How can you make that ho-hum can of white beans even tastier? It’s all about seasoning early.
White Beans with Sorrel Pesto
Credit: Thomas J. Story

I’m a big canned white bean fan, especially when I’m trying to save money. I’ll combine good old cannellini beans with garlic and shallots about once a week, layering them into packed lunch salads alongside tuna and greens, or spiking them with smoky Polish sausage, finishing them with whichever fresh herbs I have handy. They’re cheap and cheerful, and I’ve celebrated them here before.

My technique, typically, was to caramelize the onions and garlic a bit, then add the drained cannellini beans, finishing with salt, lemon zest, sherry vinegar or lemon juice, red pepper flakes and fresh herbs. And if I’m honest, they were good, but not great. The beans were never quite the right texture, and never seemed to get seasoned all the way through, no matter how much salt I added.

Last week, though, I found this smart recipe from Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld, in which he simmers the onions with the red pepper flakes and olive oil, seasons them with salt and pepper, and confits (cooks slowly over low heat) them for a good 15 minutes. It was, quite simply, a game changer. I rarely seasoned my onions and garlic when building stews or any sautéed dish—although I should have, because I know I should season every ingredient as I build pretty much any dish in order to reduce the need for salt at the end.

By salting the aromatics at the start of cooking, the seasoned, spicy base notes permeate the entirety of the dish when I added in the white beans and cooked the whole together for just five minutes. The confited onions and garlic spiked the whole dish with sweet, salty, spicy notes. (And the quarter cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano added to finish sure doesn’t hurt!)

So consider spending time carefully seasoning, confiting and heating your garlic and onions the next time you work with plain-Jane beans. It’s a great way to get the most out of your already-frugal meal.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.