Dried vs. Canned: Which Beans Are More Sustainable?

posted in: Food and Beverage | 0

–“I was determined to know beans.Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Beans are as colorful as they are deliciousMy future wife and I cooked dried beans regularly in our early years together. We would soak them overnight, simmer them on the stove for two or three hours, and enjoy a nutritious, inexpensive meal that yielded plenty of leftovers. Once, I put on a pot of garbanzos and went out to run an errand, knowing I couldn’t overcook them but forgetting that boiling water evaporates. I returned to an apartment full of acrid smoke and chickpeas fused to the bottom of my thin-gauge pot. It took weeks to dispel the odor.


Eventually, Sue and I married, acquired “real” jobs, and took home real paychecks. For the first time, we had more money than time. Canned seemed a perfectly respectable substitute when we had beans, which was, frankly, not so much anymore. Besides, I convinced myself that the energy costs of boiling water for two hours was prohibitive and bad for the planet. Industrially cooked beans were much more efficient. But the cans, my sister-in-law challenged, what about the energy cost of the cans? But the taste, my friend’s foodie next-door neighbor objected, can’t you taste the difference? Clearly, I needed to examine these questions more closely.


Processing, Transportation, Preparation

The first thing to know about bean processing is that all beans, dried or canned, from the humblest pinto to the heirloomiest Flor de Durazno, are first dried. Canned beans are then rehydrated, blanched, and, yes, canned. This process uses much more energy than cleaning and packaging dried beans, usually in plastic bags. Environmentally conscious consumers can avoid plastic by shopping at stores with bulk sections and filling up reusable containers, whether plastic or otherwise. Either way, the transportation cost of dried beans is much lower than that of rehydrated beans floating in water and enclosed in metal. Up to the point of consumption, dried beans get the better part of the argument.


But, it turns out my intuition about the inefficiency of home-cooking beans was correct. University of Bristol researchers showed that home cooking beans can take up to 11 times the energy as processing them industrially, enough to offset the transportation savings of dried beans. Was the dried vs. canned dilemma going to end in a toss-up?


Not All Beans Are Created Equal

Not in my house. In terms of our culinary habits, my wife and were coming down definitively on the side of dried beans. For, a couple of years ago, during the pandemic, that challenging sister-in-law above gave us a collection of Rancho Gordo beans for Christmas. The colorful legumes with evocative names (Alubia Blanca, Ayacote Morado) and, let’s face it, clever marketing, made cooking dried beans fun again. The consistency of texture (firm to the teeth, creamy on the palette) and flavor (mild, in the way of beans, yet subtly assertive) made eating them distinctly pleasurable.


I have discovered I positively like beans. I like the idea of them, the hearty simplicity of them. With beans on my plate, I am connected to the cowboy on the trail and the Languedoc peasant (without the accompanying deprivations and with my preferred seasonings from distant corners of the globe). Nutritionally, I know I am getting a sizeable fraction of my daily fiber requirement (which, in my case, is most certainly a requirement) and a sustainable source of protein, all at a reasonable price, even when they’re heirlooms.


And, because Rancho Gordo beans are fresher than commercial brands–have spent less time dried and bagged–they take less cooking time. (I overcooked my first batch of Alubia Blanca beans because I expected them to take more than forty-five minutes.) They don’t require overnight soaking, either (except perhaps with those pesky [black] garbanzos, which took me three hours and still weren’t quite soft enough). Reduced cooking time means reduced energy costs, perhaps by as much as half. I can save yet more by cooking larger quantities at a time and freezing batches for later use.


Decisions, Decisions

Rancho Gordo beans come at a premium, of course, about three times the price of regular store brands. We’re willing to pay the premium in our household on the assumption that a Royal Corona cassoulet, including the price of smoked sausage, is still cheaper than the typical chicken breast sauté. A more committed environmentalist might rather purchase from a local organic farm, or, better yet, grow her own in the backyard. All these choices involve resources of time and money. All of us face the same choices about how to utilize these resources to maximize both our pleasure and our sustainability. There are no easy answers.


I, for one, do not wish to know beans in the way Thoreau did (and the way Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo now does). I simply wish to enjoy them on my dinner table and heated up again for lunches. Cooking and eating fresher dried beans, such as those from Rancho Gordo, is the way my family has chosen to do that. (We use canned beans in the summer months when simmering a pot for an hour or more is simply unthinkable.) In the end, the question of dried vs. canned is not the crucial one. It is, rather: How can we reduce our consumption of animal protein?  Increasing our consumption of beans, whether canned or dried, is the most readily available answer. And a tasty one, too.

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