A few months ago, you had to be lucky, wily or psychic to get your hands on a bag of dried beans or whole grains. I know I struck out multiple times as I tried to shore up my pandemic pantry. I remember visiting the website of one of my favorite whole-grain purveyors and feeling lucky that I was able to purchase some steel-cut oats — everything else I needed had “sold-out” affixed to it.
If you’re one of those lucky folks who snapped up 25-pound bags of rice and dried beans from Costco — I struck out there, too — you might not be sure what to do with the excess sitting in your pantry. Maybe you were never a big beans-and-grains person before the pandemic, but it just seemed like a good idea to stock up on them. Maybe you do find yourself turning more to these affordable, nutritious staple foods, due to a downturn in your household income — or are simply taking a fresh look at a plant-forward diet — but find when you cook a batch of grains or beans, a lot goes to waste. Whichever statement resonates more with you, you may still be looking at your bean-and-grain stockpile and thinking, “Now what?” Let’s talk about some options.
First, let me clear up one common misconception I hear: Dry beans and grains are perishable. Yes, they have a much longer shelf life than fresh foods, which made them such attractive stock-up items, but their quality will diminish if left to languish in your pantry for too long. Whole grains in particular — for example, brown rice, farro, quinoa, buckwheat, teff, amaranth, millet and wheat and rye berries — contain healthy unsaturated fats that are adversely affected by heat light and air. Just as you should store your olive oil in a tightly closed bottle in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry, you should store dry whole grains in airtight containers in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry. Stored this way, they maintain their quality for about six months. Storing them in the freezer, if you have room, extends that time to about a year.
As for dried beans and lentils — collectively known as pulses — they can last for several years in your pantry, although for best quality, use them within a year of purchase, ideally stored in food-safe storage containers with tight-fitting lids, rather than in the bag you purchased them in. The longer they sit, the longer they will take to cook, but otherwise, they’re fine to eat.
OK, so dried pulses and grains don’t last forever, but what about once they’re cooked? While some whole grains and pulses cook quickly, others take more time. Which means you can’t decide shortly before dinner to cook up some of the dried cannellini beans or farro in your pantry, unless you like to lean on your Instant Pot. That makes it worthwhile to get a many-meal return on your time investment.
Many people — including myself, often — espouse choosing a whole grain and a bean and cooking a large batch of each to use throughout the week. That’s great advice, given that these versatile pantry staples can easily be turned into a soup, tossed onto a salad or morphed into a side dish. However, there can be a few logistical problems with this plan. Your beautiful cooked grains and beans can easily languish in the refrigerator past the point where they can be safely eaten — about three or four days. If you cook up some grains on Sunday, and forget about them until Friday, they’re ready for the compost bin. This is a case where your freezer is your friend. After all, you can purchase precooked frozen rice and other grains at some grocery stores — why not save a little money and make your own?
Cooked, frozen grains and beans remain tasty for about two months. Once you’ve cooked your grains or beans and allowed them to cool, simply divide them up into the amount that works best for you — one cup, two cups, or more — and place them in an airtight plastic or glass food container. If you’re not averse to single-use plastic freezer bags, an efficient use of freezer space is to lay the filled and labeled bags flat in a stack. Freezing excess grains and beans is useful whether you only want to cook a large batch periodically — à la batch cooking — or you simply cooked too much brown rice for your stir-fry and have no immediate plans for the rest. Freeze it so your next stir-fry will come together even faster. To thaw, microwave the frozen grains or beans with a little water, or heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, adding some liquid if needed.
Most grains hold up well through the freezing and thawing process, although heartier grains such as rice, farro, wheat and rye berries, barley, bulgur and buckwheat do best. Similarly, lentils and softer cooked beans don’t hold their shape well through the freeze-thaw, which is fine if you are using them in a pureed soup, in a dip, or for refried beans. Speaking of dips, you can freeze bean dips and hummus, which comes in handy if, like me, you prefer to make a double or triple batch to make washing the food processor or blender really worth the trouble. That’s important, because even if you’re spending more time at home more now than you did a year ago, you probably don’t want to spend all that time in the kitchen.