I don’t use kidney beans that much in cooking. When making red beans and rice, one of our favorite Southern dishes, I always use red beans, not kidneys. The same goes for chili. We also like pintos, northern beans and black beans.
But after visiting relatives in Louisiana, my mother-in-law brought back a little Southern treasure for me: a bag of dried Camellia kidney beans from New Orleans. The excellent flavor and creamy texture are such that many Southern families won’t use anything but this brand.
I hesitated before cooking red beans and rice this weekend, because I remember a friend telling me several years back that an entire family at her church was poisoned by kidney beans, and actually ended up in the ER. I wanted to make sure I cooked the Camellias properly.
Now I know a lot of you are thinking “I’ve been eating kidney beans all my life and never gotten sick.” That’s because the beans you ate were properly cooked. What many don’t know is that raw or undercooked kidneys can make you horribly ill within hours of consumption. In the United Kingdom, there were 50 incidents reported between 1976 and 1989.
The naturally-occurring toxin in kidney beans is called Phytohaemagglutinin (or kidney bean lectin). Just a handful of beans can cause symptoms of food poisoning (severe pain, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.).
I think the incidence is low in the US because of less stringent reporting requirements, and also because we likely eat a lot more canned beans over here (the pressurized canning process renders them safe to eat.)
Mistakes are most likely to be made when using slow cookers or the oven to cook kidneys. The low setting of a Crock Pot might not be sufficient to cook the toxins out, and a baked casserole with dried beans in it doesn’t always reach the proper temperature, either. You can render them safe by pre-boiling beans for 10 minutes before adding to the slow cooker or casserole. The FDA also recommends adding the step of first soaking 5 hours (or overnight). Or, just opt for canned kidneys in your recipes.
In summary, here are a few common-sense kidney bean safety precautions:
- Keep raw beans away from children and pets.
- Avoid using raw kidneys in crafts or decorating.
- Soak 5+ hours or overnight. Boil for 10 minutes, drain and then use as needed in your stovetop or oven recipe.
- Avoid using dried kidney beans in a crock pot unless they are pre-boiled or canned.
- Avoid using dried kidney beans in baked casseroles unless they are pre-boiled or canned.
Speaking of toxic foods, raw lima beans and elderberry are also poisonous. But that’s another blog post for another day…