breathes some air into the pot licker. And I think the beans, too.
Should I salt/brine beans while soaking?
David: Yeah. Now there’s a big controversy, of course–here we go–I know when I say this you’re going to scream, it’s about salting the beans. And some people say that adding some salt to the soaking liquid, and, in fact, you’re brining them, actually softens the skin and helps make the beans become very creamy. What are your thoughts on that?
Steve: Well I’ve heard that it’s scientifically true. I don’t bother because I don’t even soak, so, and if I do soak, I just don’t have that problem. So I do now salt pretty much from the start. I mean, people who’ve been following me know that there’s a point when the beans start smelling like beans and not like the aromatics. It’s about 45 minutes in and that’s what I salt. But I’m sorry, I’m not going to give you a definitive answer. People say it works. I tried it once. I couldn’t tell any difference at all with our beans, which are, like I say, new crop. And maybe it means something more for older beans, but I don’t… If people want to do it, these are all extra steps to me.
Renee: You’re just complicating things.
Steve: Yes. But you know, sometimes it’s fun. You want to fuss. It was like, well, I’m helping. To me, it all goes right back to that simmer until done thing. You can fuss around, but really, it’s so hard to screw up a pot of beans.
Renee: Nice. I respect that.
Steve: And, I still feel at the end of every pot, like a little miracle just happens and I helped.
David: (mimicking the old Stove Top Stuffing commercial) “And I helped.”
Steve: Yeah, exactly.
Renee: I love that.
Steve: Oh, again, the age thing is revealing itself. Yeah. No, and I think that’s what’s intimidating about beans is that they are these little rocks. But what’s so gratifying is that you turn it into something really creamy and wonderful, which doesn’t make any sense, and yet it happened. I think that’s kind of magic.
Renee: What about acid? Tomatoes, vinegar, lemon juice? Will that cause the beans to stay a little tougher, less creamy than usual?
Steve: Yes. Actually that is the one wives’ tale that’s 100% true. So if you’re making a tomato-based thing, you really want the beans cooked first and then you could add any acids. And that would include molasses with baked beans, which is why they take so long. I’m really from California, so I’m really not the best baked-bean expert, but I do know that is somewhat of an issue.
Steve: But I also learned from Georgeanne Brennan. I, as an old hippie, loved one-pot Crockpot dishes where you just put everything in and then you have them later. And they’re fine, but Georgeanne taught me to cook different components. First, if you cook a pot of beans separately, you can reuse it throughout the week in a number of different ways. And even when she does beans and pork, she’ll cook the pork separately so that there’s distinct layers of flavor- and it’s not one murky thing. Now, there’s not one way to do things. But I started following her advice and it really has helped me in the kitchen.
David: Steve, explain how my mom, who is an old Portuguese cook, is able to take beans and right from the start, the get go, once they have been softened overnight, puts them in a casserole dish with a can of tomato sauce, some tomato paste, and a bunch of other acid stuff, and she makes them and they are so super, super tender when she’s done. I can’t do it. I can’t make that happen.
Steve: How long does she make them for?
David: Several hours.
David: And they’re also navy beans.
Steve: Well that shouldn’t make… I mean, navy’s is a really broad term. I think a lot of Portuguese cooking also uses cranberry beans, don’t they? Borlotti type? Or did I make that up?
Photo: Sara Remington
David: No, that’s more mainland. They have larger beans.
Steve: Oh, interesting. No, it sounds delicious. I don’t know. That doesn’t make any sense to me. And that’s kind of magic in itself. And maybe it was her.
David: Yeah, well my mother, I thought always was a little bit bewitching–on the good or evil side?–but she does magical things.
Steve: Perhaps it would be faster if she cooked the beans separately and added them, but maybe time isn’t such a huge issue.
How to make beans the Rancho Gordo way
Renee: Well, so just so that we’re perfectly clear, Steve, can you talk us through the Rancho Gordo way to cook beans?
David: Yeah. From beginning to end.
Renee: Simmer until done.
Steve: Well, yes. Simmer until done. Yeah, all right. Bye. Now when I get a new pound, I generally tend to cook half a pound at a time, and that will give me at least two or three meals for two. So, that’s, for me, a good amount. I have the perfect pot after years of looking. And in that pot, I saute onion and garlic in olive oil. I usually put a bay leaf in there. Then I add the beans that had been picked over and thoroughly cleaned. Which with our beans isn’t such an issue, but if you go to any other country, a part of cooking beans is picking through them to find any dirt clods.
David: Yes, absolutely.
Steve: And most of the cleaning actually happens in the fields and when you see that you realize, “Oh, that’s why it’s happening.” And unfortunately, dirt clods look a lot like beans. So, even if they’re using an electric eye, it’s not always safe. So you should always check just to be safe.
Steve: Then I add water. I usually cover it by about two inches, this is unsoaked. And then I bring it up to a really rapid boil and let it boil for 15 full minutes. And then I turn it down low until it’s just the point where it’s simmering. Then I’ll use the lid to adjust it. I actually use a bowl as a lid and I put water in there, cold water. And then if the beans need more water, I pour the bowl into the pot so that the beans don’t get shocked by the cold water, which–
David: Because the water has been heated?
Steve: And it’s a nice little trick.
Renee: Yeah. I like that.
Steve: And then I just let it cook until it’s done. Which like I say, it can be an hour and a half to two hours. I keep checking the water. I like a lot of bean broth. That’s really a favorite thing. So I make sure there’s plenty of that and, oh I’m sorry. Then I salt probably at the point, in general there’s a point when it starts smelling like beans and not like aromatics and that’s when I salt. But I think there’s no harm in salting from the start.
Steve: I’ve heard about people saying you should salt heavily from the start. And part of the problem is the beans take a long time to absorb salt. So you’re going to have salty water and bland beans if you don’t do it soon enough. But also because of the reduction, I’ve had beans become too salty so you don’t want to go too crazy, either. So, it’s kind of a no-win situation.
Renee: Practice, practice, practice.
Steve: Exactly. And it sounds stupid, but honestly it’s your water type. Is it hard water, is it soft water? What kind of pot are you using?
Steve: I mean, the clay is obviously absorbing some of the liquid, but also giving back. There are a million little things. The age of the beans, even the salt. I just got a bag of salt from Mexico that looked really nice. The flavor was whatever, but it was incredibly salty. And I think I’ve screwed up a couple of pots using it. It finally it dawned on me. “Oh, it’s the salt, I’m going to throw it out.” So there are lots of nice salts to use.
David: Lots of things to say, but really it’s very simple. Simmer until done is basically what you’re saying.
Renee: Especially when you start with the good beans.
David: Yes. I think so.
Renee: Like Rancho Gordo. One of our recipe testers, who’s a dear friend of mine, just sent me a picture a couple of days ago. She didn’t even know we were interviewing you. It was a picture of her stockpile of Rancho Gordo that she was just about to get into and she was so excited. I’ve never heard anybody so excited about beans.
Steve: I will tell you, I will never get used to this. I used to be very lonely at the farmer’s market. People would walk by and say, “Oh, I love nuts. Ew, beans.” Then they’d walk away. And just no one, very few people cared. And it little by little it grew. And then once they started eating them, they understood their value. And it’s been slowly growing over 20 years.
Steve: So it’s really just almost shocking, the response now. Beans were having their moment, as people have said, which is nice, but moments pass. I really would love to think that beans can be incorporated into part of American cooking and this is what we do instead of a fad. The fad thing makes me a little bit nervous. But I have enough bean freaks. I think we’re going to be fine, even if it all passes.
Renee: I think you’re going to be just fine.
David: I think so, too.
David: Well Steve, thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing some bean knowledge with us and we hope to talk to you soon.
Renee: We appreciate it, Steve.
Steve: You know I love talking beans. If it’s not clear, I can just do it all the time. So I can’t think of two nicer people to talk beans with. So, thank you for having me.
Renee: Take care.
Renee: Steve Sando is the creator of Rancho Gordo, New World Specialty Food in Napa, California. His heirloom beans are some of the finest anywhere. And you can learn more about Steve, Rancho Gordo, and his beans at ranchogordo.com.
Diner Customer: Ah..is there goulash on this menu?
David: Renee, it’s that time again. Can you tell us what’s on the special board for next week?
Renee: I certainly can. We start the week off on Sunday with one of my favorite things ever, chilaquiles. It’s a simple dish. Eggs, salsa, and those stale tortillas that you almost always have in your fridge. We also tell you how to make your own homemade yellow mustard from ingredients you probably already have on hand. We give you a foolproof technique for grilling chicken.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Renee: Yeah. One of our favorite mac and cheese recipes with those crispy, crunchy breadcrumbs that are so buttery on top.
David: Oh, that’s great.
Renee: And we also have some junk food recipes you can make at home, right?
David: Like what? I love junk food.
Renee: I know you do. Well, we have those pink fluffy coconut snowballs, right?
David: Yes, Snowballs.
Renee: We tell you how to make those. You can even make your own Snickers at home. And I don’t think this quite qualifies as junk food, but we do give you the absolute perfect technique for making stove top popcorn.
David: It’s not junk food, but that’s fine. That works.
Renee: It’s a little healthy for you. I understand.
David: It is a little too healthy.
Renee: And then because we know a lot of you have been making banana bread like crazy.
Renee: We have a little something for you to do with the leftover banana bread, which is to turn it into French toast.
David: Which is brilliant, everyone. I’ve made it. It’s absolutely fantastic.
Renee: You can’t even imagine what it tastes like. You have to experience it.
David: Oh, it’s going to be a good week, I think.
Renee: Yeah. I think so, too.
David: This podcast is produced by Overit Studios, and our producer is the sourdough-loving, craft beer-making Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overit Studios at overitstudios.com. And remember to subscribe to Talking With My Mouth Full on your favorite platform, and listen to us wherever you go.
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