The low-down on legumes

  • Canned legumes should be rinsed thorougly before use if canned in salt water.
  • Dry legumes can be prepared using either the ‘quick soak’ or slow overnight soak method. Both methods have pros and cons.
  • Think of legumes as you would mince – they need to be well-flavoured to be enjoyable!
  • Flatulence after eating legumes can be reduced by using culinary spices and herbs during cooking, and using an appropriate probiotic.


In last week’s newsletter, I explained why everyone should be eating legumes, every day. Problem is, most people have no idea what they are or what to do with them. So here’s the legume virgin’s ultimate primer.

  1. Where do I buy them?You’ll find a range of canned legumes in supermarkets, generally next to the canned vegetables. Dry legumes are usually found in the soup section, down on the bottom shelf so you have to get on your knees and grovel on the floor to find them. Why? Because they’re really cheap and supermarkets make bugger-all profit on them, so they park them in a hard-to-find, inconvenient place.Larger fruit and vegetable shops generally have a good range of both canned and dry legumes, as do some health food shops (the ones where they actually sell food, as opposed to pills and protein powders ;-)). Health food shops sometimes carry brands of legumes canned without salt – snap these up when you find them.

    Canned beans are great for convenience but they have a higher glycaemic index than dry beans that you’ve cooked yourself, and of course the blood-pressure-raising sodium content is higher unless you buy a brand without added salt.

  2. Great, I’ve bought them. Now what?Canned beans should always be put into a strainer and rinsed under the cold tap to get the salt off them, unless you’ve been lucky enough to find a no-added-salt brand. Rinsing removes most of the salt but some is cooked into the beans, so even rinsed canned beans have a higher sodium content than home-cooked, and should be limited if you have high blood pressure.Dry legumes should be rinsed in a strainer and picked over to remove small stones and discoloured or shrivelled beans. All legumes, with the exception of lentils, need to be soaked before cooking to reduce the level of trypsin inhibitors and phytates, which impede protein digestion and decrease mineral absorption, respectively. Pre-soaking also reduces the – ahem – farty substances for which legumes are notorious.

    There are 2 soaking methods:

    A) The quick soak, which involves covering the beans with ample cold water, bringing to the boil and boiling for 1 minute, then turning off the heat and leaving them to sit in the hot water for at least an hour (I often leave them overnight).

    B) For slow soaking, cover with cold water and leave overnight or longer; if you do a longer soak, change the water every 8 hours.

    The quick soak method helps the water penetrate deep into the legume, reducing cooking time dramatically. The slow soak activates enzymes that increase the nutrient content and digestibility of the legume. Both methods have advantages; use which ever suits your lifestyle!

    After soaking, tip the legumes into a strainer or colander and rinse under running water. Put them back in the pot, add fresh water, bring to the boil, then simmer, with the lid on, until tender. This may be as little as 30 minutes for well-soaked black beans, to an hour or more for kidney beans. Test the beans regularly while cooking: they should be ‘al dente’ i.e. not hard, but not mushy either.

    Once cooked, legumes can be drained and stored in the fridge for several days, or in the freezer for several months. I always have a selection of cooked legumes in my freezer, and I take whatever I need out of the freezer the night before I need it to allow for defrosting.

  3. OK, they’re ready. What do I do with them now?Think of legumes as the mince of the plant world. You wouldn’t just boil mince and dump it on a plate; you cook it up with onion and garlic, flavour it with spices or herbs and tomato paste, add vegetables to it, shape it into rissoles or meatloaf… Legumes respond beautifully to the same treatment. See my recipe section for delicious legume recipes.The cuisines I look to for legume inspiration are Indian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, Tunisian, Moroccan and Mexican. All these cultures really know their way around legumes. Think cauliflower and kidney bean curry, minestrone, bean burritos, fassoulia (Greek bean soup), hommous, falafel, vegetable and chick pea tagine – what could be tastier, more filling and wholesome?

    Interestingly, many herbs and spices traditionally used to flavour legumes also help to reduce flatulence. More on that next…

  4. What about the flatulence issue?All right, we need to deal with this one now. If you’ve never eaten legumes, or only eat them irregularly, you may find yourself eligible to join the wind instruments section of the orchestra when you first start eating them.If you find this uncomfortable or socially awkward, start by eating very small quantities – just a tablespoon at a time, but have them every day – and gradually increase the amount. Your bowel bacteria will soon become accustomed to the resistant starch and your gas production will settle back down to normal. (Of course, if you find flatulence amusing, hoe into those kidney beans and enter a Fart the National Anthem competition.)

    Some people need to take a probiotic supplement to fast-track their bowel bacteria into accepting legumes. I recommend probiotics that have been cultivated on legumes, such as Organic 2012 Blend or MiVitality.

So no more excuses now, eh? Now you know how to get these superheroes of nutrition into your diet, every day.