The best tips for preparing cranberry beans differ slightly depending on whether the beans are fresh or dried, but boiling is required in both instances, as is proper attention to bean quality and overall cook time. Fresh beans are often lauded as superior but are hard to find in most places. In commercial settings, the beans are almost always dried. Preparation tips in both circumstances include careful selection and cleaning, as well as close attention to boil time, to avoid turning the beans to mush. Paying attention to spices and seasoning is also important.
The first step to preparing fresh beans is removing them from the pod and rinsing them of debris. Unlike the green beans that they resemble, cranberry beans must be shucked from their pods before cooking. The pods are often an attractive red color, but are bitter and do not typically cook well.
Cooking with cranberry beans that are fresh requires a close attention to quality. Most fresh varieties come from family farms, which often lack the quality control measures of commercial operations. It is important to check beans for freshness, insects, and blight before cooking them. A bad bean will not necessarily wreck a dish, but it is rarely pleasant and easy to avoid with a bit of attention at the outset.
Fresh varieties must be boiled briefly to obtain a palatable softness and enhanced flavor. Eating cranberry beans raw is possible but rarely very tasty. Most cooks boil the beans for anywhere from three to five minutes. The goal is fork-tenderness, which means that the beans are soft to the touch, but still hold their shape. It is sometimes necessary to sample the beans as they cook to ensure proper timing.
The best tips for cooking dried cranberry beans are somewhat different. Inspection is still required but is usually less taxing, as the beans have likely been sorted before being packaged. The cooking time for dried beans is extensive, however, and must be planned well in advance.
While it is possible to simply boil dried beans for an extended period of time, better results usually come with soaking. The cranberry beans should be covered in lukewarm water for at least 4 hours — and up to 12 hours — before cooking is to begin. It is sometimes necessary to change the water once or twice in order to keep it clear.
Once the pre-soak is completed, the beans must be boiled until they, too, have reached fork-tenderness. This can take upwards of an hour. Cooks must pay careful attention to the boil time to avoid overcooking.
There are many health benefits of cranberry beans, including high levels of several vitamins. These properties are often lost if the beans are allowed to disintegrate, however. This rule applies to fresh as well as dried beans.
Seasoning is also something to consider. As dried beans boil, they create a sort of broth which many cooks exploit by adding seasoning and herbs. This both lends flavor to the rehydrating cranberry beans and produces a stock that can be saved and used for future recipes.
While capturing a useable broth is harder within the short boil window appropriate for fresh beans, seasoning can be important there, too. Adding spices and more pungent ingredients such as garlic can enhance beans’ overall flavor. Even just a bit of salt is usually enough to bring out more flavor than water could on its own.