Behind the Recipes

White Bean and Mushroom Gratin

Once you know the building blocks that create savory depth, you won’t miss the meat.

Published Oct. 3, 2018.

My Goals and Discoveries

Easy method; complex flavor

Taking time to develop a good fond by browning the mushrooms and aromatics, deglazing with sherry, and using the broiler to crisp bread cubes turn simple ingredients into a satisfying meal.

Varied textures

Dense mushrooms, tender carrots, creamy beans, and toasted bread cubes make each bite slightly different. 

Silky gravy

Starchy bean liquid and flour thicken the sauce nicely.

Anyone who thinks that meatless bean dishes don’t offer the heartiness of a meat-based meal should give the category another chance. As for those who think that meatless bean dishes tend to lack complexity and savory depth, I’m with you—and I have a recipe that will change your mind.

It’s a bean-based gratin, and it’s not loaded up with esoteric ingredients; in fact, you might have most of what you need on hand. Start to finish, you should be able to get this gratin on the table in just under 2 hours and have plenty of downtime to make a salad or green vegetable while it cooks. 

I built the dish around creamy, nutty canned great Northern white beans. Canned beans are a real timesaver, and we’ve found that their quality can be more consistent than that of dried beans (see “Canned Beans: A Stellar Shortcut”). 

The other core elements are meaty cremini mushrooms, which I browned with salt in an olive oil–slicked skillet to help quickly extract their moisture, and chunks of carrots, which add earthy sweetness and an appealing pop of color.

Next, I gently sautéed some chopped onion. When it turned translucent, I stirred in minced fresh thyme and garlic along with tomato paste, a rich source of savory glutamates. As the aromatics browned, a sweet, savory, herbal fond developed. Since acid brings flavors into focus, I deglazed the skillet with dry sherry, a fortified wine that would boost complexity.

Canned Beans: A Stellar Shortcut

Choosing the convenience of canned beans over dried doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. In fact, modern canning practices produce beans that are often more consistent than dried. Manufacturers clean, sort, and inspect dried beans before blanching them (similar in function to an overnight soak) and sealing them in cans with water and often salt, which seasons the flesh and tenderizes the skins. Most producers also add calcium chloride, which maintains firmness and prevents splitting. The final step is pressure-cooking the beans directly in their cans. The result is perfectly cooked, creamy, and intact beans—every time. The “cooking liquid” in the can is great, too: We routinely use it to give body to bean dishes.

To add richness, I upped the oil I was using to sauté the aromatics to a generous ¼ cup.

Finally, I stirred in the carrots; the beans and their well-seasoned, starchy liquid that would add body to the gravy; and some water and simmered the stew in a 300-degree oven until the carrots were tender, which took about 40 minutes. I wasn’t surprised when the gravy tasted a bit lean and thin. In meat‑based dishes, the meat is an important source of fat. To add richness, I upped the oil I was using to sauté the aromatics to a generous ¼ cup. I also thickened the gravy with a little flour.

For textural contrast, I took a cue from cassoulet, the French bean casserole crowned with a crisp layer of bread crumbs. I tossed cubes of a country-style loaf with ¼ cup of oil (I was generous here again) and some minced parsley and scattered them over the gratin’s surface. I flipped on the broiler toward the end of cooking so the bread would toast evenly.

Crack through the crust and get a spoonful of the rib-sticking, savory beans and vegetables that lie beneath. I promise you won’t miss the meat.   

White Bean and Mushroom Gratin

Once you know the building blocks that create savory depth, you won't miss the meat.
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