A Big Guide to Tiny, Mighty Pulses
Check your pulse! Dried beans, peas, and lentils come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, with their own nutrition superpowers. Explore types of pulses and delicious pulses recipes, from hearty soups to summery salads.
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Featured pulses photographs by Rachael Nusbaum
Beans, lentils, peas. These little starchy pellets come in an endless variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, from scarlet bursts to spotted browns, creamy whites, blacks, golds, and greens. They can be sweet or vegetative, creamy or grainy, or somewhere in the middle. So what do they have in common, other than being dry, starchy, and cute?
Well, a whole lot, actually. They’re all considered pulses.
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What are pulses?
In a nutshell — or pod, actually! — pulses are dry, edible seeds of annual legume plants. Each pod yields between a single and a dozen seeds that are harvested like grains. Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dried peas are all categorized as pulse crops. However, soybeans and peanuts, while in the legume family, are higher in fat and are not considered pulses.
Why should we eat pulses?
There are four major reasons to eat pulses: our bodies, our planet, our wallets, and our taste buds!
In terms of pulses' nutritional benefits, they're an excellent source of low-fat protein for vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. Pulses are high in dietary fiber, which is important to help manage body weight, control heart disease and cholesterol, and regulate digestion. As complex carbohydrates, they help regulate blood sugar spikes, reducing diabetes risks. Additionally, pulses are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients including iron, potassium, magnesium, folate, and antioxidants.
Not only are pulses healthy for humans, they’re healthy for our planet. They’re a poster child for sustainability, easy to grow and requiring much less water than protein sources such as meat. Pulses increase soil health, feeding soil microbes and providing nutrients for the next crop grown. Additionally, pulses fight greenhouse gases while they grow by utilizing soil bacteria to draw nitrogen from the air.
Finally, pulses are cheap, at only a dollar or two a pound, filling, and easy and delicious to cook.
How to buy and store pulses
Harvested already dried, pulses are most commonly bulk-packed in sealed plastic bags. They’re also popular canned, which means they’re ready to use with no soaking or cooking required. Some pulses are sold frozen, too.
Stored in a cool, dark, airtight container, pulses will last a year or longer. Canned pulses will last indefinitely. Cooked pulses keep in the refrigerator for five days or so, or six months frozen.
How to cook pulses
We’ll be getting into lots of pulses recipes calling for canned beans and friends, which are ready to go. But in case you’re starting with dry pulses, here’s how to prep them for cooking. Note that lentils and mung beans do not need to be soaked.
• Sort for debris. Pour out the beans for your recipe and pick out any shriveled or broken pieces, stones, or other debris.
• Give ’em a rinse in cold water.
• Pre-soak method #1 (overnight). Soaking hastens cooking time, helps pulses cook more evenly, and removes some of the undigestible sugars that cause the toots the “musical fruit” is known for. The traditional way is to soak them overnight in cold water.
• Pre-soak method #2 (quick-soak). If you’re in a rush, a quick-soak can do the trick, too. Cover your dry peas or beans with unsalted water and bring them to a rolling boil on the stovetop. Then turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour.
• Simmer until tender. Cover and simmer your pre-soaked beans or peas in their soaking liquid (for a beanier flavor and darker beans) or fresh water (for a lighter touch). You can also add chopped onions, garlic, or bay leaves at the start for more flavor.
• Tips for best results. For best texture, simmer pulses gently until they’re just tender. For the most tender pulses, wait to add salt and acids such as tomatoes until about three-quarters through cooking.
Wondering what are the different kinds of pulses? Read on to explore some popular beans, peas, and lentils and how to use them to their best effect.
Southwestern favorites: black and pinto beans
One of the most common types of beans in America, thanks to the popularity of Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, shiny, tasty black beans (or turtle beans) are one of the healthiest beans you can eat. Black beans are high in folate, vitamin B1, and iron — all of which make them a great pick for pregnant women.
Pinto beans are another bean important in Latin cuisine. Translated to “painted” for their festive, mottled speckling when dry (which they lose when cooked), they’re earthy, creamy, and commonly used for refried beans.
Corn and black beans go so well together, the sweetness of the corn offsetting the heartiness of the beans. This salad can easily double as salsa to top your grilled fish or chicken!
Like most beans, once pinto beans are mashed, rich flavors meld beautifully into them. Classic refried beans, popularized in Tex-Mex cooking, are rich and delicious, incorporating lard, garlic, onions, and broth into every bite.
Hashes are a great way to get more vegetables into your diet first thing in the morning, and adding black beans gives these eggs a protein boost while also amping up the sweet potato’s fiber power.
Like most women, I’m always struggling to add more fiber to my diet … and I enjoy a treat here and there. Black beans blend in well with chocolate, allowing you to create a healthier base for baked goodies! This recipe takes it a step further and makes it flourless.
Red beans, including pink and kidney
Boldly flavored kidney beans get their name from their signature shape — a slightly curved oval that resembles an actual kidney — no less for their dark or light red hue. They’re rich and hearty, ideal for long simmers, soups, stews, and chilis.
Smaller red and pink beans are both smooth in flavor and meaty, and they hold their oval shape. But that’s where the similarities end. Pink beans, important to many Caribbean cuisines, fade to a blush brown when cooked. If bold color is your goal, red beans are a good choice. These are a pulse of pride for Louisiana Creole cuisine, firmer than pinks and kidneys, and satisfyingly dense.
This slow-cooking, no-supervision meal is quintessential Louisiana — a Monday tradition born from Sunday dinner scraps and designated laundry day, back when that was an all-day event. Served with white rice, sliced scallions, and a dash of Crystal hot sauce, this is one of the dishes I miss from my time living in New Orleans.
Chili is one of the most classic ways to use kidney beans, and their firm texture stands up well. Beans are already low in fat and high-protein, but you can cut down even more on the fat by using lean ground turkey instead of beef, as in this recipe.
Traditional bean salads start with three kinds, but feel free to add on or trade off! Unless you’re talking kidney beans, which to me are non-negotiable in a good multi-bean salad, with more personality than other kinds. In this recipe the acidity of the dressing balances kidney beans’ earthiness, while the lower-sugar dressing keeps things healthy.
White beans: cannellini, Great Northern, navy, and lima
Essentially white kidney beans, cannellini beans are a staple in Italian cuisine — so much so that Italians used to call Tuscans “bean eaters.” However, the joke’s on them. Cannellini beans have a more subtle flavor and softer texture than their red brethren, and are great as salad toppers, in dishes with shorter cooking times, and dumped into soup last-minute. Also good for soup, Great Northern keep their shape well. They’re slightly grainier and nuttier, but still soft and mild.
Limas have gotten a bad rap due to poor (read: boring) preparation … but there’s a reason they’re also called butter beans. When made right, these flat, off-white beans can be buttery and delicious.
Finally in this category there’s a white bean you’ve probably only seen as brown. Sound like a riddle? That’s because baked beans are actually made with white navy beans, a variety even more American than apple pie, since they’re native to our land. They got their modern moniker as a staple of the diets of U.S. Navy troops during the 20th century, and are still a filling food at 19 grams of fiber per cup!
Making a traditional version of the hearty, country French beans and meat dish called cassoulet can be a multi-day affair. This recipe, which clocks in at just over an hour, goes with sausages only (versus adding duck, duck confit, or other meats) and creamy canned cannellini beans rather than dried beans.
Meaty, sweet, and nutty, cannellini beans complement greens well. Their starchy texture and the addition of sausage in the soup guarantee a filling meal. Tiny frittata cubes add even more protein and a fun texture.
Baked beans are found in several variations in American cuisine, with Boston-style being one of the most famous. Along with white navy beans, salt pork or bacon and molasses are key components for genuine-article Boston.
Baking limas turns them into a delightful vegan, gluten-free main with plenty of flavor. Tomatoes give the dish a zesty, fresh feel, and a medley of Mediterranean herbs provides depth.
Traditional succotash uses corn as the star and lima beans as its understudy. Everything else, including squash, are just extras. This recipe takes the dish to a summery and slightly Mediterranean place with tomatoes, feta, and fresh basil.
Chickpeas and fava beans
Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) have been a fan favorite seemingly forever — roughly 7,500 years. One of the earliest cultivated legumes in human history, chickpeas have been enjoyed since before pottery was invented. Today they’re one of the widest-grown legumes in the world. Creamy, starchy, and mild-flavored, chickpeas are endlessly versatile and easy to love, though lower in protein than other pulses and slightly higher in fat.
Less widely consumed today, fava beans are among the oldest domesticated pulses, dating back to the Neolithic period. These broad, oval beans are native to and most popular in northern Africa. They’re distinctive for their chewy consistency and a fibrous, waxy, semi-transluscent skin with a slightly bitter, vegetal flavor. Mature fava beans, even the dry beans, must be blanched and shocked to remove this membrane (some brands do this for you). Once cooked, favas are soft and buttery but maintain a bit of their grassy quality.
In the current hummus craze, the dip swings from fuchsia beet-flavored to electric green spinach, but you still can’t go wrong with the traditional version. Make it in a snap with canned chickpeas as well as tahini, lemon juice, and garlic.
Chickpeas are vital to the cultural cuisine of India, and this flavor-packed curry is one of the best ways to enjoy them.
A true Greek salad has only a handful of chopped fresh ingredients and no lettuce. This recipe takes its cue from the family of Mediterranean chopped salads that includes Greek horiatiki, Bulgarian shopska, and Turkish çoban salatası, but adds the fiber and protein power of chickpeas — turning a light side into a healthy meal.
This flourless dessert hack is a favorite in the fitness community and can easily be made gluten-free if you use gluten-free oats, flax, or almond flour as suggested. Enjoy this “raw” cookie dough as a treat while getting a hefty dose of protein and fiber with every bite.
Although falafel is commonly made with chickpeas, using fava beans (here, from a can) as the starring starch is actually very common in Egypt. The addition of carrots adds sweetness to help tone down the green flavor of the favas, as well as a festive color!
Peas: split peas, black-eyed peas, cowpeas, and pigeon peas
You’d think all peas are alike, but that’s untrue. Fresh peas are from a different family of legumes than pulse peas. Green split peas are small, round, and have an earthier, more commanding flavor than milder yellow, which are commonly used in soups and purees in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and parts of Asia.
Then there are the distinctively marked peas that are a staple food for many cultures in tropical regions. Cowpeas, or brown-eyed beans, originated in West Africa before being shared across Asia, Southern Europe, Central and South America, and evolving into the popular black-eyed peas we know and love here in America’s South — especially for New Year’s. Pigeon peas, on the other hand, came from India about 3,000 years ago, and have become vital to Indian and Caribbean cooking — so much so that they’re a titular part of Puerto Rico’s national dish.
Split pea is one of my favorite soups — hearty, chunky, and a great use of leftover ham and ham bones. In fact, it’s honestly why I even make ham in the first place! Add Creole seasoning for a little heat, and don’t be afraid to make a big batch, as it freezes well.
Arroz con Gandules is Puerto Rico’s national dish, and absolutely addicting with the richness of bacon, fragrant rice, and flavorful ingredients like sofrito and sazón.
Why wait until December 31 when you can have lucky New Year legumes now? Also called Carolina Peas and Rice, this Southern classic lets you start over whenever you please, and deliciously.
Lentils: regular green, red split, black, and French green
Lentils are a pulse that deserve their own article, but we’d be remiss not to mention them in this big picture! These tiny, coin-shaped legumes are tremendously high in protein, packing in 18 grams per cup at only 230 calories. They’re delicious with their rich, deep flavors, and convenient since they don’t require soaking.
There’s a wide variety, with large, regular green lentils being the most predominant type worldwide. And there are a few rules of thumb to remember. The most important is that red split lentils (which turn golden when cooked) cook quickly and fall apart, making them perfect for Indian dal. Black lentils (also called beluga) and French green (also called Puy) lentils hold their shape, which makes them great for salads. These types also take longer to cook and soak up a lot of liquid in the process. Regular green supermarket lentils fall somewhere in between, cooking fairly quickly and holding their shape pretty well until they’re overcooked, at which point they can get a bit mushy.
Red lentils fall apart, which is just what you want in this chunky, aromatic simmered dal. This version is richer than most with the addition of coconut milk and almond butter, making a bowl satisfying and filling for hours.
Before we went Beyond and discovered the Impossible, there were lentils, an amazing hefty, natural meat substitute with the ability to cloak all manner of other vegetables among them. This not-so-meatloaf is one of my favorite ways to healthify a classic comfort food.
For this filling salad, you can go with common green lentils cooked until just tender so they hold their shape, or fancier French green (or black!) lentils. Roasted sunflower seeds and fresh arugula add crunch, and chunks of avocado and turmeric-seasoned yogurt add creaminess.
Sweet Asian beans: mung and adzuki
The notion of using beans as a dessert ingredient may be novel to Western civilization, but in Asia, they’ve been doing it a long time. Revered as a healing food, easy-to-digest, quick-cooking mung beans are delicate, sweet, and used throughout Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian cuisines for treats as well as savory dishes. For treats, they’re turned into a paste suited for a variety of applications. Their colors can range from green to yellow to black.
Red bean paste is always red, and is a sweet bean flavor folks are likely more familiar with. It’s made from adzuki beans, grown in East Asia and the Himalayas and not to be confused with the small red beans of Creole cuisine. However, adzuki are sometimes called red mung beans just to trip us up!
Mung beans are one of the few beans that don’t require soaking overnight — they’re ready in a matter of hours. This Shanghai-inspired recipe is a fun, nearly nonfat way to fit fiber and protein into your dessert rotation.
The beauty of a braided loaf meets the fluffiness of Chinese bakery buns and red bean paste filling in this gorgeous swirled pastry. The recipe is a lot of work, with from-scratch instructions on how to make your own red bean paste. But so are cinnamon rolls, and no one says those aren’t worth it. This bread has the bonus of bean’s extra fiber and protein, with minimal sugar to boot!
No matter whether you start the age-old rhyme “Beans, beans, the musical fruit …” or “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart …” the second half of it still rings true. “The more you eat, the better you feel, so eat your beans at every meal!” Your heart and its pulse will thank you for adding pulses to your daily diet.
Explore more plant-based foods
Thinking about a plant-based diet? Beans and whole grains are just the beginning. Learn more in these next articles.