"Beans, beans, the wonderful fruit..." - every 8-year old in the US
Canned beans are very useful. They can turn some veg and/or a little meat into a fast, satisfying meal. I keep some on hand pretty much continually.
Cooking dried beans is a little more (though not a lot more) trouble. But they have four huge advantages over the canned:
1) They're really cheap, probably the cheapest available protein source.
2) Dried beans do not have the tons of sodium usually poured into canned beans.
3) By starting from dried, you've got the opportunity to build flavor INTO the beans, not just in whatever you add them to.
4) They're really, really cheap. (Yes, it's worth two reasons: do you consider two hands redundant????)
If you've never cooked with dried beans, here's enough to get you started.
The basic method I use is sort, soak, add liquid and flavor, cook.
Sort - It's a good idea (even though I usually skip it) to examine your beans for loose rocks and such not removed in processing. This almost never happens anymore, but think how you'll get to laugh when I break a tooth someday.
Soak - almost all beans, except tiny ones like lentils and split peas, benefit from soaking in water somewhere between four hours and overnight. I use a 2 quart pitcher for this (because the lid, designed to keep ice cubes from being poured out, make draining easy) for a 1 lb bag of beans. Give it plenty of water and room in whatever container you use, because the beans will get a lot bigger.
At the end of the soaking, drain off the water and give a quick rinse.
Cooking liquid and flavoring
It works just fine to cook your beans in plain water with no flavoring at all, but you may find the results a bit bland if you're not going to do a lot to the beans after cooking. I've gotten fond of using low-sodium cooking stock for my cooking liquid. I like to add some roughly chopped garlic and onions or some spices. maybe some fresh or dried chiles. (You're going for a fairly strongly flavored broth - the beans will soak in some of the flavor, but won't get nearly as strong as the cooking liquid.) I really think that the possibilities here are endless. I find that a quart of chicken stock (in the containers like large juice boxes) needs to have some water added to be enough to cook the beans.
Cooking the beans
Cooking is usually done on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker.
* The pressure cooker is FAST - if you've got one, you've probably got a little book with cooking times for beans.
* If you cook on the stovetop, put the beans a-simmering in plenty of water/cooking liquid (a good couple of inches above the beans) and keep an eye on it to make sure there's plenty of liquid. Cooking times depend on the variety and age of the beans and the humidity at which they've been stored, but most varieties of beans will average cooking times of 45-90 minutes. They're done when they mash fairly easily with fingers or a fork.
* My favorite method, actually, has become my slow cooker on "high". I'm not actually sure how long to tell you, since I just sorta let it go and check occasionally, but I'm guessing 2-3 hours.
Using the beans
There are zillions of recipes for beans. Cooked beans can be used in soups, in one-dish meals or countless other ways. Don't be in a big hurry to throw out the cooking liquid, which can be a nice base for a soup or something.
Lately, I've been taking advantage of the fact that cooking beans in bulk is just as easy as cooking less. After I've portioned out the beans I need for whatever I was planning, I let the remainder cool and then put them in freezer bags. I put in about a cup and carefully make the package as flat as I can - they store efficiently and thaw more quickly. Several times I've broken a bag's worth of frozen beans straight into a hot pan with a little oil to thaw and heat.
A note in closing: The Great Soaking Controversy!
Soaking has traditionally been done to speed cooking time and to reduce the gassiness some folks experience with beans. (I don't, but maybe I'm used to a higher-fiber diet.) Among the science set, there's a lot of skepticism that soaking helps the gasiness. And others say that the beans are better and more nutritious without the soak. I'm not an expert, and there's no reason to believe me if you don't want to. I just report that when I don't soak, they never seem to get tender. If you want to try it without soaking, though, figure on increasing the cooking time by quite a bit.