To salt or not to salt while cooking... that is the question. I have seen numerous declarations over the years about the evils of cooking beans with salt. Then, in the same "breath" so to speak, you are adding ham hocks, ham bones, bacon or other salty pork products. What's up with that? Well, it seems that there was a controlled test done by someone. (I can't find it to save me. Alton Brown? Steingarten? Cook's Illustrated?) It seems that salt has nothing to do with the final texture of beans. It is the age of the dried bean. I have been salting away for years and am well known for my excellent beans. But I have been caught with old beans before that never cook up right. More on this later.
Then there is "the Problem" with beans. This from McGee:
Well, it does seem that there may be some science behind some folk wisdom. It seems that phenolics that are present in certain herbs and such may suppress some of the bacterial action in the lower gut. (The situation is that the oligosaccharides in beans are not digested in the upper GI tract and arrive in the lower as ample fodder for the bacteria there to do their thing.) So, addition of epizote by the Mexicans may have some merit if epizote has a lot of phenolics. I don't know. There is a gathering opinion that if you eat a lot of beans, your bacterial population will adjust and all will be well. What has me intensely curious is the test protocol and equipment used to test those astronauts. Inquiring minds want to know.
"for extended space flights, it may prove advantageous to select astronauts who produce minimal amounts of methane and hydrogen and who do not normally produce very large quantities of flatus; and... selection criteria for astronauts might be established to eliminate those candidates who demonstrate marked or excessive gastroenterologic responses to stress..." What a way to wash out!
This one is new to me. Paula Wolfert, in discussing cassoulet, has espoused the importance of cooking beans in "just enough liquid" and not too much in order to attain the optimum texture. It turns out that McGee has also addressed this issue. Another quote from McGee:
So... Some years ago I adopted the crock pot as the method of choice for cooking my beans. Being a rather inattentive sort, I got sick of burning beans. As it turns out, my crock pot is of a size that, by the time I put in a ham bones or hocks or other seasoning, I have just enough room in the crock pot for the "just enough" liquid. So my excellent beans are not the result of my culinary prowess but a happy accident. Who knew? I won't tell if you don't.
And it turns out, contrary to what we would expect, that seeds will actually absorb more water in a smaller volume of water: the less cooking water, the fewer carbohydrates are leached out, and the carbohydrates will take up about 10 times their weight in water. This means, then, that seeds will seem softer in a given time if cooked in a minimal amount of liquid.
Now back to that all important issue of the age of the dried beans, apparantly the most important factor in how they will cook up. There was a thread here some time ago, and I have heard it on TV, that there doesn't seem to be a good way to tell the age of the dried beans that you buy. All you could do was go somewhere that you had a reasonable expectation that the product turnover was high enough to ensure fresh dried beans. Then I noticed that the last time I bought Camellia red beans, they had an expiration date on the bag. I don't know how many other bags of beans are showing these dates. I will be investigating that. Then the question arises, what does that date mean? What is the shelf life of dried beans before they get to the point that they will never cook up to creamy wonderfulness? If a bag of Camellias says "use before xxx 2005" what does that mean? If the shelf life is two years, does that mean they were packaged in 2003? You see the problem.
Let's discuss these weighty issues.