An Ode to the Inexpensive Bean

I’ve become convinced lately that the most cost-efficient food in our kitchen is beans, and it’s a food that people often overlook. Beans are loaded with protein and are quite flavorful, particularly as a substitute for meats in a vegetarian diet.

How Cheap Is It?
Here’s a real world example of how inexpensive they can be. My family quite enjoys bean soup with a wide variety of beans in it. Let’s say, hypothetically, that we were to order this soup from Amazon Grocery. You can get four 29 ounce bags of 13 bean soup there for $18.96 and free shipping. Now, when I prepare a pot of soup beans for my family, I use about a pound of beans, so each of those bags would in effect be eight meal preparations. Even more amazing – each batch of soup I make will feed my family of three (since my daughter isn’t quite old enough to eat such things yet) plus make at least enough to freeze two bags of completed soup, each of which will provide another meal for all three of us.

So, I get eight batches out of this $18.96 order, and each of those batches provides three family meals of bean soup, and each of those family meals feeds three of us. That’s 72 meals, meaning the cost of beans per meal is about a quarter. Even if I spent that much just on spicing it up with leftover ham, pepper, salt, and such things, that still means I’m paying $0.50 a meal. That’s ridiculously cheap.

Even better, you can easily just buy several one pound bags of various bean types and mix them yourself in a large Tupperware container. This substantially pushes down the price of the beans – you can reduce the total cost by 40% or more beyond this just by doing some frugal shopping and mixing them yourself.

Beans can be used in countless dishes – burritos, casseroles, side salads, soups, and even breakfast. It’s also very easy to accent their flavor: pepper, salt, leftover ham, and most savory seasonings work very well with beans. There’s also a substantial variety in bean flavor and texture, so it only has to be repetitive if you let it get repetitive.

Here are five of my favorite bean-oriented recipes that you can make at home very inexpensively. Pick up a bag of dried beans (or even a can of them, though it’s not as frugal) at your local grocery store and give these a shot.

General Dry Bean Preparation Tips
Dry beans are by far the cheapest way to purchase beans – and much tastier and full-flavored than canned beans, in my opinion. The only drawback is that there’s some preparation work involved – but don’t worry, you can get it started before you go to work and finish pretty quickly when you get home.

It’s easy. Before you go to work, get the biggest pot you have and add a pound of beans to it (roughly two cups). On top of that, put six cups of cold water and let it sit on the counter top all day.

When you get home, pour off the water they’ve been soaking in and pick out any bean skins that might have soaked off of the bean. Put two tablespoons of oil in there (this keeps it from boiling over), then pour on six cups of fresh water, add a half a teaspoon of salt, and put the pot on the stove to boil. Get it at a gentle boil and then just let it boil there for an hour and a half or so – once you get it right, you can easily walk away from it if need be, as the oil will prevent boiling over.

In the end, you basically have bean soup. You can drain off the liquid if you want to use the beans for other purposes, or you can just eat the soup as is. However, note that most soups taste better if you add all of the other soup ingredients early in the boil. Also note that after you’ve boiled the beans, you can just drop them in a container for storage in the fridge – they’ll be fine for a day or two.

Beans and Eggs
Easy as pie. Just crack four eggs, add half a teaspoon of milk and some pepper, and beat them rapidly until they’re consistent in texture. Pour the egg mixture into a skillet and add half a cup of cooked black beans (or a bean mix, if you prefer). Scramble the eggs by repeatedly moving the eggs around in the skillet as it cooks until it’s nice and fluffy and full of beans. Put some cheese and salsa on top and you have one of my favorite breakfasts in the world – plus it’s an ovo-vegetarian dish.

Balsamic Vinaigrette Bean Salad
Take two pounds of cooked beans, any variety you’d like, and add in a diced medium red onion. To this, add two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, four finely chopped garlic cloves, a quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil, and mix everything together. Add some ground black pepper to taste. This makes a very big batch of the salad, which is a great thing to take to a potluck dinner – for home use, you should probably halve the entire recipe (one pound of beans, a small diced onion, one tablespoon of vinegar, two garlic cloves, and an eighth of a cup of olive oil).

Beef and Bean Burritos
Cook a pound of ground beef. As the meat is cooking, add half a cup of chopped onion and a minced garlic clove. Stir the meat often to break it up, then when it’s well cooked, drain it, and add to it two teaspoons of chili powder, one teaspoon of oregano, half a teaspoon of cumin, half a teaspoon of salt, and half a teaspoon of brown pepper. Mix it all together and you have the beef part of the recipe. Just fill a large tortilla with this meat, some lettuce, and whatever beans you like – I prefer black beans or pinto beans or even refried beans.

Sixteen Bean Soup
Just follow the cooking directions above with your favorite multi-bean mix, except add half a pound of leftover meat to the soup as it’s cooking. I like to add cubed ham myself, but you can add other meats. Also, add a small minced onion to the soup, too, just as it begins to boil, and also add salt and pepper to taste.

Bean, Ham, and Tomato Casserole
Basically, take the soup you made with the sixteen bean soup recipe and drain off all but a cup of the liquid. Mix into the soup two diced tomatoes, put a bit more pepper on top, and (optionally) put a thin layer of finely ground Cheddar cheese on top (the cheese is highly optional). Bake it at 350 F (160 C) for about ten minutes and it turns out surprisingly well and often very distinct in flavor from the sixteen bean soup.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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