Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden
When cooked well, cannellini beans are a transcendent mouthful that manages to be both creamy and toothsome, both delicate and hearty. They aren’t as flashy as black beans or as omnipresent as kidney beans, but cannellini beans are my favorite because of their ability to be transformed. Their delicacy makes them the perfect candidate to take on different flavor profiles or be served with different cuisines, while their heartiness means they can easily stand on their own as a main dish. They’re as at home in an Italian soup or a mid-winter chili as they are highly spiced with curry, or stewed in coconut milk and cinnamon.
We need to have some real talk about bean prep first. I used to be firmly in the ain’t-nobody-got-time-for-that camp when it came to dried beans. I mostly used beans in things like chili or soups, burritos or nachos, and for those dishes dried beans just didn’t seem worth it. It wasn’t until I started preparing beans as the stars of their own dishes that I fell in love with them. And once you fall in love with something, you want it to be its very best self, you know?
For me, this started with lentils. When I realized how easy it was to just plonk a pot of them on the back burner and let them boil away while I was doing the rest of my cooking, I realized the same would be true about beans. True, I still keep cans of beans on hand—they’re great for some things. Canned chickpeas, for example, are perfect for whipping up a batch of impromptu hummus. But when I want to really showcase beans in all their glory, nothing compares to dried beans.
In this recipe, the difference between dried and canned beans is almost all in the texture. Because canned beans have been sitting in liquid in their little tin-can homes, they’ve basically gone to mush, so you lose that lovely al dente bite of the beans that melds so well with their internal creaminess. But creaminess, you may be thinking. Great, mine will just be extra creamy, then! Sorry to disappoint, but you also lose the creaminess because the texture of the canned beans goes right to gummy when you cook them.
I solemnly swear that
I am up to no good using dried beans here will be worth it, and isn’t as inconvenient as you might think. From dry to cooked perfectly takes an hour at the outside, and if you give them a little soak first, only 30-35 minutes.
If I know I’m going to make beans for dinner, I’ll boil extra water when I make my coffee in the morning, dump it on the beans in same pot I’ll cook them in later, and leave them to soak all day. Or, if I get home in the afternoon and decide I want beans then, I’ll soak them as I go about my routine of taking my shoes off, unpacking groceries, plugging in my computer, feeding the cat, answering that one email that I’ve forgotten about fifteen times already, doing the left-behind breakfast dishes, etc.
Right there are about 20 found minutes that I just used to cut my bean cooking time almost in half. When I finally go back into the kitchen to make dinner, I turn on the stove and start the beans. It’s the ultimate back-burner recipe.
So, what are these magical beans? Rich, garlicky, and stewed in spices, these beans pack a wallop of flavor with only one minute of added work. If you can peel garlic and dump some spices in the pot, you’ve got this.
Cooking food in spiced liquid is a common preparation to imbue the food with a ton of flavor. We cook risotto in broth, add salt to pasta water, and cook cheap cuts of meat in the stew liquid to soften and flavor them. This is the idea behind these beans. The key is to add the seasonings when you start to cook the beans so that as they soften they take on the flavors they’re being cooked in.
I add whole cloves of garlic to the water as well, which soften along with the beans, and then mash them up and stir them right in to the beans. Because the garlic has been boiled, it has a more mellow flavor than you usually get, and it tastes like the beans have been cooking all day even if you just started them when you got home from work. And, since the flavor only gets better the longer they sit, you can make enough beans for multiple dinners over the next week and leave them in your fridge, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice.
You can swap in your favorite spices for a different flavor profile, but I recommend always keeping the garlic—it’s the real magic. However you enjoy these, the cost to make a big serving is probably less than a dollar, they’re healthy, they’re filling, and they’re versatile as heck. I promise, the effort of dry beans will be worth it!
Garlicky Stewed Cannellini Beans
Prep time: 5 minutes + optional presoaking time
Cook time: 30 minutes (if you’ve presoaked) to 60 minutes (if you start from dry beans)
Makes 2 servings
- 6 ounces (about 1 cup) dried cannellini beans
- 2-3 cloves garlic, smashed or roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt + more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper + more to taste
- fresh chopped parsley to finish (optional)
- good olive oil to finish (optional)
To presoak beans:
Add the beans to a large bowl or medium (2-quart) stockpot and fill with enough water to submerge the beans and cover them by 2-3 inches. Soak for at least 30 minutes or up to 8 hours.
Pour the beans and any presoaking water into a medium (2-quart) stockpot, if they haven’t already been soaked in the pot. Add more water if necessary until the beans are covered by 2 to 3 inches of water.
Stir in the garlic, thyme, paprika, chili flakes, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then uncover and reduce the heat to medium to keep the beans at a gentle boil.
Cook until the beans are tender (about 30–35 minutes if you’ve presoaked; about 60 minutes if you haven’t), stirring every 10-15 minutes or so to make sure beans are all submerged and cooking evenly. If the beans absorb all the water before they are cooked through, add more to cover the beans as needed.
When the beans are almost done, you can mash your garlic into the beans with the side of a fork. If you like a more stewy consistency, you can also smash some of your beans, which will turn into a kind of thick sauce for the remaining beans.
If your beans are done but there’s liquid remaining in the pot, it’s no problem. Just drain the beans and reserve the liquid in a bowl. Return the liquid to pot and bring to a simmer, cooking until reduced and thickened. (Timing will vary based on how much liquid is left.) Stir in the cooked beans to coat.
Taste the cooked beans and add more salt and pepper as desired.
Eat as a side dish, sprinkling fresh parsley over your beans and finishing with a drizzle of good quality olive oil.
Or use them as a component in a vegetarian meal–I love to put them on top of a big bowl of spinach and broccoli and top it with an egg, or mix with a big pan of roasted cauliflower and top with pine nuts.