Most people keep a selection of beans, peas, and lentils in their pantries either for reasons of economy, because they like them, or both. There are few non-animal foods that contain the amount of protein found in legumes. The most common varieties range from 20%-35%.
The legume family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, and includes all beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. Many legumes are largely interchangeable in cooking, although some dishes just wouldn’t be the same if a different type were used. Below is a partial list of common legumes.
These small, deep red beans are very popular in Japan, China and other Asian nations, but are not as well known in the U.S. They are a cousin of the soybean and are commonly used in producing sweet bean paste for Chinese buns and other dishes. Pressure cooking will sometimes impart a bitter flavor so they are best pre-soaked then boiled in the conventional fashion. Their flavor is somewhat milder than kidney or small red beans, but they can serve as an adequate substitute for either in chili and other dishes in which beans are commonly used.
Sometimes known as “turtle beans”, they are small, dark brownish-black and oval-shaped. Well known in Cuban black bean soup and commonly used in Central and South America and in China. They tend to bleed darkly when cooked so they are not well suited to being combined with other beans, because they give the entire pot a muddy appearance. The skins of black beans also slip off easily so for this reason they are generally not recommended for pressure cooking for fear of clogging the vent. This can be lessened by not pre-soaking before cooking, but why take the chance?
Sometimes known as “cowpeas” or “field peas” there are many varieties of these peas eaten across the Southern United States, Mexico, and Africa with black-eyed peas being the most commonly known in the U.S. Dried field-peas cook very quickly and combine very well with either rice or cornbread and are often eaten as Hoppin’ John every New Years for luck. They’re also reputed to produce less flatulence than many other beans.
Sometimes known as the “garbanzo bean” or “cecci pea” (or bean), they tend to be a creamy or tan color, rather lumpily roundish and larger than dried garden peas. They are the prime ingredient in hummus and falafel and are one of the oldest cultivated legume species known, going back as far as 5400 B.C. in the Near East. Chickpeas tend to remain firmer when cooked than other legumes and can add a pleasant texture to many foods. Roasted brown then ground they have also served as a coffee substitute.
Not as well known in the U.S. as in Europe and the Mediterranean favas are also known as “broad beans” or “horse beans” being broad in shape, flat and reddish brown in color. This is one of the oldest legume species in European cultivation, but it does require effort to eat it. To be honest, way more effort than I’m will to expend. The hull of the bean is tough and doesn’t become tender when cooked. The bean is skinned after cooking and is then made into a puree.
A small number of people with Mediterranean ancestry have a genetic sensitivity to the blossom pollens and under-cooked beans, a condition known as “favism” so should avoid consuming them.
GREAT NORTHERN BEANS:
A large white bean about twice the size of navy beans they are typically bean flavored and are frequently favored for soups, salads, casseroles, and baked beans.
Kidney beans can be found in white, mottled or a light or dark red color with their distinctive kidney shape. Probably best known here in the U.S. for their use in chili and bean salads, they figure prominently in Mexican, Brazilian and Chinese cuisine.
Lentils are an odd lot. They don’t fit in with either the beans or the peas and occupy a place by themselves. Their shape is different from other legumes being roundish little discs with colors ranging from muddy brown, to green to a rather bright orangish-red. They cook very quickly and have a distinctive mildly peppery flavor. They are often used in Far Eastern cuisine from India to China.
In the Southern U.S., they are also commonly called “butter beans”. Lima beans are one of the most common legumes and their flavor is pleasant, but a little bland. Their shape is rather flat and broad with colors ranging from pale green to speckled cream and purple. Combined with corn they are known as succotash.
Best known here in the States in their sprouted form, they are quite common in Indian and other Asian cuisines and are a close relative of the field peas (cowpeas). Their shape is generally round, small with color ranging from a medium green to so dark as to be nearly black. They cook quickly and pre-soaking is not generally needed.
Smaller than Great Northern these petite sized beans are also sometimes known as pea beans. They are the stars of Navy and Senate Bean Soups, favored for many baked bean dishes, and are most often chosen for use in commercial pork and beans. They retain their shape well when cooked.
The peanut is not actually a nut at all, but a legume. Peanuts have a high protein percentage and even more fat. They are one of the two legume species commonly grown for oilseed in this country, and are also used for peanut butter, and boiled or roasted peanuts. Peanut butter (without excessive added sweeteners) can add body and flavor to sauces, gravies, soups, and stews. Many Central and South American, African, Chinese, and Thai dishes incorporate peanuts so they are useful for much more than just a snack food or cooking oil.
PEAS, GREEN OR YELLOW:
Probably best known in split pea soup, particularly with a smoky chunk of ham added. They are also used in Indian cuisine. Whole peas need soaking, but split peas can be cooked as is. Split peas and pea meal make excellent thickener for soups and stews. Because splitting damages the pea, this more processed form does not keep for as long as whole peas unless given special packaging.
PINK AND RED BEANS:
Related to the kidney bean these are smaller in size but similar in flavor. The pink bean has a more delicate flavor than the red. They are both often favored for use in chili and widely used across the American Southwest, Mexico, and Latin America. They can add nicely to the color variety in multi-bean soups. I keep beans in glass mason jars on a shelf in my kitchen. The pink ones are my favorite because they are so pretty!
Anyone who has eaten Tex-Mex food has likely had the pinto bean. It is probably the most widely consumed legume in the U.S., particularly in the Southwestern portion of the country. It has a typical bean shape with a dappled pattern of tans and browns on its shell. Pintos have a flavor that blends well with many foods.
The soybean has the highest protein content of any legume in commercial production and its amino acid profile is the most nearly complete for human nutrition. Alongside the peanut, it is the other common legume oilseed. The beans themselves are small, round, and with a multitude of different shades though tan seems to be the most common. Although the U.S. grows a large percentage of the global supply, we consume virtually none of them directly. Most go into cattle feed, are used by industry, or exported. What does get eaten directly has usually been intensively processed. Soybean products range from soymilk to tofu, to tempeh, to textured vegetable protein (TVP) and hundreds of other forms. They don’t lend themselves well to merely being boiled until done then eaten the way other beans and peas do. For this reason, if you plan on keeping some as a part of your storage program it might behoove you to learn how to process and prepare them now. This way you can throw out your failures and order pizza, rather than having to choke them down, regardless.