Beans, beans, the musical….
No, let’s start without the limericks.
Beans and rice. Rice and beans. The world lives on beans and rice. From pauper food to high cuisine, beans are magical. They are packed with protein, inexpensive, and last forever. This makes them a cornerstone of prepping food storage.
Carbohydrates store easily however proteins are a challenge. There are only so many ways to preserve meat for the long-term, and all of them are expensive. With dry beans, you can stack up this vital nutrient for little money and less effort.
Let’s look at the most efficient way to store large amounts of beans.
Ok, I’ll admit it. Beans aren’t as glamorous as cans of chicken or stacks of jerky. I’m just not going to get as excited about a side of beans as I will get over a six-month aged porterhouse.
That being said, it’s pretty doubtful that I will meet my family’s protein needs for the end of the world with a freezer full of steak.
There are two reasons for this. The first is cost. The second is variety. My prepping only allows for steak as a treat, not as a staple.
Also, even though I’m a big fan, there is only one way to cook a good steak, and even that will eventually get boring. Beans have both cost and variety in their favor. Let’s look a little deeper at them.
The lowly common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) was first domesticated around 7000 BCE in south and central America. The residents of these regions, spurred by the nutritional benefit of beans, harvested and re-planted the best varieties.
Over the generations, man has cultivated these one or two fruits into the myriad of beans we use today. For this, we have much to thank them for! From Pintos to black beans, fava to lentils, the varieties are as numerous as their uses.
Annually we grow and process 27 million tons of dried beans. Billions of beans used as a staple food from Africa to South America.
Although eaten with other sides and ingredients, beans by themselves are nutritional powerhouses. One-half cup of cooked black beans boasts over 100 calories, 20 grams of carbohydrates, and 8 grams of protein. Beans are also rich in micronutrients, including folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.
Extrapolating to a full pound, beans have over 1,500 calories. Conveniently, 30 pounds fit into a standard 5-gallon bucket. This makes almost a month of calories for one person in a bucket.
That falls in line with rice, oats, wheat, and pasta. If all you had were beans and your foraging skills, you could easily survive 30 days of subsistence living.
When packaged properly beans can last for over 25 years. There is a risk that they become overly dry. The issue here is that they become hard and difficult to cook. In most circumstances, you can cook beans in a few hours at a low simmer.
If they are over-dry a few hours won’t do it. They’ll remain hard and unpalatable. Don’t fret, you can still cook them either with baking soda, or in a pressure canner. You can even use them as a partial flour substitute.
Beans are one of the cheapest sources of protein you can pack away. Depending on where you source them and what kind you source you can expect to pay between $1 and $2 per pound.
To make your money go the farthest, buy in bulk. If this does not fit your budget, then try to add one or two bags of beans to your grocery cart each week.
The key to beans is their variety. Each one has a unique flavor and use. Aside from beans and rice, my favorite treatment for black beans are as a dip (black beans, olive oil, and a little salt) or slow cooked with a little bacon.
I reserve lentils for a stew-like soup with a little left-over ham. One recipe that I’m dying to try is pinto bean brownies!
How Many Beans to Store
Prepping for the long-term takes volume. A few 1-pound bags won’t help when the grid goes down. You need to secure your independence for weeks or months. The prepper yardstick is having a full year of calories. Let’s look at the math.
The average person needs 2,500 calories per day. The average family of four therefore needs 10,000 calories. At 365 days in a year, this adds up to about 3.6 million calories that you need in your long-term storage.
At 1,500 calories per pound, that would be a little over 2,400 pounds of beans. Yeah, that’s a lot of beans. Too many.
Taking a more moderate approach to your digestive health, the Provident Living Food Storage Calculator has a more reasonable approach.
Assuming the same family of four, including two adult children (over the age of 12) they recommend only 240 pounds of beans. They balance this out with 1600 pounds of grains (wheat, rice, oats, pasta, etc.), 120 pounds of dairy products (for fat and protein), and 120 pounds of additional fats (oils, butters, and shortening).
Fill the gaps with salt and sugar, and you have a balanced year’s supply of food. From here you add spices, meats, and other treats to make a more exciting menu and you can survive the year in relative comfort.
There are more bean varieties than I can count. Admittedly, I cook only the mass-market types. Black, norther, pinto, and lentils have a spot in my pantry. This is a bit of an injustice to the bean world that I should correct. Here are a few varieties and their uses.
Best known for their inclusion in beans and rice, their use does not end there. You can use them in just about any Mexican dish. They also form the base of bean burgers. Mix with tomatoes and corn for either salsa or as a Texas black bean soup.
Great Northern Beans
These larger and milder cousins of black bean are great in ham and bean soup, as well as white chili recipes.
Great served as a side of refried beans, Pintos are also the cornerstone of the brownie recipe I spoke of earlier
Available in red, orange, yellow, brown, and green, I love lentils simply because they are small and require a lot less fuel to cook. My favorite use is in soup, although they can also be used in salads and tacos.
Also known as Chickpeas, but garbanzo is much more fun to say. These beans are the base of any good hummus. Large and flavorful, they also make a great salad topper.
Sourcing Beans in Bulk
Almost every grocery store carries beans in one-pound plastic bags. We’re thinking big though. If you must, buy them a pound at a time. But save a little effort, and possibly money, by asking the manager for one or more unopened cases. They may even give you a discount.
Next is the local wholesale store such as Sam’s Club or Costco. I’ll admit that my local clubs have little in the way of bulk beans. However, I have seen good supplies in other areas of the country.
Next is restaurant supply stores. I watch our local store for weekends that are open to the public. When this happens, I buy big. Really big! They carry 50-pound bags of over a half dozen different varieties. I pick up 100 pounds at a time, as this divides evenly between three 5-gallon buckets.
Finally, seek out your local ethnic grocery stores. African, Ethiopian, and Mexican stores usually carry beans in bulk. Our local Mexican/South American grocery store has an aisle dedicated to beans and rice in bulk.
Precautions for Bean Storage
As with all long-term foods, you will be in a minor battle for your food. This is a battle that you can’t afford to lose. The enemies are bugs, moisture, oxygen, heat, and light. The good news is that each has a weapon that you can deploy.
The goal is to pack your beans away for multiple decades, and have them in the same condition as the day you packed them away. With a few precautions, you can save your beans in bulk and ever have to rotate them.
Bugs and Pests
Protection from bugs and pests is best summed up by preparation and packaging. All raw foods have a few eggs or insects. It is impossible to escape these completely. In most cases, we cook and eat the food before these can become an issue.
Over the months or years, improperly treated food allows the pests to multiply and thrive, eventually ruining your valuable stash of beans. You can pre-treat your beans to kill off the bugs and eggs. There are two preferred pre-treatments: diatomaceous earth, and freezing.
Diatomaceous earth is the fossilized remains of microscopic animals. This white powder is safe for human consumption, however it is murder on insects.
Small and sharp, it cuts and eventually dehydrates the critters. Mix in a small amount as you package your beans and any insects that hatch will die shortly thereafter.
Food grade diatomaceous earth is safe for humans to consume. Some people even add it to their diet to combat intestinal parasites.
If you wish, you can give your beans a quick rinse before cooking, but it is unnecessary. Diatomaceous earth also has the advantage of absorbing any moisture in your packaging!
Freezing is the second pre-treatment method. A few days in the freezer will not affect your beans. It will however kill any insects and eggs.
Freezing interrupts the eggs at a cellular level bursting them microscopically. Just like lettuce that accidentally freezes, the eggs will no longer be viable after this treatment.
Beans need a little moisture, otherwise they will be hard and will be slow to soften during cooking. As long as you have packed your beans during a relatively dry season, you are OK. If you pack them during a damp season, then don’t fret, we have just the tool for you.
Desiccant packets contain a small amount of silica gel. When dry, silica absorbs moisture from the air. You see these packets in pill bottles, tool bags, or any container where they wish to keep the contents dry. Available for cheap online, get a bunch and add a few to your packing container.
The second issue with moisture is its infiltration into your storage container. Use a quality container, we will talk about 5-gallon buckets shortly, with an airtight and watertight seal. Keep them in a dry place and you won’t have an issue.
If you have a water issue, for example you are storing them in a basement and you have a minor flood, then your container is your first line of defense. We will look at multiple packing layers shortly to provide a little extra insurance.
The seal on your container will also defend against oxygen intrusion. Bugs need oxygen to live. Eggs need it to hatch. Natural oils spoil in the presence of oxygen. Remove the oxygen and you remove the opportunity for spoilage.
A quality seal will keep new oxygen from getting to your food. This is the first step. The second is removing any oxygen packed with the food. This is the job of oxygen absorbers. Also called O2 absorbers, these packets use a chemical reaction to use up any oxygen in your packing.
They are simple. Most O2 absorbers contain powdered iron. The iron, in the presence of oxygen, rusts. This chemical reaction, oxidation, binds the oxygen. The only variable you need to learn about is the amount of oxygen you have to remove.
O2 absorbers are rated by the volume of oxygen they react with. For a 5-gallon bucket, you will need 4,000 cubic centimeters of absorption. That’s two 2,000 cc absorbers (a standard size).
Location. Location. Location. You cannot mitigate heat. You can only avoid it. The best bet is to find a cool area for your long-term storage.
In a perfect world, you would have a room dedicated to your long-term food storage in a basement. Basements remain cool during the heat of the summer and don’t get as cold as other rooms during the winter. They are perfect for storage.
If you don’t have a basement, then you will need to rely on AC if you live in a warm climate, and central heating if you live in a cold one. Try to avoid unheated garages and sheds as the extreme temperatures will negatively affect the food and the container.
Your sweet-spot for storage is between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 21 Celsius).
Ultraviolet light destroys nutrients in food and breaks down plastics and rubber. Given enough time, your food will spoil, and your seals will become brittle. The easiest protection is to shut your beans in a closet, closed room, or under the stairs.
If these are not an option, then you need to first use a light-blocking container. This does not have to be perfect. Any dark color will do. Just avoid transparent or translucent plastics.
If you are packing in Mylar bags (to be discussed in the next sections), then they also add a layer of protection. Finally, throw a tarp or blanket over your bean buckets. These precautions will ensure light does not spoil your goods.
Using the original packaging is a viable solution, however, it isn’t the best. You need to protect against the enemies of storage. This will only be possible with sturdy packaging, and most original packaging isn’t.
With a few precautions, you can use the bags that your beans come in. If your storage area, basement room, closet, etc. is cool, dry, dark, and pest free, you can stack your bags on a pallet and wait. Freeze your beans for 3-5 days before storage to kill off any pests.
With perfect conditions, you can expect to only get 3 to 5 years, as oxygen gradually degrades the beans. You may get more time out of them, however, it is best to incorporate a rotation schedule to keep your beans fresh.
Perfection in a Bucket: 5-Gallon Buckets
There are several reasons preppers like 5-gallon buckets. They are cheap, sturdy, come in a variety of colors, and they seal up tight. You can get a bucket from the big box stores for a few dollars. You can even get them for free from your local grocery store or bakery.
They get bulk materials in them, such as icing and other dry goods. With a quick wash and a new lid, you can get as many as you want as long as you are patient. Make a habit of making the rounds every Saturday morning and it almost guarantees you to get a few each week.
The ones I get from the local bakery are free however they don’t come with lids. I swing by Home Depot for replacement lids. At $2 each, I’m a happy man.
You can always place your beans in their original package inside a 5-gallon bucket. This isn’t a bad idea, but there are two ways that are more efficient and effective. Let’s look at those.
Buckets and Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous earth is the perfect companion to your beans. In this application, it will both protect against insects and moisture.
You will need two buckets to allow for thorough mixing. In the first bucket, add 15 pounds of beans and ¼ cup of diatomaceous earth. Gently but thoroughly mix your beans, then pour into the second bucket.
Then repeat with another 15 pounds and a ¼ cup of diatomaceous earth. Top off the second bucket with the new mixture, seal, and move to your next bucket.
You can expect to get about 30-33 pounds of beans per bucket. With this method, you can expect 10-15 years of storage. Again, make beans a part of your life, and set up a rotation scheme that allows you to eat through your storage and add new each year.
True Long-Term Storage
Time for the end-all and be-all of prepper storage. Buckets and Mylar are the long-term prepper staple. This method checks off all the boxes. You block light, seal out moisture, remove oxygen, and keep out pests.
For this method, you will need mylar bags. These thick plastic bags include a vapor-thin metal coating on the plastic that blocks light and the elements. They are available online. You can even purchase them with oxygen absorbers.
If you are packaging during the damp season, use a few desiccant packets with this process.
First, clean and dry your bucket. Then place a mylar bag in the bucket. Place one of your O2 absorbers in the bottom then fill the bucket halfway with beans. This should be about 15 pounds of beans.
Then, place another absorber and desiccant pack if you are using them. Fill the bag within an inch or two of the top of the bucket and add the last of your O2 absorbers.
If you are using 2000cc absorbers, just add one at the top and one the bottom.
You are now ready to seal up the mylar bag. You will need to heat the bag just enough to melt and weld the bag shut. This takes either specialized equipment or a little practice.
You can use a dedicated tool designed to seal Mylar bags. If you choose to save on this expense, you can use a household iron and a dowel. Press out as much air as possible, then pull the top of the bag over the dowel. Run your iron over the bag and it will weld shut.
Try this on a few scrap pieces to get used to the cadence. You’ll get the feel of it within a few tries. I recommend sealing several sections for redundant protection. Better safe than sorry.
Over the next few days, the bag will collapse on the beans. and become hard as a rock. This is a sign of a good seal and a tight vacuum.
If it doesn’t tighten up within a week, cut open the bag, add a few new O2 absorbers, then re-seal. Depending on where you sealed the bag, you may need to transfer the beans to a new mylar bag.
This method is great and should get you over 25 years of storage. Again, every few years open and use a bucket just for quality control. You should always check your buckets annually.
Pick an annual holiday or benchmark like daylight savings to review all your buckets. Check the lids and bottoms for cracks. Check that the bags are still tight.
If any buckets have failed, move the Mylar to a new bucket. If the bags have failed transfer to a fresh bag. Inspect the contents first to make sure they haven’t spoiled.
Cooking Old and Hard Beans
Your beans are good for the long-term with the above methods. That being said it is still possible for your beans to get over-hard. If your first batch does not cook up as expected don’t fret. There are a few options for cooking beans that don’t want to be cooked.
The first method is to use baking soda while soaking. Mix up a batch of water using one-gallon water with 1 tablespoon of baking soda. Mix until it has dissolved all the baking soda.
Soak your beans in the water for 12 hours. After the first soak, drain and rinse the beans, then soak in another batch of water and baking soda. Soak for another 12 hours then rinse and cook.
The second option is to cook in a pressure cooker. The increased pressure and temperature will make even the toughest beans soft and subtle. You will need to experiment with times, but you’ll be guaranteed to get a great batch of beans from what others would consider a loss.
The third option is to create bean flour. There is no reason to restrict this method to over-hard beans, as it is a great way to any dried beans.
To make bean flour, run your beans through a wheat mill. Process as you would wheat to make a fine flour. Substitute a ¼ cup of bean flour for regular flour in any of your favorite bread recipes. It makes a hearty and flavorful bread. It’s especially good for flatbreads!
Beans are so important they included them in the prepper trifecta. Beans, bullets, and bandages. Store them in large numbers. I recommend that you store one bucket of beans for every two buckets of rice. This ratio matches my recipe for rice and beans. Two cups of rice, and one cup of beans.
Not that you can only cook them with rice, that is. There are a variety of recipes that help beans fill their full potential. Give these storage methods a try to find your preferred method. Once you have it mastered, I promise you it won’t take much, buy and store in bulk.
Now, I’m off to make those brownies!