Why You Should Never Toss the Liquid From Canned Beans or Canned Tomatoes

Drain the cans  —  but save the liquid!

In most cases, I am an advocate for cooking dried beans instead of using the canned versions. There are many reasons for this. First, I'm a bit of a geek, and I love making things from scratch. Second, dried beans are significantly less expensive. But, I confess, I always keep some canned beans in my pantry because even someone as geeky as I am has moments when the convenience of just opening the can wins out. And canned beans are good. Same with canned tomatoes. I really love fresh ones, but here in New York, there are about 9 months when I cannot grow my own — nor can I buy perfect fresh ones at the farmer's market. However, good canned tomatoes are picked and canned when perfectly ripe, so they are always reliable pantry staples. But I want to tell you a little secret: The beans and the tomatoes are not the only gifts in those cans.

When I use canned beans and canned tomatoes, I always drain them (and save the liquid). Not because there's anything wrong with the liquid. As a matter of fact, the liquid is that secret gift. The liquid in good canned beans is just the water and salt the beans were cooked in… filled with delicious bean flavor. And this liquid is a great thickener for not only the specific dish you're making at the moment, but for any dish that could use some thickening, some salt, and some bean flavor. Anything from pasta dishes to stews can benefit from this trick. And as for canned tomatoes — that liquid is not only some of the best tomato juice you'll ever taste, but also a great way to thin any sauce, soup, or stew that would benefit from some lightly salty tomato flavor.

I can almost hear you asking "If you're going to use the liquid, then why drain it off first?" A great question. I drain for the same reason I use unsalted butter. With unsalted butter, I control the amount of salt. And with the liquid in cans, I control how much of it goes into the recipe at hand. No matter how carefully we measure and plan, a recipe may require more or less liquid on a given day. This way, I can add only as much as I feel I need instead of pouring it all in and then realizing that there's too much.

I'm also a big fan of saving the liquid from olives and capers. Dirty Martini, anyone? The point is, you're already eating whatever was in the liquid, so there's every reason to use the juice as well. It's not only thrifty, it's delicious. I call that two for two!

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