Pantry

Can We Trust the Cooking Methods on the Back of the Bag?

October  7, 2016

We have an article on how to cook brown rice. Same goes for quinoa, for soba noodles, for lentils, and for beans—oh gosh, the beans!

But what's the point, when you can find the instructions on the back of the bag? Just as great recipes hide in plain sight in the grocery store, cooking techniques are listed on almost all bags of dry goods, and, in many cases, they're very carefully formulated—scientifically tested, even.

Do these back-of-the-bag techniques do right by us? The answer is yes. But is there ever a reason to cross-reference, to turn to the internet or a cookbook and choose a different method? Also yes.

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Skip to the results of our test here or, first, let us explain...


When formulating back-of-package techniques, manufacturers and distributors of pantry staples have to take a lot into account that we at Food52 (and other publications) do not.

First, there's word count—the mere fact that a package can only contain a certain number of words because of spatial constraints (and thank goodness for that).

Then, there's the issue of ensuring that the directions are approachable to a huge group of consumers. They have to be written so that they're as universal as possible—understood and easy-to-execute to people from different regions of the country (and the world!), with different skill levels and different stocks of kitchen equipment.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

At Goya, for example, they must take into account that many of their beans, rices, and other pantry staples are cooked differently in various countries. Recipe editor and tester Carey Yorio Neuman told me that Mexican consumers, for example, are less likely to soak their black beans because they prefer the pure black color that gets washed out with a soak. "We think of Goya," which employs many people from different countries, "as our own focus group," Carey said: "There's a ton of different nationalities under one roof just within our Jersey City company. We call our own employees in to see how they do it in their country and then we make sure it is within the method tested in our facilities."

We need to make sure that the language we use is approachable to any person no matter what their skill level is.
Carey Yorio Neuman, Goya

In addition to geographic variance, companies must also consider a huge range of cooking abilities—"we need to make sure that the language we use is approachable to any person no matter what their skill level is," Carey explained—and available equipment. The end goal is a technique that's written in the simplest terms and involves utensils and equipment most people have in their homes.

At Bob's Red Mill, that means composing their on-the-bag instructions by researching techniques across the board, then finding the straightest-shooting method that doesn't significantly compromise quality.

"If we can deduce the simplest method," said Food Innovation Chef Sarah House, "that is what we’ll go with. After we nail that down, we’ll try soaking overnight, forcing (rapid boil for a minute or two, then a soaking period), etc., and then prep instructions for special equipment like slow cookers and pressure cookers. Unless one of those methods make a significantly superior product, we go with the most simple and straightforward preparation."

If we can deduce the simplest method that is what we’ll go with.
Sarah House, Bob's Red Mill

Bob's then uses their website—where words are free! and space is plenty! la la la!—to elaborate on special circumstances that might not make it onto the bag: "If you have a bag of cranberry beans that have been sitting in your pantry for two years, the cooking time is likely going to increase because the beans have continued to dry out. In that instance, a longer cooking time and maybe even an overnight soak will be helpful. We try to include this information on our online recipes and blog."

Photo by James Ransom

But accounting for all variables—that is, making sure the technique will more or less work on different burners, in pots that conduct heat differently, if someone forgot to rinse the rice the required number of times—is impossible, and no recipe, not even the simplest one, is foolproof. "We try to be general, not quite as precise—there’s always some measure of variance," said Fernando Desa, Executive Chef of Research and Development at Goya. Giving a wider range of cooking time—like 1 to 1 1/2 hours, for example—is one way to give a person cooking at home an opportunity to correct for mistakes, but you may also run the risk of mushy beans.

Keeping in mind the challenges and constraints companies face when writing the methodology to put on the packages, we decided to put their techniques to the test. We made two pots of each ingredient, one using the process outlined on the back of the bag it came in, the other using the (often more complicated and verbose) Food52 method.

Could these simple, bare-bones methods stand up to the methods we at Food52 have dug up from cookbooks and magazines?


Brown Rice

The methods:

In the Food52 method, outlined here and credited to Saveur, 1 cup rice is rinsed under cold water until the water runs clear, about 30 seconds. It's then added to a pot of an excessive amount (12 cups!) of boiling water, along with 2 teaspoons of salt, stirred once, and cooked, uncovered, for 30 minutes. It's finally strained, added back to the pot, and covered for 10 minutes. Then the rice is fluffed.

In the package method, 1/2 cup rice goes into a pot with 1 cup of cold water and 1 1/2 teaspoons butter. Once the water boils, the rice is covered, the heat is lowered, and the grains simmer for 50 minutes. They're left alone for 10 minutes, then fluffed and salted.

The most independent grains there are versus a couple of clumps. Photo by Linda Xiao

The results:

The Food52/Saveur method produced grains that leaned towards al dente: separate, distinct, less gummy. The rice cooked according to the package was slightly mushier (as you can see: it clumped together when scooped from the pot). Kenzi Wilbur said "honestly, I would eat both" even though the Food52 method "does more justice to the rice's integrity, as odd as that might sound."


Black Beans

The methods:

The most major difference between the Food52 Method—originally from Cook's Illustrated and explained here—and the package method is the "salt brine."

In the Food52 method, a half-pound of black beans is mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt and covered with water. After 10 to 12 hours, the beans are drained, but not rinsed. They receive an additional teaspoon of salt, are covered with water by several inches. The water is brought to a boil, then reduced to a gentle simmer, and the beans cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. They cool in their cooking liquid.

The back-of-bag method also calls for soaking the beans, but without the addition of salt. The beans are simmered (again, no salt) for longer: 1 to 1 1/2 hours. No instructions on cooling, so we decided to drain the beans right away.

Shiny and intact versus a little gritty and mushy. Photo by Linda Xiao

The results:

The Food52 beans won-out in appearance—shiny, pure black (perhaps because they weren't rinsed?), totally intact. And they were more flavorful, too. The package beans were mushier, grittier, and with a nothing-taste. That said, I'm sure they'd still be good mixed into rice (with a good sprinkling of salt!) or mashed up and re-fried. But I might not eat them in a salad.


Quinoa

Photo by James Ransom

The methods:

The Food52 Method, from this post is complicated: Soak quinoa for 5 minutes, rinse it, then toast it for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, for every 1 cup quinoa, add 1 1/4 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover pot, and cook for 15 minutes. Drain the quinoa, return to the pan, lay a clean dish towel close to the surface, replace the lid on the pot, and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

The back-of-bag instructions skip the soaking, rinsing, and toasting. The quinoa is cooked, covered, but every 1 cup of dry quinoa gets 2 cups of liquid (as opposed to 1 1/4). The quinoa stands for 15 minutes, once being fluffed, in a covered pot for 15 minutes. No dish towel moisture-absorber.

All the fluff versus a bit of mush. Photo by Linda Xiao

The results:

You can see from the photograph that the Food52 method produced fluffier quinoa, delivering on its promise. The individual seeds remained intact and the flavor was earthy and nutty, more of quinoa (due to the toasting) than of salt. The quinoa cooked from the package directions was soggier, leaning toward mush, and the most pronounced flavor was the salt used to season it.


Soba

Be aggressive, be be aggressive! Photo by James Ransom

The methods:

In both methods, soba is added to boiling water (in the Food52 method, between 5 to 8 minutes; the package instructions give 8 minutes as the only time marker). The biggest difference, however, comes after the soba has cooked. In the F52 method, explained here, the soba is drained and dumped into a bowl of cold water (not an ice bath) and then rubbed, fairly aggressively. In the package method, the noodles are simply drained and rinsed with cold water.

The results:

Identical twin blobs. Photo by Linda Xiao

The Food52 noodles were firmer and less gummy. The package ones were softer and a little slimier, but our tester Olivia Bloom (also our Shop Editor and Executive Assistant) said the package-made noodles won out in terms of nuttiness and flavor, though the difference was "barely perceptible").

When Olivia tested the noodles with sesame oil and rice vinegar, the Food52 noodles held up better to the dressing due to their firmness.


In general, the Food52 methods are wordier and more complicated, and they require more thought, more equipment, more kitchen timers. But they also produced more Platonic pots of beans, rice, quinoa, and soba. If you're making one of these ingredients to eat on its own or as the foundation of a dish, it really might be worth taking the extra time (and the extra research) to draw out its flavor and cater to its textures as part of the cooking method.

The straightest-shooting, little-knowledge-needed directions on the package are bare bones, simple, and streamlined, without room to provide the detail or precision to produce the most perfect food of all time.

The whole quinoa set-up. Photo by James Ransom

But most of the differences were barely perceptible. And when differences were noticeable, it's not as if the grains or beans or noodles couldn't be very easily doctored (with dressings and cheeses and vegetables) or just eaten as-is, with the acceptance that not every bowl of quinoa has to be the absolute fluffiest.

And, as Sarah from Bob's Red Mill pointed out, these instructions—available to anyone who buys the package (or not), also make cooking more accessible: "When five people cook their beans a different way and some people can be very adamant about it, it can be overwhelming. When you’re not experienced in the kitchen, it can be a deterrent. I like that we're making it approachable."

When do you make an ingredient according to package instructions and when do you go rogue? Tell us in the comments!

20 Comments

Fred R. May 12, 2017
Actually, no. Four kinds of rice, three pasta, many beans, all of different shelf ages, with the year split between 3300 and 6600 feet elevation, you just have to learn how to cook rather than depending on someone telling you what to do. Sorry.
 
Altha S. May 12, 2017
The first time making a recipe I usually follow the directions unless I know that my fresh pasta coils different than boxed. My beans cook fairly quick ad they are from my garden not hanging around a store for months and months. You always need to make the recipe your own.
 
melissa October 12, 2016
any thoughts on couscous?
 
Carol D. October 16, 2016
I was wondering this as well.<br />
 
Bonny October 12, 2016
Have you tried the bean cooking method with other types of dried beans to compare the results?
 
Ryan P. October 11, 2016
this was posted on Notcot.org... one of my frequently visited design blogs. Way to go SJ :)
 
Jeannie I. October 10, 2016
Beans covered use less water to cook with, uncovered uses more water. Arouma circulates through house faster uncovered and stimulates appetite in hungry bean eaters at my house but must wait til cornbread is done!
 
Jeannie I. October 10, 2016
Rice isn't one of favorites due to it's starch so when I cook rice I either use crock pot with 1:2 ratio and add things for soup or menu items. My other method is the microwave ...20 mins on full power but checking on it as it cooks ... Easy.... Use chicken bouillon in water (1cube) <br />Never use salt on anything I cooking but may use a substitute.... Those that like lots of salt just have to self-season. That habit has helped a lot of folks sample how food really tastes. For quinoa I use 1:1 ratio. Dump these together, stir Q in to moisten. Bring water to full rolling boil , cover, remove from heat....as water is all absorbed, fluff with fork....really yummy as is or add pats of butter to taste xtra yummy! Beans get the rapid boil for 10 minutes... Pour off water and rinse beans til water run clear.. Return to pan, cover with water to cover beans, and add 1" more level of water over beans plus a bottle of beer! Super!!! Optional items: onions and tomatoes. Jeannie in Dallas
 
marilyn October 9, 2016
Why are the black beans cooked uncovered? I have seen recipes that will occasionally instruct to not cover the ingredients, but have never determined why that is.
 
sarah October 10, 2016
I wondered too. What does the uncovered pot do? I mean, beside wasting a significant amount of energy. I learned to always cover the pot (adjusting the volume of water, of course)
 
EL October 9, 2016
I found the bean trials interesting. So, in short, the food52 method is to take the beans and soak and cook them in salty water. The package method is to simply cook the bean in unsalted water. So was salt added to taste prior to tasting the beans in each case? <br /><br />Unless you added salt to taste (and you didn't state that that was the case), I would state that if the tasters are used to having their food salted then the unsalted beans would taste flavorless to them (I'm guessing that salt wasn't added and the beans were tasted as it, but maybe I'm wrong?). I almost never salt my food (I grew up on that because one of my parents had high blood pressure). I either cook my beans in unsalted water or cook them within the recipe (say, for chili) with seasonings added (generally not a lot of salt, if any). Generally my beans taste flavorful to me, but I recognize that I am used to having less salt in my food than most people. <br /><br />Unless the tasters added salt after cooking (which most people would do), they essentially sabotaged this experiment in favor of the food52 method. Thus, my question above. <br /><br />
 
EL October 9, 2016
Sorry, not tasted "as it", but tasted "as is".<br />
 
NuMystic October 9, 2016
While it's certainly a great point, even if they had perfectly balanced the seasoning down to the exact milligrams of sodium per serving of the beans and found no difference in taste whatsoever, the real revelation was how dramatically improved the appearance and texture was with pre-salting, so I don't believe the experiment was "sabotaged" either way.
 
Fred R. October 9, 2016
If a recipe has "quick" in the title, I quickly move to the next offering.
 
Carla October 9, 2016
I tried pressure cooking quinoa in my pressure cooker after reading about this method on the Hip Pressure cooking web site. Bring to pressure, cook ONE minute, remove from heat and use natural release. Easy, fast and perfect.
 
NuMystic October 9, 2016
I always achieve quinoa at least as fluffy as the 52 method posted with FAR less effort. <br /><br />The whole idea of soaking or rinsing quinoa goes back to a time when it was a far lesser known grain you could only find at health food stores and co-ops and you needed to remove the saponins that would otherwise leave it tasting soapy.<br /><br />These days virtually all quinoa has had the saponins removed during the processing before it's even packed so that entire step is just a time consuming waste. <br /><br />The real issue culprit that produces clumpy/sticky quinoa is too much water by following instructions on the back of the box. The reduced water is why the 52 method works, not any of the extra steps. I challenge anyone to try them side by side and decide for themselves whether all that extra effort is of any real value.<br /><br />Try this method and I promise you'll never ever go back. <br /><br />- Add measured dry quinoa into your pot, turn heat on to high, and once it starts popping stir or toss until it's lightly toasted and smells nutty. <br /><br />- Add 1 3/4 cups of water for every cup of quinoa (as opposed to the 2 cups always recommended) bring to a full boil, lower to a simmer, lid, and cook for 15 minutes. If you prefer quinoa more al dente or will be using it in a recipe with added liquid like a soup, chile, stew, or dressed quinoa salad you can even reduce water to 1.5 cups of water per cup of quinoa.<br /><br />- Turn off heat and let rest with lid on for 5 minutes then fluff. <br /><br />This produces never-fail fluffy quinoa that separates nicely and is never mushy, soapy tasting or clumpy.
 
Smaug October 8, 2016
No you can't- they're generally very conservative, call for too much liquid when cooking grains and underplay cooking times, among other things- I would suppose out of a desire to minimize "I followed the instructions exactly and it burned" letters.
 
Rachel P. October 8, 2016
This was really interesting. Usually I read packets for things I don't cook every day, and ignore rice because I don't use the absorption method, I cook it like pasta in a pan full of water and then drain it, as that way it is impossible to burn it or dry it out. And, curiously, I've found the instructions on every single pack of rice noodles I've ever had has lied to me and they need longer to cook.
 
EL October 9, 2016
Yes! That 8 minutes on the rice noodles invariably is about 15 minutes! So I generally cook them while doing something else.
 
Christina C. October 7, 2016
Enlightening!! Honestly, I rarely put THAT much thought into cooking rice or quinoa (which I do frequently), but I always appreciate more information. When making a recipe for the first time, I always try to follow the directions as closely as possible. The 2nd time, I may play around some, depending on my knowledge base & available ingredients (or what my family prefers). I'll be checking out more of your articles.