Kitchen Confidence

How to Cook Dried Beans

By • October 9, 2012 • 49 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, we walk you through the basics of bean cooking.  

beans

We've all heard the same tips for cooking dried beans: you must soak your beans. You must refrain from salting them until at least half-way through their cooking time. Neglect to follow these directions and you'll be left with undigestible, tough-skinned disappointment. All of this pressure is enough to drive the most dedicated of home cooks to the canned foods aisle.

But don't go there -- cooking beans isn't as high-maintenance as it might seem. Today, we're walking you through the basics of bean cooking. 

soak beans

First things first: the beans.

Quality ingredients will yield quality results; old, stale beans will result in tough skins and a lack of flavor. So choose your beans wisely. Buy from a store you know restocks frequently, or better yet, order some heirloom Rancho Gordo beans.  

Once you've got your beans, be sure to pick through them and rinse them thoroughly. You don't want any pebbles in your Pasta e Fagioli. 

Beans

To soak or not to soak?

Bean cooking is quite the divisive topic. As Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo explains, "It's like martini drinkers! They all insist their way is the best way!" Traditional wisdom tells us to soak beans overnight in order to reduce cooking time and increase digestibility. However, this means that if you want fresh beans on the table tonight, you need to start prepping them...yesterday.  

Luckily for us, beans cooked without a pre-soak will turn out just fine. In fact, according to Russ Parsons of the LA Times, unsoaked beans yield a richer, more flavorful result. Soaking beans can actually draw nutrients and flavor out of the beans. So for reasons of taste and nutrition, throwing your dried beans in the pot may be your best bet.  

A few words on salt:

If you choose to soak your beans, you'll want to add salt to the soaking water. The salt prevents magnesium and calcium from binding to -- and, subsequently hardening -- the cell walls. You have two options here. The first is to add about one teaspoon of salt for each pound of beans, and simply cook your beans in the soaking water. The second is to "brine" your beans, a la Cooks' Illustrated, with three tablespoons of salt for each gallon of water; just be sure to rinse your beans and change your water before cooking them. 

If you don't choose to soak, feel free to add salt to your pot at the beginning with everything else. Adding salt will marginally toughen the skins, but not enough to make a difference when you use small quantities of salt. 

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Cooking:

The good news? Once you've made your decisions on whether or not to soak, cooking your beans is almost all hands-off. Cook your beans in a heavy-bottomed pot, with enough cold water to cover them by an inch. Add onions, garlic, a bay leaf, or a few sprigs of fresh herbs; the beauty of cooking your own beans lies in the ability to flavor them any way you wish. Bring everything to a boil for five to ten minutes, then reduce to a simmer; too much boiling will break the beans' skins. Check on them intermittently, and if you need to add some extra water, do so from a kettle, rather than the tap. Be sure not to stir them too much, lest they become mush.  

Definitely don't:

This is important: do not add tomatoes or other highly acidic ingredients to your beans while they are cooking. High acidity will keep your beans from softening and likely result in your yelling at a pot of beans, which nobody wants. Just wait to add the tomatoes until later. Your beans will thank you.

The safety test:

When you think your beans are done, test at least five of them to ensure they are fully cooked. One soft outlier can mask a pot full of undercooked beans.

Digestion:

No article on beans is complete without at least a side note on digestion. There are two issues at play here: first, beans contain oligosaccharides, a type of sugar that our bodies are incapable of digesting alone. Soaking beans reduces these sugars, so if digestion is a big concern for you, give your beans a good soak before cooking. However, another way to break down oligosaccharides is to add a strip of kombu to your beans as they cook. This dried sea vegetable contains the enzyme needed to properly digest oligosaccharides. It will also add vitamins, minerals, and a hint of umami to your pot of beans.

The second reason that beans can cause discomfort is their high fiber content. If your diet is low in fiber, high-fiber foods will cause what Russ Parsons calls a "shock and awe affect": your body isn't used to such a high dose, and therefore, well, it's going to protest. So while we want you to embrace bean cooking with reckless abandon, try gradually increasing your daily intake rather than immediately following the advice of that childhood rhyme inviting you to eat beans at every meal.  

Pasta e Fagioli

Beans may not be a fruit, but they truly are magical. With just some salt and a pot of simmering water, you'll be left with an end result so delicious that you'll find yourself picking them out of the pot. They're incredibly easy once you discover your preferred method, and a big batch cooked up on a Sunday will find endless iterations throughout the week: smashed in burritos for lunch, simmered in soups for dinner, and pureed into a dip for easy entertaining. Now go throw a pot of beans on your stove.

Do you have any bean-cooking tips or tricks you swear by?

Jump to Comments (49)

Tags: Kitchen Confidence, beans, , how-to & diy

Comments (49)

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2 months ago Halli

Trampled, there are two common methods for soaking beans: 1) let sit in room temp/cold water 8 hours/overnight; or 2) bring to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat, and let sit for an hour. However you soak them, they'll need to be cooked, in fresh water, for 1-1 1/2 hours, depending on type of bean.

Fsm

3 months ago trampledbygeese

Great article. I'm just learning to love beans myself. I keep buying them but too cowardly to cook them. Today I'm christening my new bean pot.

A question about soaking the beans. My mother use to use boiling water, but all the recipes I read say we should soak with cold or room temp. Is there any benefit to using boiling water?

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6 months ago Janey

Beans are my favorite food, endless ways to serve them. A Colorado company Love Grown Foods just introduced breakfast cereal made from beans. Power O's. Now I can literally have beans at every meal!

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12 months ago John R. Cannon

On a non-Science related note -- wonderful article and website!!!

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12 months ago John R. Cannon

"Beans may not be a fruit..." Yes, they are. From the Mayo Clinic: "According to botanists (those who study plants) a fruit is the part of the plant that develops from a flower. It's also the section of the plant that contains the seeds. The other parts of plants are considered vegetables. These include the stems, leaves and roots — and even the flower bud. The following are technically fruits: avocado, beans, peapods, corn kernels, cucumbers, grains, nuts, olives peppers, pumpkin, squash, sunflower seeds and tomatoes. Vegetables include celery (stem), lettuce (leaves), cauliflower and broccoli (buds), and beets, carrots and potatoes (roots)." Please help stop the misconception that beans are not fruit.

Fsm

2 months ago trampledbygeese

Great info. I'm glad to read it. Though I wonder... The English language isn't always that accurate when classifying things like beans. From a botanical point of view, what you say makes absolute sense. However when we look at the food triangle that the government loves to teach, beans are considered a "meat and alternative" (at least in Canada). In the vernacular, many people differentiate between fruit (as sweet), vegis (as green/savoury/fresh) and pulses (as in dry beans). Maybe since this is a food site talking about both ingredients and 'foods', it's good to include several definitions to avoid this kind of equivocation.

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12 months ago Halli

I've been following directions I'd seen before for instead of overnight soaking, bringing them to a boil, covering the pot, and turning off the heat for an hour. Then you drain and rinse them and add fresh water to cook them for 1 1/2-2 hours. I'm very happy with this method.

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6 months ago w r

Save the discarded water to be used as stock.

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12 months ago JohnSkye

there are lotsa articles on whether adding a "pinch" of baking soda during the cooking process 1) aids in digestibility or 2) helps the beans cook faster ... not sure about either, but i do find that adding an 1/8 tsp of baking soda (per pound) to black beans does help them stay blacker, i.e., helps prevent them from turning into "dark gray" beans.

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about 1 year ago cybrcook

From Indian cuisine, I "cook" any spices I add to my soups in a bit of oil, then add to the soup liquid. This prevents spices from tasting "raw". The spice/oil combination can simply be warmed in the microwave before adding--

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12 months ago Mark G

Also limits the risk of salmonella in the spices!

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about 2 years ago RanchoGordo

If you eat beans once in a blue moon, I can see where the gas issue comes in. A big bowl of chili after a low-fiber diet is going to give you what we in the business call a "gift with purchase".
If you eat beans, know your source and they are fresh (less than 2 years), it really isn't an issue for most of us. I love Julia but really, I'd rather eat Diana Kennedy's beans than hers.

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about 1 year ago Jan STL MO

Sando's slow bubble is the best way to cooks beans. I never soak Rancho Gordo beans, they are perfection season after season.

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about 2 years ago Mr Bruce

The esteemed Julia Child determined the best way to reduce the GI effects of beans... she called those effects the "rooti-toot-toots." She recommends soaking each pound of beans in at least six quarts of water for, at a minimum, overnight. Drain the beans next day and use your recipe of choice to cooks the beans. Use fresh water, NOT the soaking water. Mme. Child even addressed the assertion that "soaking actually draws nutrients and flavor out of the beans" Her advice: "eat a marginally larger helping of beans." What's not to like?.

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about 2 years ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Julia is both hilarious and brilliant. So glad I know this now!

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about 2 years ago veganamericanprincess

I like your suggestion of cooking beans with bay leaf, onions, garlic and herbs; but I use a 4 inch piece of Kombu to cook my dried beans.

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about 2 years ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

I love kombu, too! I always throw some in with my beans.

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about 2 years ago anhthu

Where do you buy Kombu?

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about 2 years ago anntruelove

My family eats a lot of beans, especially black beans, and we always use the crockpot to make them. I put a pound of black beans with some onion, unpeeled garlic cloves, salt, and bay leaves (and of course water) in the crockpot before going to bed and they turn out perfect every time. We eat them first thing in the morning with a dollop of sour cream or plain greek yogurt topped with shaved parm cheese for a delicious and filling breakfast.

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about 2 years ago saltybutter

I'm not a soaker because I'm a slacker.... I make beans (usually black) once a week and never soak them. I like to throw in 2 bay leaves and salt them once they've started to soften. My kids love black bean tacos but I just like them in a bowl with hot sauce.

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about 2 years ago RanchoGordo

re baking soda, I am not a good authority but I have heard it does something bad to the nutrition of beans and is really a last resort. Even a gives a taste. I would be happy to be corrected about the nutrition but I've heard it a few times.
Best to use good, fresh (less than 2 years old) beans!

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about 2 years ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

I've also heard that baking soda can make beans slimy.

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about 2 years ago Panfusine

I like to use my pressure cooker with beans.. a sure fire way of cooking them quickly.. I find Adding Bishops weed (ajwain) and a large black cardamom gives the beans a thymey smoky flavor. The Ajwain is supposed to take care of the 'bloatey' effects of beans.

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about 2 years ago thirschfeld

I have a big bag of ajwain and I have been trying to figure out what it is used for, Panfusine to the rescue! Anything else you do with the ajwain?

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about 2 years ago Panfusine

You could Lightly toast it, crush it and add it to Foccacia with other spices.. Its a great ingredient for yielding a thyme flavor w/o worrying about the taste of burnt herbs. I add it in a powdered for to the potato filling for Aloo paratha or even while making potato patties for my son's school lunch. Traditional remedies: steep some whole ajwain with ginger in some boiling water, the tea is great for soothing colds & a stuffy nose

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about 2 years ago Randi

I was inspired by Tamar Adler's ode to beans in An Everlasting Meal. She recommends adding good olive oil as well as salt and veggies (onions, fennel, celery, etc) to a pot of beans. The tops of fennel have been particularly delicious additions to recent pots of black and cranberry beans. I use the slow cooker, on low, with great success.

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about 2 years ago RanchoGordo

I have to say as unfaithful as can be to any one method. Right now I love cooking in clay pots, low and slow, right on the gas, but I also love the crockpot and I have learned never to say never and I may join Jill, the Veggie Queen with a pressure cooker one day. As long as we're cooking, we're ahead of the pack!

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about 2 years ago LLStone

Crock pots or big dutch ovens on low heat are a great way to cook beans. And, I am a huge fan of Rancho Gordo beans. I bought some home from a trip to CA and have never looked back! What are your thoughts on baking soda - is it needed? I know that it is recommended for chickpeas, but I assumed that it might be useful in regular pots of beans - just a Tsp or so per lb of beans. Thoughts?

Chris_in_oslo

about 2 years ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

I've only added baking soda when the beans have cooked for a while and are not getting soft. In that case, I've found a pinch--much less than a teaspoon--to do the trick.

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about 2 years ago young&fabulous

Has anyone noticed beans getting too mushy when cooked in a nonstick pot?

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about 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Okay, here's another tip that occurred to me as I was making my lunch. (I get the best help from my right brain while I'm in the kitchen!) The best black beans I ever made, and I mean "ever," I cooked in a stock made with nothing but corn husks (not cobs) and half a yellow onion. The beans -- purchased at Markethall Produce (their heirlooms are all better tasting than Rancho Gordo, by the way) -- tasted so good, just as they were. I ate them plain! I have been busily making/freezing corn husk stock as corn season winds down here, to have plenty for the winter. Highly recommend that you try this. ;o)

Chris_in_oslo

about 2 years ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

Do you know where Market Hall Produce gets their beans?

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about 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

I've only asked about the heirloom varieties I've bought, which I was told are sourced from the local company called Community Grains http://communitygrains... , which buys heirloom beans from a fifth-generation local farm, Mohr-Fry Ranches http://www.mohrfry.com/ . The black beans I used are not the heirloom variety that they sell, however. I know that many of their bulk items are SunRidge Farms, but I'm not 100% sure about the black beans, so I'll check the next time I'm there. I generally buy everything I can in bulk from The Food Mill, but Rockridge is a lot more convenient and MHP's produce is always beautiful, so I tend to go there more often. ;o)

Chris_in_oslo

about 2 years ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

Thx! Off topic, but Community Grains also markets a wonderful polenta--Red Flint "Floriani" polenta. I'm almost positive it's the polenta they serve at Oliveto.

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about 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

I'm sure you're right about that. If you go to the home page of the Community Grains website, you'll see Oliveto there in their list of restaurant customers. And thanks for the tip on the polenta! Community Grains sources a lot of wheat products from seeds from Italy. ;o)

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about 2 years ago thirschfeld

I find that if I cook beans without animal protein they are much easier to digest. It used to be when I cooked beans I was really cooking meat flavored with a few beans, now, I really am enjoying beans for beans sake by making them vegetarian. I started to find the beans creamier when they aren't drained if you do soak them and since I stopped draining them I also became a no soaker.

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about 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Fresh (as in not dried eons ago) beans don't need soaking, I've found. And I'm enjoying beans these days without meat, too. Good (especially heirloom) beans taste great on their own with just a few freshly picked herbs and with onions, which make everything taste better. ;o)

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about 2 years ago thirschfeld

Antonia, I grew runner cannellini beans this year and they are the most amazing bean. They have a great mouthfeel and good starch content and are delicious. I also grew several other kinds this year too but I haven't shelled any of them yet.

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about 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Sounds great! Where did you get the seeds? ;o)

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about 2 years ago thirschfeld

I purchased them at seed savers in their beans for cooking store. They don't sell them as seed because they can't guareentee germinating rates for some reason. I bought a pound cooked 3/4's and ate them the planted the remainder. Every single bean I planted germinated. I am seed saving this year so, if you send me an address via my email I'll send you some

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about 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

This is a great tip! I had already put in my gardening journal a note to plant runner beans next spring, as I read somewhere that they do particularly well in cooler weather, which of course is what we have in the (arctic) marine climate. I think I'll do what you did . . . order some to eat, and then save some. I had no idea that Seed Savers sells beans to eat! ;o)

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about 2 years ago threefresheggs

I have suspected for some time that the bean/meat thing was a thing. Glad to hear someone else also harbors this suspicion.

I find that soaking/not-soaking to be varietal: black beans need no soaking, but chickpeas benefit enormously from at least a couple of hours. As a general rule bigger beans benefit from soaking, and the smaller beans don't seem to need it. However, their are exceptions, Dominican Reds cook up fine without a soak, and small red beans almost always turn to mush if not soaked first. Cannellinis and red kidneys seem to want soaking. Maybe it's just me, I usually stick to the thrifty Goyas.

Energy/time saving is also a serious consideration – if you haven't soaked the chickpeas, they may want nearly 3 hours on the heat! Yikes! Freezing is a great option – you always have some on hand for those times when you suddenly find your self needing beans and not having 3 hours of cooking time, or an overnight (most of the day is plenty!) soak.