Unpopular opinion: I've never been that into beans, even as a lifelong vegetarian. In burritos? Sure. Mashed up and piled on toast or mixed into soup? Okay, but that's pushing it. As the main course, the star of a salad, or sidekick to rice? Eh, I'd rather not.
I know what you're thinking. But before you scroll down to that comment box to tell me how wrong I am, hear me out. At their worst, beans can be stodgy, slimy, and mushy; alternately, they seem to stay hard as rocks, no matter how long you cook them. Salt them too soon and they (allegedly) don’t cook; salt them too late and their exteriors are saturated with saline, but their middles are basically flavorless.
Speaking of cooking: Could beans be any finickier to cook? Do I soak them? Do I pressure-cook them? Do I get an Instant Pot just to make them right? How much water should I use? Why do they take so damn long? And don’t even get me started on the digestion thing.
Canned beans are fine, I guess. But I’m a control freak, and the too-salty/not-salty-enough problem still applies. Plus, inconvenience aside, dried beans are much cheaper, and taste a lot less like a can. (The latter being only a deterrent to my bean accessibility.)
The thing about being a bean-hater, though, is that I feel like I’m missing out on a great plant-based protein source—and, frankly, a culinary cultural movement (Rancho Gordo devotees, where you at?). And because I like to make things tough on myself, I recently became determined to find a way to cook—and like—beans of every stripe.
To learn, I turned to the foremost bean expert in my mind, someone who goes through countless pounds every single day: Brooks Headley of New York’s iconic Superiority Burger (and author of Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts and the new Superiority Burger Cookbook). The menu at Superiority Burger changes often, but almost always includes beans (not to mention, their eponymous burger is full of legumes).
Brooks gave me the lowdown on Superiority Burgers’ bean-cooking method—the tried-and-true game plan that turns out the perfect beans every. Single. Time. And, I gotta tell you, I didn’t see this one coming.
Read on for Brooks’s “unorthodox” (his words) method to cook the very best beans.
1. Start with really, really, really good beans.
Brooks says this is the number-one factor in bean-cooking success. At Superiority Burger, Brooks uses a mixture of fresh beans he buys from the market, usually in the summer, and dried beans from either the market or Rancho Gordo the rest of the year. According to Brooks, "you can't really get better quality or consistency than from Rancho Gordo beans."
Also, be sure to clean your really, really, really good beans really, really, really well. Rinse them in water and check for any little stones you might see hiding in there.
2. Yep, you gotta soak ‘em—sometimes.
The cooks at Superiority Burger soak high-quality dried beans that they know are going to cook consistently, like the Rancho Gordos. Soaking speeds up the process of bean-cooking, and helps them cook evenly, providing an insurance policy against the "some-mushy-some-crunchy" bean problem I encounter so often.
The team at Superiority Burger will soak beans for 8 hours or overnight, in a restaurant-style hotel pan with a few inches of cool tap water to cover them. They stick a lid on top of the soaking beans and refrigerate before they leave for the day. To do your bean-soaking at home, use any kind of large vessel that can accommodate your beans and all that water. Whatever your container, drain your beans well and rinse them again before getting ready to cook them.
3. Add as much water as humanly possible, and a bunch of aromatics.
First, no need for measuring the liquid-to-bean ratio. Brooks just fills up water to the very top of whatever vessel he's using. This is to prevent any drying-out from befalling the beans, and to create as much as possible of the resulting cooking liquid (more on this later).
Second, the aromatics: Use them creatively and plentifully. "We flavor our beans differently, depending on the dish we're going to make with them," Brooks tells me. "But oftentimes we'll do something like cut an onion in half, leaving its skin on, and char it in a very hot pan until it blackens—almost burns.
"We'll stick the onion—along with some herbs, maybe a few local peppers we'll buy from the farmers market, and always a few bay leaves—in a piece of cheesecloth, which we'll put in the pot of beans we're about to cook. That helps us take that stuff out much more easily when the beans are done cooking, and we can use some of the ingredients, like the onions, for other things."
4. Cook your beans, low and slow...in the oven!
This is where stuff starts to get a little wacky: Brooks and his team cook beans in the oven. (Yes, really!) They put a big batch of dried beans in a restaurant-style hotel pan, fill it up to the very top with water (no need for a specific ratio), cover it with a lid or a tight layer of foil, and bake the beans at 300°F for three to eight hours, depending on the bean, until they're very soft and creamy and can be easily smashed. "We cook them low and slow," Brooks says. "You can just walk away and do a bunch of other stuff as they cook."
The genesis of this method was, funnily enough, a matter of practicality. "We started doing this because our kitchen is small and we don't have a ton of burner space...effectively two induction burners. Since we go through so many beans in a day, cooking them like this in the oven made the most sense."
This, happily, led to better beans. "It gives the beans a lot of deep flavor and a really tender texture," Brooks explains. "And since the water never really comes to a boil, the beans aren't moving around at all and don't break apart. Though I don't really mind that broken-up texture."
Though it's time-intensive, the other advantage to this route is that you can cook a lot of beans at once—the largest full-size hotel pan can hold up to 21 quarts of beans and water. While many home cooks won't have a hotel pan (or you might! I don't know your life), Brooks says you can do this in a large roasting pan or Dutch oven.
5. Salt them, but only after cooking.
Brooks and his team don't season their beans with salt during the initial cooking process—they just infuse them with flavor using the aromatics. And they instead do another wild thing, after cooking and draining the beans: throw the beans into a hot, oiled skillet with salt and water, to blister the skin and flavor them. Brooks says this allows you to control the seasoning a little better. And since the beans are so flavorful from their aromatics-infused bubble bath, you'll never encounter flavorless centers.
6. Save that bean water!
Another benefit to using a ton of water while cooking beans is the delicious, starchy water—otherwise known as potlikker—that gets left behind. And since you've thrown in a bunch of aromatics, the potlikker is full of flavor. Per Brooks, you can use it as a stock, poaching, or braising liquid; thicken it to make gravy; marinate vegetables and tofu with it; and much more. And better yet, you can freeze whatever you won't use right away in ziplock bags or plastic deli containers.
7. Store or freeze any extra beans from your batch—but not for too long.
Since you'll be cooking them for a while in the oven, it makes sense to make a biggish batch. And while Brooks advises to eat them within the first few days of making them (if they develop a "sour" smell, your best bet is to toss them), he says you can freeze cooked beans in a sealed ziplock bag with all the air squeezed out. They'll last for months, and the freezing doesn't have any adverse impacts on the texture. Just thaw them for a few hours and throw them right into whatever you're making (or, for soups, don't worry about the thaw).