Food storage cooking: the essential tool chest

Mitla Black tepary bean seeds
Mitla Black tepary bean seeds

It’s cold.  You are thinking about fresh greens for spring, but aside from a few edible spring weeds and any squash and sweet potatoes you have in storage, fresh food is at the grocery store imported from distant locations, not in your yard.  75 years ago, scarcely anyone had fresh foods in winter and certainly not in the early part of the year called “the starving time.”  They were eating their canned, pickled, fermented, dried and smoked preparations from last fall.

Food storage today, for those that practice it, mostly consists of commercially prepared foods and whole grains and beans.  Today I want to focus on those whole grains and beans because many people have lost touch with cooking such simple foods.  Cooking these items from scratch is often considered too difficult and time consuming, but it needn’t be with the right tools.

Let’s start with the old fashioned way.  You don’t need a special appliance for cooking rice and beans; they can all be cooked on a stove top in a saucepan, but if you go that route you need to have the time to pay attention to them because they can burn quickly, especially rice.  The basic recipe is easy.  Boil water, add grains, cover and simmer until done.  Rice is done in 20-60 minutes, depending on the rice.  Beans should generally be soaked overnight beforehand to reduce cooking time.   Cast iron cookware is preferred here, particularly if you will ever want to be cooking outdoors, but cast iron may turn your rice gray unless it is ceramic coated.

Next up is a tool almost every kitchen has: the old fashioned slow cooker, also known as a Crock Pot after the most famous market name of these appliances.  These run $20-70 if you don’t have one already, and have many other uses.  Slow cookers excel at beans.  You add water and beans, set the cook time and walk away.  You can cook rice in them, too, and they are fantastic at slow cooking cheaper cuts of meat.

But if you are going to be cooking these foods a lot — and you should if they are part of your food storage program — you want to give serious consideration to a rice cooker.  Millions of Asians eat rice every day and wouldn’t consider it a kitchen without one.  Even travel versions are popular.  You have two choices here: an on/off cooker or a fuzzy logic cooker, both of which can be used for more than just rice.

I prefer the fuzzy logic cookers.  With a fuzzy logic rice cooker, you can put in beans or whole grains and the appropriate amount of water, tell it to cook it and walk away.  They are very flexible and adaptable to different sizes and densities of grains, and can cook oats for you overnight or beans for your dinner, or both.  When it’s done, it will keep your food warm and fresh for many hours.  This is your most flexible option, but it will set you back $150 or more.  Induction cookers are also available for stratospheric prices but don’t work any better.  For smaller households, I suggest the 5 cup models; the 3 cup models are really too small for soup and similar dishes.  (Bear in mind that is 3 metric cups, which is slighter smaller than the cup we use in the States.)  The cheaper ones, I’m sorry to say from personal experience, do not last long.  If you buy one, don’t go cheap, just buy a Zojirushi.

On/off rice cookers specialize in white rice.  If you have every wondered how the rice comes out so perfect at your favorite Asian restaurant, it’s thanks to a huge commercial rice cooker in the back.  These kinds of rice cookers can be had quite cheaply at the low end ($20-30) but the cheaper ones have sporadic quality.  The Japanese-made Tiger rice cookers are probably the best available and are designed to work for years and years with daily usage, but they aren’t much cheaper than their fuzzy logic cousins.  The on/off cookers do an excellent job with white rice, and are functional but less proficient with brown rice, beans and other whole grains.  On/off cookers also cook rice faster than fuzzy logic cookers.

There’s one exception to my preference for rice cookers: they tend to badly overcook lentils and split peas.  The stove top method is superior here, in my opinion, and is also fairly quick.

If you do get a rice cooker of either kind, the Rice Cooker Cookbook by Hensperger and Kaufman can help you get the most out of it, but while they set out to prove you can cook almost anything in one of these machines, some recipes (like risotto) are just easier the regular way in a pan.

Beans and whole grains are exceptionally healthy for you, store well and are very affordable.  Even the pricier trendy grains like quinoa and amaranth can be reasonably priced if you buy them in bulk, but simple wheat berries, barley and oats make great additions to meals.  If time is a concern, consider a specialized appliance, otherwise don’t be afraid to cook these on the stove.  They are not as difficult as some would like you to believe.

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