Cook's Country

Ask Matthew: Canned Bean Liquid is Magic (and Other Surprises in Your Pantry)

Don't just dump that canned bean water down the drain. It has more to offer. So do a lot of other things in your kitchen.

Published May 18, 2020.

Before Associate Editor Matthew Fairman joined Cook's Country, he cooked in many restaurants and taught college literature and writing. When he’s not pitching a new take on fried rice to his editors or whispering to his slow cookers, Matthew is usually scaling plastic mountains at the climbing gym or running food experiments on his wife, Lauren, and cat, Daisy. One day, he hopes to pay for climbing trips by selling fried rice from a food truck to hungry people stumbling out of bars after last call.

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Dear Matthew, Being quarantined has really revved up my natural inclination to be (how shall I put this delicately) a cheapskate. Just yesterday I was making soup and draining a can of beans over the sink. Watching the liquid flow down the drain, I thought: “Is there something I could be doing with this?” Well, what do you think? Do you know of any good uses for the bean liquid? And while I’m thinking about it, got any other tips I might not be thinking of for getting the most out of my pantry? I feel especially bad about wasting any food right now.

— Tightwad in Tampa


I love your question. I needed your question. As a restaurant cook and as a test cook—and especially right now as a home cook—my thoughts are also often occupied with how to avoid wasting food, be it bean water or broccoli stalks. In the best of times I’m bothered when I catch myself doing it, but it’s never weighed more heavily on my mind than it has in the past weeks, when deciding whether or not to take one more trip to the market has begun to feel like taking an ethics exam.

And so I’m heartened to hear that food waste is on your mind too, and I’m keen to try and help in whatever small ways I can to reorient us both on our quest to get the most out of our pantry. 

Magic Bean Water 

Your hunch about saving that bean canning liquid is spot on; it can be a useful, tasty ingredient in a number of recipes. I think of it as essentially a starchy bean broth. If I’m making something like a broth, soup, stew, or chili—or any dish that I want to end up with a brothy or saucy consistency—I usually don’t hesitate to add some or all of the canning liquid (be careful to remember that it’s often salty; so adjust seasoning as needed). Two delicious, recent examples from the test kitchen come to mind: Paprika Chicken with Garlicky Greens and White Beans and Greek Spinach and Chickpeas. In both of these recipes, the starchy liquid adds flavor and body to the finished dish, a creaminess that’s something like what you get when you toss pasta with its own cooking water. 

But that’s nothing compared to what you can do with the canning liquid from chickpeas, specifically. That “bean water” is so incredible that it’s got its own, romantic-sounding name: aquafaba (which I’m pretty sure just means “bean water” in one of those Romance languages). The supernaturally gifted Books Team at ATK worked culinary miracles with aquafaba when developing recipes for its Vegan for Everybody cookbook. Keep it in mind if you run out of eggs and you want to make a recipe that calls for whipped egg whites. That stash of frozen chickpea bean water might save your dinner (we like to freeze 1-tablespoon portions in ice cube trays). 

Test Kitchen Tips for Making the Most of Your Pantry

But perhaps we’ve talked enough about legume liquor for one day; what about those other tips you requested for getting the most out of your pantry? I’ve crowdsourced a few from the unbelievably talented culinary editors and test cooks I’m privileged to work with. Here’s what I turned up.

Editor Tucker Shaw has been tweeting some great ATK tips lately and here’s a few of them:

  • Some cheeses you can freeze: Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, mozzarella, cheddar (even extra-sharp), brie (I know!). Blocks or wedges do better than shreds. Wrap tightly in foil or plastic, then seal into freezer bag. Up to 6 weeks. Thaw slowly in fridge.
  • Broccoli stalks are delicious. Use a veg peeler to remove 1/8 inch of the tough exterior, then cut the stalk into 1/2-inch chunks. These will cook at the same rate as 1-inch florets. A lovely, crisp-tender texture.
  • You can freeze lemon zest to bake into a pound cake or cookies later. The color fades but the flavor keeps most of its punch. Before you juice your lemons or cut wedges, grate the zest. If you don’t need it right away, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 3 weeks.

Test Cook Mark Huxsoll collects vegetable scraps to transform them into a flavorful veggie broth. Here’s how he laid it out for me:

  • Basically, I save all of my vegetable scraps. Once a week, I slice them thinly, spread them out on an oiled, foil-lined baking sheet, and roast them at 325 degrees with a little more oil and tomato paste (if I have it) until caramelized (45 minutes to 1 hour).
  • Then I put them in a Dutch oven, cover them with water, bring it all to a simmer, put on the lid, and cook it in the oven at 325 degrees for about 1 hour. I strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing all the liquid out. Finally, I reduce the liquid on the stovetop (by about half) to make a concentrate that I can store in my freezer. 
  • Here’s some tips I’ve learned over time for the best results: Too many brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, collards, etc.) make the broth fatty. Alliums (onion, garlic, scallion, chive, shallot, etc.) add great backbone and depth. Carrots are good for sweetness. Peels of all kinds can go in but should be washed first. 

Senior Editor and Cook’s Country TV cast member Christie Morrison reminded me of this article she wrote on making the most of useful scraps in the kitchen. It’s an essential resource for helping us to mitigate food waste day to day. 

Finally, yours truly wrote a bit about saving and reusing bacon grease as well as a little love song about the virtues of eating salmon skin (Did you know some people just throw it out?!). Come to think of it, a lot of foods have peels or skins that we really ought to be eating: I wash carrots rather than peel them; I eat the skins of baked russet and sweet potatoes; and you’re sadly mistaken if you think I’m throwing eggplant and cucumber peels in the compost. That’s good fiber. That’s good flavor. 

Anyway, I bet I could write a series of articles on just this question, and so I want to thank you for it again. If we can find a way to squeeze every bit of nourishment out of the food we have in our homes right now, then what used to feel like being a “tightwad” starts to feel like something very different and far more meaningful. It becomes something generous, even compassionate. If saving food, stretching it as far as you possibly can, means one less trip to the store during these weeks of social distancing, then it means a whole heap of a lot more than simply saving a buck. 

Take care of yourself and take care of each other.   


Matthew Fairman

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