After nearly three years of hemming and hawing, I finally bought an Instant Pot after two of my most trusted colleagues swore they’d never cook beans without it again. But having used it for months, I have to confess: I sort of hate what might be the most popular cooking appliance of recent years. It feels important for me to reveal this to you now, because this is my final column for The Times Magazine.
In my first column four years ago, I declared my loathing for recipes. I still feel somewhat trapped as both a writer and follower of them, but I suppose I may have softened a bit. In her dazzling, thorny new essay collection, “The Book of Difficult Fruit,” Kate Lebo writes, “Recipes are rituals that promise transformation.” This definition rings true to me, and cooking beans is a ritual I’ve developed over the course of my career. As with other meaningful rituals, cooking beans connects me with memories, traditions, art, nature and of course people who have been important to me.
My ritual begins with the delight I take in procuring beans. When traveling, I visit markets to find local varieties I can’t get at home, and I spend months strategizing my garden layout so I can maximize my own crop of beans. Then, when it’s time to cook, I insist on an overnight soak — especially when I’m not sure how old my beans may be. Other people say this is a waste of time, but I’d argue that hydrated beans cook more evenly and in less time than their parched counterparts. To the soaking pot, I add salt to flavor the legumes from within and baking soda to alkalinize the cooking environment and encourage tenderness. The next day, I add whatever aromatics I have around — a bay leaf, a garlic clove, an onion end, a fresh or dried chile — and maybe a glug of olive oil, and then I simmer the beans until they’re done. Beans seem to achieve a firm-yet-creamy texture when they’re cooked in earthenware, so that’s what I use. When I can, I use one of the clay pots my best friend schlepped back from Latin America — they make me think of him.
These are the things I missed most when I used the Instant Pot. And after I sealed everything inside its chamber and set a timer, I lost all the sensory cues I cherished. My kitchen did not fill with a rich, starchy smell as the beans transformed from raw to cooked. I missed the way that cooking a pot of beans requires me to be present, topping it off with more water as it evaporates. The only surefire way I know to tell that beans are done is to taste five creamy, tender ones in a row. On the stove, if my third or fourth bean is not quite done, I just keep simmering, but with the Instant Pot this meant letting the pressure release completely, then bringing the pot back up to pressure and guessing how long to repeat the cycle for. Usually, by the time I got my beans cooked, I may as well have just prepared them on the stove.
I spent months trying — and failing — to learn to love cooking beans in the Instant Pot, which means I’ve been eating a lot of beans and rice lately. I grew up eating incredibly silky refried pinto beans at taquerias in San Diego, and if given a choice, I will always pick refried beans over any other. But I don’t always have lard or pinto beans on hand. I do always have olive oil around, though. So I adapted the traditional method using the ingredients I had and kept tinkering. I loved the olive-oil version so much that I kept making it even after I put away the Instant Pot.
One night I found myself smearing a refried paste of runner beans from my garden all over garlic-rubbed toast, showering it with Parmesan and eating it with a salad of pink chicories dressed with an almost-too-acidic vinaigrette. Reflecting upon my meal, I realized that my ritual had indeed made good on its promise of transformation. I sighed as I rarely do, with a sense of complete satisfaction.
There is so little joy to be had these days. I’m learning that we have to take it where we can get it, even if it’s just in a pot of beans. So if you prefer to cook yours in an Instant Pot or with any other tool, then by all means, do! This is just my ritual. It’s not a prescription, but an offering. And maybe I’ll even find another use for that Instant Pot. If I don’t, I’ll pass it on to someone to whom it will bring a whole lot of joy.
Recipe: Olive Oil Refried Beans