Watching TV recently, I watched an otherwise fine chef make a pot of beans in an electric pressure cooker. Said he: This was the best way to make beans because it “sealed in all the flavor”. Those lovely smells you experience are really all the flavor escaping into the air and the pressure cooker made sure you kept all the aromas and flavor inside. Huh? Really great bean flavor comes from slow reduction, not an airtight prison.
I go back and forth about pressure cookers. Yes, you can have beans within an hour and that’s some kind of miracle. But really good beans means really good bean broth and the bean broth from a pressure cooker tastes dead and bland. The flavor isn’t “trapped” in the metal vault. It develops from time and air. Diana Kennedy told me she always cooks her beans in the pressure cooker because she lives at a very high altitude, but she always finishes them in a clay pot.
I had an ambitious dinner party to cook for and believe it or not, no matter what I make, when people come to my house, they expect beans. As an experiment, I cooked a pound of dry, unsoaked Lila beans in the pressure cooker with just a bay leaf and a spoonful of olive oil. I’ve read that the beans can produce a froth that can clog up the safety valve and that a little oil helps. I cooked the beans under pressure for minutes, did a slow release and then opened up the pot.
Meanwhile, in one of my favorite clay pots, I cooked three pieces of bacon, cut into cubes, until they were done. I drained some of the fat (it was even too much for me!) and sautéed onion, Mexican oregano, garlic, some chopped tomatoes and a previously roasted red bell pepper in the remaining bacon fat. When they were soft, I added the cooked beans and their liquid and then finished it off with a bottle of beer, less three swigs I took before donating the liquid to the cause.
I let the pot continue on with the gentlest of simmers until we were ready to eat. It was nice not having to worry about whether the beans were cooked or not. All I was doing was fine tuning the pot. They were ready to heat in just over an hour but they were a melody of love after several, just barely bubbling while I prepared the rest of the dinner.
I am not ready to declare the pressure cooker The Answer, but I like having it and if I continue, I think this will turn into love. I still believe clay is king but it was nice not to fuss.
Basic Pressure Cooker Beans: Add cleaned dryu, beans with water, onion, garlic and olive oil. The unsoaked beans should be covered by three inches of water. Cover and bring up to pressure. After 20 minutes, turn off heat and allow pressure to come down naturally. Don’t use the quick release. Remove the lid, add salt and allow the beans to simmer on medium low heat until the broth is reduced and beans are completely cooked, about 20 minutes.
Better Pressure Cooker Beans: As above, but after the release, pour the beans and their liquid into a clay bean pot and allow to simmer for 30 minutes or more.
Clarification: This post was edited to clarify that these were dried beans, not fresh shelling beans. We of course used our own, which we know were less than a year old. I don't recommend doing this with beans if you don't know the source. Some beans can be many, many years old and the results can be unpredictable. I also suggest you don't do this with runner beans. They are bigger and denser and I don't know how they would react. Please post your results below if you've tried runner beans in a pressure cooker.