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Beans, Peas & Lentils

Cooking with Legumes

It is very important for vegetarians to obtain protein from a variety of sources. This includes legumes. We don’t need as much protein as meat-eaters worry on our behalf about! – in fact, if you’re eating reasonably healthily, it would be hard to avoid consuming protein. But it’s a good idea to get your protein from different sources, and beans are filling, tasty, and familiar – a tin of baked beans with wholemeal bread and some alfalfa sprouts makes a perfect lunch that will sustain you for hours.

There are a large selection of legumes available; soya beans, pinto beans, black eyed, pink, navy, lima, haricot, kidney, red, great northern, chick peas, split peas, lentils …. Legumes have the ability to absorb nitrogen from the air through their root tubercles, with the aid of bacteria in the soil. The nitrogen is the basis for their high protein content. Mature legumes which are usually dried, have more protein than immature legumes such as garden peas.

Beans help lower serum cholesterol, a fact discovered by Ancel Keys who is one of the leading experts of fat metabolism.

There are a lot of great recipes using beans and they’re not all with chilli! Using them as a staple in your diet is inexpensive, healthy and easy. We have tips below on how to soak and cook beans but you can also easily buy tinned beans and lentils, meaning that you can cut out the soaking steps in any recipe you find. Check out our bean recipes page and if you would like recipes recommended by our committee, our Home Tried Favourites recipe book has plenty, with additional cooking tips.

Preparation for cooking

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water which helps remove the complex sugars that contribute to flatulence. Discard the soaking water and cook until tender in fresh water.

Some beans contain toxic substances but these are eliminated by correct simple cooking procedures as mentioned above. You may hear that beans contain hemaglutins (which can clump red blood cells) and trypsin inhibits (which retard growth) but this is not a concern when the beans are soaked and cooked until tender. Liken beans to potatoes; we were not meant to eat potatoes raw either – they can be poisonous raw, but nutritious cooked.

When buying legumes look for brightness in colour, uniformity in size, and choose beans which do not have cracks. Dry beans store well for several months in containers; keep in a cool, dry place. Mixing new with old beans results in uneven cooking.

Cooked beans freeze very well for convenient future use. When you have time e.g. in a weekend, have a ‘bean day’. Cook a variety of beans which have been soaked overnight, and store in one cup lots in the freezer for the busy weeks ahead.

Ideas for using beans

Beans can be used as the central ingredient, e.g. mashed and used to form the basis of a patty mix or a loaf with veges and flavourings; or they may be an addition to other dishes to increase their protein content. Beans are excellent added to casseroles, soups, patties, a stir fry, a savoury loaf, a pie. They are a truly versatile food.


One cup of dried beans yields approximately 3 cups of cooked beans. To say beans are economical is an understatement!

Adding one tablespoon of oil to cooking water for each cup of dry legumes helps reduce foaming. If using a pressure cooker it prevents the valve from becoming blocked.

A pressure cooker is a wonderful asset for the chef because it reduces the cooking time significantly, and there is no mess or fuss. However, if you are not fortunate enough to own a pressure cooker, you need only to be more vigilant and patient! When cooking lentils only, bring to the boil then leave the lid off the saucepan. With other legumes, when the beans have come to the boil, cook on low heat with lid on. A bean is cooked when it easily squashes between the finger.

Beans have a notorious reputation for causing discomfort in some people. There are three points to be taken into consideration here. Firstly it is essential that they are prepared correctly for eating which will reduce this problem, (see below). The second is that the body may need time to adjust if legumes are new to the diet, and thirdly many of us need to chew foods more adequately. Digestion begins in the mouth with the secretion of enzymes in the saliva, so chew thoroughly to assist nature in its work. If you’re new to eating pulses, introduce them slowly in to your diet, and that way you’ll get all the benefits of the added fibre and protein without any drawbacks.