The nutritional economics of musical fruit

November 12, 2008

You can get about 10g of protein from 100g of cooked beans. Total cost for beans, assuming you buy classy hippy beans from the organic food shop, about 30 cents. Compare with 100g of cooked meat, which provides 25g of protein, call it 1.20 when trimmed lean. Per gram of protein, we are clearly way ahead with the beans, 3 cents vs 5 cents per gram, not to mention doing good things for our cholesterol level. (I will leave you to agonize over the carbon footprint of imported beans vs locally raised beef yourselves.)

Anyway, beans and lentils are fine food in their own right, or extending meat-based dishes, but if you’re going to use them, you need to cook them right.

Don’t buy heat treated legumes. All imported legumes in New Zealand must be either certified virus free, or heat-treated to prevent germination, lest you plant infected beans and endanger our valuable local legume industry. (Do we have a local legume industry? We must, or why would this matter?). Heat treated legumes don’t cook properly, or indeed ever. Avoid. The health food shops are a good bet, because hippies want seeds that will sprout. So are the ethnic food shops, but you have to ask. Red split lentils are never heat-treated, so they can be bought at the supermarket even if there’s no label.

Buy from places with high turnover. Beans don’t actually go bad, but they do get drier and lose some taste. Old beans take ages to cook and taste crummy. Prepackaged beans at the supermarket = dodgy, bulk beans from health food shop or Indian grocery = ok.

Soaking is not necessary. Most beans will cook in less than twice the normal time if you forget to soak them. You can also speed up soak times to an hour by a) using hot water and b) salting the soak water. No lentils need soaking. Black eyed peas also cook quickly without soaking.

Avoid farting. Four tips for fart avoidance: throw away the soak water; cook long and slow; use Indian spices like cumin and coriander seed in your sauce; eat them regularly so your gut gets used to them. Basically, there are some kinds of sugar in beans that you can’t digest, but there are bugs in your gut that can, and they make all the gas as a by-product. Chucking away the soaking water gets rid of some of them, and long cooking breaks them down into things you can digest.

Preserve texture with an acid sauce. What we’re aiming for is beans that you can smush against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Cooking past that is only good for refried beans, lentil porridge, or other puree type dishes. Even a little acid in the dish, eg that from tomatoes, stops further softening (that’s why you can cook baked beans for hours and the beans don’t disintegrate).

Salt wisely. Here’s the deal. Contrary to myth, salt does not slow bean cooking. But, it does change the ultimate texture. If you salt the cooking water to start with, you get mealy or floury beans. If you wait until they’re cooked, you’ll get smoother pasty beans. Up to you what you like.

Make them tastier by adding things to the cooking water: a clove of garlic, peppercorns, a bayleaf, fresh thyme.

(most of the above tips based on reading Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and a bootleg copy of Good Eats bean episode.)

Bonus vegematarian fact! You do not need to combine vegetable protein sources to get a “complete protein.” That is old hat, a myth, untrue. Your body is perfectly capable of stashing spare amino acids from meal to meal so if you eat grains, dairy or just a crapload of broccoli later on, it will get what it needs.


  1. I’ve mentioned this here before but the spice shop in the Newlands shops sells a wide variety of beans, lentils, peas, chick peas in all colours – well worth a visit if you’re anywhere near the northern suburbs.

    Unfortunately, Jack can’t eat beans of any kind – more than the usual comedy flatulence, they actually cause the poor lad serious cramps, acid reflux and general misery. I miss fava beans the most *snif*. Have attempted cassoulets with chick peas but it’s just not the same. Any suggestions?

    A propos of chick peas I’ve tried using the canned cooked ones and they always come out bullet-like. Have never had any probs with the ones from the spice shop, which I cook in bulk in the slowcooker and then freeze in meal-sized portions.

  2. Interestingly, your math holds up for fish; canned sardines are $1.25 for a 106 g tin of sardines in oil (thanks, Woolworths Online), and according to the Food Standards Authority (http://tinyurl.com/5m8mz8) that’s 21g of protein, for a total of ~ 0.06 dollars per gram of protein.

    Brought to you courtesy of my coworker’s stinky sardines he’s currently eating for lunch.

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