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Dried beans: When the world ends, they will still be in your pantry, ready to become soup at a moment's notice. Right?
Sadly, it is not so. Just because you can keep dried beans forever does not necessarily mean it will be helpful. Old beans will take longer to cook, and the oldest beans will stay tough and chewy no matter how long (within reason), they simmer. If you find yourself cooking soaked beans for more than two hours, and they just will not soften, it may be your beans (not you).
"Dried beans were fresh beans that were dried," Peter Miller, author of Lunch at the Shop, reminds us. And that is easy to forget, considering that fresh beans are a sight to behold during only a couple of summer weeks.
Those fleeting fresh beans are dried to extend their shelf-life—but not to immortalize them. Peter says that dried beans are best in year one, not as good or creamy in year two, and "stiff" from then on. "They were never meant to be timeless."
But since packages of dried beans today do not come with expiration dates, how can you know their age?
First, you can ensure you are buying from trusted suppliers. Chef Sara Jenkins seeks out "boutique importers or local producers to get the freshest dried beans available." Small farmers, Sara writes, sell their dried beans the same year they grow them—"and the differences in flavor and texture are impossible to miss."
If that is just not possible, date your beans so that you at least have a sense of when you bought them.
You will also be able to tell post-soak if your beans will not soften up during the cooking process. In the method that Molly Wizenberg (via John Thorne) outlines for oven-cooking beans, she instructs that any "wrinkled and ornery-looking" beans (the ones that have failed to rehydrate) should be removed.
It should be said that some people out there have had success softening very, very old beans. One ChowHound commenter said he had "successfully cooked beans that are YEARS old, and once you know the tricks, the results are good."
First soak the beans. The quickie soak isn't very useful for OLD beans, so soak them overnight, 12 hours at least. Then, if you have reason to think they are going to be tough, bring them to a boil, turn off the heat, [and add] 3/8 teaspoon of baking soda per 3 cups of water (and 3 cups of water per cup of beans). [Pour out the water, rinse the beans repeatedly, and cover with new water.] Then boil them as usual. IF they are still too much al dente, then pull them out, and pressure-cook them (put some of the spices, except salt) [...] Could be 15 minutes more, 30 minutes, or even an hour. Eventually you get soft, even tasty, beans. Honest!
But if it were me, I would use those ancient beans for pie weights—or for a mosaic rooster.
How old are the oldest dried beans in your pantry? Fess up in the comments below.