What are pulses? How do they differ from legumes? Are they good for you? How do you cook with them?
This guide looks at all these questions and more, and aims to provide helpful answers to any pulse-related queries you may have.
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Pulses: a beginner's guide
(Select to jump to section)
- What's the difference between legumes and pulses?
- What's the difference between beans, chickpeas, lentils etc.?
- Are pulses good for you?
- Where are pulses grown?
- Can I grow my own pulses?
- How are pulses harvested?
- Why do we not eat pulses at their peak growth?
- Recipes with pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- Tinned pulses v dried pulses
- How to cook with tinned pulses
- How to cook with dried pulses
What's the difference between legumes and pulses?
A legume is a plant in the Fabaceae family. A common characteristic of legumes is that their seeds grow in pods, with each plant producing varying numbers of seeds per pod.
A pulse is the edible seed from certain legume plants. When people talk about pulses, they usually mean the seed in its mature, dried condition (as opposed to fresh).
Pulses include different types of beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. They also comprise lesser-known varieties like pigeon peas, vetches, and lupins.
Simply put, all pulses are legumes but not all legumes are pulses.
What's the difference between beans, chickpeas, lentils etc.?
Dried beans, chickpeas, and lentils are all different classifications of pulses. They vary in size, colour, taste, texture, and cooking time, as well as the types of dishes they work well in.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognises 11 different pulse classifications. Within those 11 types, there are many sub-varieties, and even those are known by different names around the world.
For example, the 'dry bean' classification alone comprises kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, haricot beans, butter beans, adzuki beans, and many others.
Are pulses good for you?
Pulses are an excellent source of plant-based protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Cheap and widely available, they're great for preparing healthy meals without breaking the bank.
While other legumes such as soybeans and peanuts are relatively high in fat, pulses are very low in fat. They truly are nutritional powerhouses.
Where are pulses grown?
Pulses are grown all over the world for human consumption, oil production, and livestock feed. They tend to favour climates with a warm, dry autumn season.
When it comes to pulses grown for human consumption, the top producers vary depending on the type:
- Myanmar, India, and Brazil grow the most dried beans
- Canada tops the charts when it come to lentils
- India dwarfs the competition in terms of chickpeas
We grow various varieties of legume here in the UK, but our favourite pulses don't do so well in this climate. While this could change, we currently import most of our dried beans, lentils, and chickpeas.
Can I grow my own pulses?
If you live in a place where the climate is suited to growing pulses, then it's very easy to do. Check out this video on how to grow and harvest dry beans.
If you're in the UK, you can still easily grow other legumes such as runner beans. Here's a handy video to help you get started.
How are pulses harvested?
Pulses are generally left to dry out before harvest, after the plant has peaked and is already shutting down. This makes it easier to remove the seeds from their pods, especially when done on a large scale.
Whether you're cooking with dried pulses or tinned pulses, they both started out as dried legume seeds.
Why do we not eat pulses at their peak growth?
Legumes such as runner beans, green peas, and broad beans are usually eaten fresh at their peak. Some require cooking, whereas some can be eaten straight off the plant.
Pulses such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils are different. In their raw form, they contain higher levels of toxic compounds (called lectins) that can be harmful to humans.
It's therefore important to make sure that pulses are properly cooked prior to consumption. The good news is that this is easy to do.
Recipes with pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
You can use pulses in stews, chillies, curries, casseroles, soups, dips, salads, and bakes, or as a simple addition to toast, sandwiches, or pasta dishes. Their versatility is virtually limitless and they are a mainstay in a plant-based kitchen.
In most cases, you can swap out the tinned version for dried, provided these have been soaked and/or cooked in advance (scroll down for more info).
Here's a list of great recipes that will help you get some legumes in your life:
- Ultimate Vegan Haggis with black lentils
- Easy Vegan Chana Masala with chickpeas
- Vegan Cottage Pie with green lentils
- Easy Vegan Chilli with kidney beans and pinto beans
- Crispy Baked Falafel with dried chickpeas
- Vegan Lentil Dal with red lentils
- Lemony Butter Bean Stew with butter beans
- Hearty Vegan Stew with green lentils
- Homemade Hummus with chickpeas
- Kidney Bean Dip with red kidney beans
- Crispy Roasted Peas with frozen green peas
- Smoky Mushroom & Red Lentil Pâté with red lentils
- Sweet Potato Chilli with black beans
- Crispy Smoky Roasted Chickpeas
- Crispy Roasted Lentils
- One-Pot Jackfruit Tacos with black beans
- Chickpea Stir-Fry with Peanut Sauce
- Vegan Stovies with red lentils
Tinned pulses v dried pulses
Pulses are generally available in two forms: tinned and dried. Tinned pulses still started out as dried pulses, it's just that they've been cooked and then sealed in cans or jars (usually in water).
Below is a quick overview of the pros and cons of each:
Pros: they're very quick and easy to cook with. Simply open the tin, rinse, drain, and add to your stew, soup, curry, or salad.
Cons: they tend to be a little mushy and often include additives such as sodium, firming agents, or other preservatives. They also don't taste as good as when you prepare dried pulses from scratch.
Pros: they taste better than their tinned counterparts, and you have full control over any additional flavours and textures. They also work out much cheaper and are easier to store in bulk.
Cons: they take longer to prepare. Many dried pulses need several hours to soak and/or pre-cook. Not ideal if you want a quick meal in the next 30 minutes.
Which is better – tinned or dried?
If time is on your side, it's worth making the effort to cook dried pulses from scratch. They go a lot further and they simply taste better.
But, as we know, time tends to be a limiting factor when it comes to home-cooking. Tinned pulses are great for when you need food on the table, and you can buy them in smaller amounts as and when you need them.
How to cook with tinned pulses
Tinned pulses provide a quick and easy way to throw meals together. They are pre-cooked and usually available in either water or a cooking sauce.
Remember to rinse and recycle those empty tins/cans!
Tinned pulses in water
Regardless of what you're cooking, it's always best to rinse the pulses in cool water and drain them before use. Even if the cooking instructions on the label tell you to reheat the full contents of the tin.
- For hot dishes (such as stews or soups): rinse the pulses in cool water, drain, and then add to the dish you're cooking.
- For cold dishes (such as salads or dips): rinse the pulses in cool water, drain, and then use straight away as they are.
If you simply want to reheat e.g. beans with a little liquid, I'd still recommend rinsing, draining, and then cooking with fresh water/stock.
While there's nothing harmful about the liquid the beans, lentils, or chickpeas have been stored in, it doesn't taste great and tends to be quite thick.
That being said, the water from a tin of chickpeas (aquafaba) makes for a great egg white substitute in recipes such as vegan meringues.
Tinned pulses in a cooking sauce
It's possible to buy tinned pulses in a cooking sauce, such as kidney beans in chilli sauce or baked beans in tomato sauce. In this case, simply follow the instructions on the label to reheat the beans.
How to cook with dried pulses
Dried pulses taste better than their tinned counterparts, and you have full control over any additional flavours and textures. They also work out much cheaper and are easier to store in bulk.
Do I need to soak them first?
Many dried pulses need several hours to soak and/or cook. You'll see conflicting advice around whether soaking is even necessary, but I always do (with the exception of lentils) as I think it helps them to cook more evenly.
How to cook dried beans
Pick over the beans to remove any debris, rinse, and then soak in a bowl of water overnight (anywhere from 8-24 hours).
Drain after soaking, then boil and simmer in fresh water until soft and tender. The cooking time can be anywhere from one hour to three hours, depending on the type, size, and age of the beans.
Once the beans are properly cooked, you can use them in place of any tinned beans in recipes.
How to cook dried chickpeas
Pick over the chickpeas to remove any debris, rinse, and then soak in a bowl of water overnight (anywhere from 8-24 hours).
Drain after soaking, then boil and simmer in fresh water until soft and tender. The cooking time can be anywhere from one hour to two hours, depending on the type and age of the chickpeas.
Once the chickpeas are properly cooked, you can use them in place of any tinned chickpeas in recipes.
For more information, check out my detailed post on how to cook dried chickpeas.
How to cook dried lentils and split peas
Lentils and split peas do not need to be soaked before they are cooked.
Simply pick over to remove any debris, rinse, and then cook according to package or recipe instructions.
Note: Package instructions may sometimes state a soaking time, but this is not necessary and simply reduces the cooking time required. For example, you can soak green lentils for 12 hours to reduce the cooking time to 15-20 minutes, or simply cook them directly for around 40 minutes.
How to cook dried whole peas
Pick over the dried whole peas to remove any debris, rinse, and then soak in a bowl of water overnight (anywhere from 8-24 hours).
Drain after soaking, then boil and simmer in fresh water until soft and tender. The cooking time can be anywhere from 60-90 minutes, depending on the type and age of the peas.
Thanks for reading
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