I realize that there is nothing overwhelmingly exciting about a vat of perfectly cooked white beans, but trust me when I say that these are some of the best beans I have ever eaten. The first time I made them it was for a dinner party, and they were well loved by everyone, and I was even asked if there was bacon fat in them, and if you’re a vegetarian, there is nothing that warms your heart more than feeling like you evoked the taste of bacon when in fact all you did was simmer some onions, garlic, and beans in the oven for a few hours. Really, that’s all there is to do in order to produce a big pot of creamy cannellini beans perfumed with rosemary and brightened with a splash of lemon juice.
The secret to creating these tender beans with smooth and intact skins is making sure to salt the beans during the cooking process. There are a lot of old-wives’ tales to “never salt the beans,” but from a chemistry standpoint, salting the beans is essential to ensure tender skins and even cooking. The sodium (Na+) and chlorine (Cl–) ions will replace some of the ions in the skins of the beans as well as prevent the magnesium (Mg2+) and calcium (Ca2+) ions in the water from binding to the skins of the beans. This allows the entire batch of beans to cook at a constant rate, especially when paired with the evenly distributed heat of the oven. The lemon juice is added at the end of the cooking process to preserve its freshness as well as allow the cellulose in the beans to soften properly at a neutral pH before the lemon juice lowers the pH of the beans.
Admittedly, there is a lot of chemistry that turns a bag of dried beans into a satisfying meal, but the process boils down to a few simple steps and techniques: a little salt, a heavy pot, a moderately hot oven, and restrained acidity. After a few hours of hands-free cooking, you’ll have a dish that is a great accompaniment to pasta with homemade pesto, roasted potatoes or a hearty grain. One of my favorite ways to enjoy these is to top a piece of bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil with a ladle-full of these beans and top them with a grated hard cheese like parmesan or pecorino. However you eat them, they’re sure to be a hit, and I can guarantee that making them will be more fun than doing a chemistry lab.
Rosemary Cannellini Beans
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and halved
1 lb dried cannellini beans, rinsed and picked over to remove any stones
2 teaspoons table salt
8 ½ cups water
1, 6 inch sprig fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with a well-fitting lid over medium heat. Preheat the oven to 350F and remove all the racks except for the lowest one. Once the oil is hot, add the onion to the pot and sauté until golden brown, 6-8 minutes. Add the halved garlic cloves and sauté until fragrant, just under 1 minute. Add the beans, salt, and water, and stir to combine.
- Cover the Dutch oven and place in the preheated oven and bake for 2 to 2 ½ hours, until the beans are tender. In the last hour of baking, remove the lid to allow the liquid to reduce and stir once to ensure even cooking.
Remove the pot from the oven and add the rosemary sprigs. Cover the pot and let sit for 30 minutes to allow the rosemary to release its flavor into the beans. Remove the rosemary sprig, stir in the final tablespoon of olive oil and the lemon juice, then serve.