What You Need to Know About Pulses

04 Feb 2016

Long a staple in the diet of many communities, pulses are still a common ingredient in cuisines around the world. A cheap and tasty source of protein, minerals, vitamin B1 and micronutrients, they make a great ally for both healthy eating and economic survival, particularly in developing countries. Indeed, with the slogan “nutritious seeds for a sustainable future,” FAO has declared 2016 International Year of Pulses, in order to raise awareness about their advantages, increase their production and sale and encourage new uses along the whole food chain. So it’s a good moment to ask: Just how much do you know about pulses?


  • How to choose them

There are dozens of varieties of edible pulses, from dried peas to lentils, chickpeas and a host of different beans, such as broad beans and lupins. Choose local products where possible (check out the Slow Food Presidia and the Ark of Taste products) or, if packaged, read the label carefully.


  • Do they need to be soaked?

Dried pulses require a long soak in water, at least until they double in volume. Change the water a few times during the soaking. This is an essential phase before cooking, so that they can release any toxic or hard-to-digest substances. Soaking times depend on the pulses being used, and it’s not a problem if they stay in the water for a few hours longer than necessary; in fact, they’ll only become more digestible. Don’t use the soaking water to cook them; save it instead to water the garden.


  • Kombu seaweed: A useful ally

It’s a good idea to put a piece of kombu in the soaking water. This seaweed can help to neutralize antinutrient substances. It can also be used in the cooking water, because at boiling temperatures it helps create the ideal pH to encourage greater digestibility.


  • What pot?

Metal is not the best material for cooking pulses because it creates an acidic environment and hardens their skins. A terracotta pot is best. Beans should be cooked over a low flame, and started in cold water. The foam that forms when the water boils must be skimmed off.


  • The bicarbonate trick

Adding sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to the pot helps pulses cook better, making them soften faster without disintegrating. This is a particularly good tip for dried beans that have spent a long time in the back of the cupboard.


  • A pinch of salt… or not?

Never add salt before or during cooking, as it will harden the pulses’ external skin and make the cooking time longer.


  • Do they create bloating?

Pulses are a valuable food, but often they can cause intestinal bloating. Try adding a few bay leaves to the cooking water, or one of the following herbs and spices: basil, cumin, coriander, chives, thyme, rosemary, cardamom, turmeric, fennel seeds or dill.


  • What’s the best pairing for a complete dish?

The best pairing is with grains, like farro, kamut, millet, barley, quinoa or rye. In fact, the cereal-and-bean combination is a feature of many traditional cuisines.


  • Are there any Slow Food events focused on legumes?

If you want to enjoy the pleasures of pulses, why not enjoy an all-Italian holiday in Naples from March 4-6, the wonderful setting for Leguminosa, the second edition of an international event conceived by Slow Food Campania to promote the immense heritage of beans and other legumes. Meanwhile, autumn in Tuscany is usually the time for Slow Beans, during which pulses from the local area, as well as the rest of Italy and Europe, are displayed, sold, cooked and eaten. You can also learn more about beans at specific Taste Workshops that look at their nutritional value and explore their history.

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