Dry beans, a homesteader’s staple should be in everyone’s larder whether they are a homesteader, prepper, city dweller or rural resident. As long as they are properly stored in a cool, dry location, they keep indefinitely without the need for refrigeration or freezing. They are versatile as they can be used in soups, stews, casseroles, chili and of course the proverbial pot of baked beans. As a bonus, they are nutritional powerhouses being exceptionally high in fiber, high in protein and cholesterol free (until an animal fat such as salt pork or bacon is added). And finally if you grow a garden, dry beans are easily raised requiring little attention until harvest time.
What are Dry Beans?
Dry beans, sometimes called legumes, come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Yellow Eye, Jacob’s Cattle, Soldier, black beans, kidneys, Great Northern, Vermont Cranberry and Tiger Eye are some of the beans we’ve grown over the years. Many of the varieties we gardeners grow for dry beans are usable at all 3 stages of growth – the snap bean stage so long as the beans are picked when young and tender (although in reality if dry beans is the goal we’re not in favor of picking any beans at this stage), the green shell stage when the “seed” inside the pod is full size but hasn’t started to dry yet, and the dry bean stage when the pod turns brown and crisp; the “seed” or bean inside is now hard, dry and shrunken in size.
To produce dry beans simply leave the pods on the vines until the pods are crispy and brittle. Pick the pods and put them in a cloth sack of some sort. We use empty grain sacks. Then whack the sack of pods with a bat or smash them with a manual tamping tool. The pods pop open releasing the dry beans which are contained by the sack. I always pick through the shattered pods as there’s a few stubborn beans that remain lodged in the pod, but for the most part the whacking/ smashing frees up the beans and saves hours of tedious shelling by hand. I need to stress this only works if the pods are dry and brittle. If they are damp, this procedure doesn’t work so well. To that end, I wait until the afternoon to pick any pods to allow plenty of time for dampness from dew to evaporate.
At this point, the sack has loads of dry beans in the bottom with the empty pods sitting on the top. Gently lift off the threshed shells watching out for any errant beans still in the pods and relegate the shells to the compost pile. Once most of the large pieces have been removed, it’s time to winnow to remove the last bits of debris. Empty the contents of the sack into a clean, dry empty bucket or pail. On a windy day, pour the contents into another empty bucket. The wind will blow away the light chaff but the heavy beans fall into the waiting bucket. Repeat until the beans are free of debris. Pouring the beans from one bucket to another in front of a fan if the wind won’t cooperate is an alternative too.
Storing Dry Beans
Before storage, being sure the beans are completely dry is critical to prevent mold from developing. To achieve this, we put the winnowed beans into bowls or shallow pans leaving them exposed to the air for a few weeks. We stir the beans every day or so to facilitate final drying. Once dry, storing the legumes in air tight containers is important. Our chosen storage vessels are glass jars with tight fitting lids. We’ve kept dry beans this way for years. An added benefit of clear glass is being able to admire the rainbow of colors various beans exhibit which is especially rewarding if you’ve grown the beans yourself.
Green Shell Beans – An Alternative to Dry Beans
It takes more time to reach the dry bean stage than the green shell bean stage. For those in short season areas this could be problematic. When we homesteaded in northern Saskatchewan, our summer season was very short. The best we could hope for was to get our beans to the green shell stage. Once picked, each pod had to be manually shelled and then I had to can the beans. Obviously this was very time consuming and considerably more work than processing dry beans.
To can any type of shell bean, they must be processed in a pressure canner. Because they are considered a low acid vegetable, boiling water bath canning is not safe. Follow the directions in an up to date canning manual. Because shell beans are starchy, they swell during processing so adequate headroom of 1″ is important. Home canned shell beans can be used in countless ways including various soups as well as baked beans. Although they are more trouble to process at harvest time than dry beans, they are more convenient to use the rest of the year as they are ready for use by simply opening a jar. No need to go through the rehydration step outlined below.
Alternatively, shell beans can be frozen too. Frozen lima beans are an example of a shell bean processed this way.
How to Use Dry Beans
Any and all dry beans whether purchased from a store or home grown need to be sorted through prior to cooking. Remove any suspect beans that look moldy or discolored. Remove any pebbles or other debris then wash beans thoroughly. At this point they are ready for the next step, rehydration.
About the only negative to using dry beans is having to think ahead so the beans can be put into soak overnight to rehydrate. But if you forget or get inspired in the morning to make a soup containing dry beans for lunch, don’t despair as there is a short cut method that can be used in place of the overnight soak. Simply put the dry beans in a pot, add water so several inches covers the beans, bring the pot to a boil, remove from heat and let the pot of beans sit for an hour with the lid on. At this point, the beans are at the stage they would be if they had been soaked overnight.
Which ever of the above methods you use (I’ve used both and they work equally well), the next step is to fully cook the beans until they are tender, usually give or take an hour. Do this before you proceed with any recipe. Once tender, add and use per your recipe.
You can also pick and use beans once they reach the shell bean stage. This is commonly done with lima beans but can also be done with other shell beans. After picking and shelling, cook beans till tender and then proceed with your recipe. In late summer, early fall a pot of homemade baked beans made with freshly picked shell beans is a treat if you first cook the beans till tender before adding the molasses, brown sugar etc. I once tried to eliminate the first cooking step thinking the beans would cook during the baking process. They didn’t and remained hard. Lesson learned. Here’s our favorite homemade baked bean recipe.
Old Fashioned Baked Beans
- 2 pounds dry beans (Yellow eye, Jacob’s cattle, Great Northern etc)
- ½ to ¾ cup brown sugar
- ½ to ¾ cup molasses
- 4 large onions chopped
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 4 tsp dry mustard
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 3 or 4 pieces of bacon or chunk of salt pork
Pick over beans and discard pebbles or shriveled beans. Cover with 2 inches water and soak overnight (or use the quick method given above). Heat beans to boiling and simmer 1 hour. Stir in remaining ingredients. Layer 3 or 4 strips of bacon across the top or add a piece of salt pork and bake covered at 350º for 1 hour. Uncover and bake 1 more hour being sure beans don’t run out of liquid. If the bean pot starts to dry out, add a little water to prevent burning. Enjoy!
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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