Bean

Have We Been Cooking Beans All Wrong?

Superiority Burger's Brooks Headley shows us his foolproof way.

April 15, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

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.

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Top Comment:
“This piece needs to be translated for home cooks. I'm a vegetarian who cooks beans always from scratch and who has been doing so for at least 20 years. 1) "Start with really good beans." I agree, no supermarket dusty bags. However, not everyone can afford Rancho Gordo (they are indeed the best). DO test out your local market's bulk bins: give each type of bean a try. I don't have bulk bins available to me here in the middle of nowhere, so my "really good beans" are amazoned from Arrowhead Mills, Bob's Red Mill, and Camellia (for black-eyed peas). 2). "Soak 'em" we agree. 3) "add as much water as humanly possible" . No, no, and no unless you have a gigantic freezer in which to save the enormous amount of watered-down aquafaba. "Bean juice" aka "aquafaba" is precious and we need to save it. However, we home cooks have limited freezer space, and, if we freeze precious liquids in small quantities, guess what, we can always add water later! 4). Stovetop, oven, give it a try and good luck. I did for years with variable results until I discovered that the Instant Pot delivered perfect beans every time. 5). The Great Bean Salt Debate: everyone, it seems, has a different opinion on this (even Marcella Hazan recanted). I salt during soaking, I rinse, and then I salt again before cooking. I want salt IN my beans from the very first moment. Trust me: it does not affect their texture, only their flavor. 6). Save Bean Water: Please see my response to #3, above: I never throw it out, always freeze it in Ball jars, and then use it to flavor chili or as a vegetarian stock. 7). Freeze. Yes! I freeze in 2-cup Pyrex containers, since I like to use mixed beans in chilis and such. Freezing in small containers gives me so much flexibility when it comes to which type and how many beans to use in a dish. ”
— J
Comment

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.


How to Cook Perfect Beans, Every Time

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).

What's your preferred bean-cooking method, and what do you like to use them for? Tell us in the comments!

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45 Comments

Rebecca Z. April 21, 2019
I've been cooking beans on the stovetop in a clay dish, Paula-Wolfert style, with a heat diffuser. (Last two batches, I used the Dansk Generations Casserole, which is perfect for one cup of beans. For larger quantities, I use an antique bean pot.

I also recommend soaking for at least 24 hours unless you know the beans are really fresh; I'll put them on to soak with a tablespoon of salt in the morning, rinse before bedtime and add fresh salted water. Next morning, rinse again, add to the casserole with aromatics and salt, and cook on the stovetop with the heat diffuser underneath until tender. By starting the cooking in the morning, I've got time for even the toughest beans to get tender. And if they're done early, I simply leave them cooling in the casserole and begin re-heating about an hour before meal time.

Of course the problem with clay-pot cooking is risk of cracking the pot if you place it on a cold or wet surface; always take care to put it on a hot-pat or dry cutting board.

But I do agree with Wolfert that there's some magic imbued by the clay instead of metal, and I absolutely love the Dansk Generations casserole for a smaller batch of beans, lentils, chickpeas, or brown-rice, cooked on low on the range top.
 
Kathie April 17, 2019
Soak beans overnight, cook in slow cooker, freeze in jars with bean water, little or no freezer burn. Learned this from https://naturallyella.com/freezing-black-beans-and-chickpeas/
 
Smaug April 17, 2019
So, the answer to the original question seems to be no, we're not cooking beans all wrong, there are any number of ways to do it that produce excellent results. Baked beans are, of course, well known and can be quite good, but so can beans cooked many other ways.
 
Waleska V. April 17, 2019
I cook them in the crock pot overnight I add sofrito and spices to taste.After the initial overnight cooking I transfer them to another pot put them on high and let them boil until they are thickened. Like out of the can beans but better.
 
Eileen S. April 16, 2019
It's interesting to read about the restaurant's bean cooking practices, especially as it relates to big batch cooking. However, it's strange the article didn't at least reference the extensive testing that contradicts some of it. Cooks Illustrated went through & tested this exhaustively several years ago (building on work by Harold McGee among others), and it would have been really helpful to mention that. You can read the details at their original blog post. https://christopherkimball.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/cooking-beans-101/
You can see good pictures of all the options & further testing at Serious Eats https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/09/salt-beans-cooking-soaking-water-good-or-bad.html

In a nutshell, sodium in the soaking &/or cooking liquid- either from table salt, water minerals or other seasonings- softens the calcium & magnesium in bean structure so it cooks more quickly & evenly, as well as adding flavor. Conversely, acids firm the structure so should be added later, though weaker acids can be added from the beginning as long as low & slow cooking methods are used. If someone is getting hard beans they should look for acids, calcium, and other substances in their recipe and/or water that hinder the beans from absorbing liquid & keep their structure firm. They give the ratios that enhance cooking & flavor without oversalting.
 
Jan A. April 16, 2019
My Great Dane and I are both vegan (as were her 2 predecessors)...needless to say, we go through a lot of beans. A few months ago I discovered the Cooks Illustrated recommendation to soak the beans in brine for up to 24 hours. I'm hooked on this method--it reliably delivers creamy, flavorful beans with less cooking time.

I also add kombu and a raw potato to the cooking pot, both of which help break down and draw out (respectively) indigestible sugars. (Throw away the potato, stir the kombu into the aquafaba or add it to the pup's dinner bowl.) No gassy troubles for humans or canines.
 
Laura W. April 16, 2019
Joining the Rancho Gordo bean club is probably the best gift that I've ever given myself! It's definitely a luxury, but in my opinion, totally worth it if you can afford the expense. They cook faster than most grocery store dried beans (saving time and energy!) and I often use them in place of potentially more expensive proteins. Plus, they're so yummy that they encourage me to cook more meals at home! My favorite lesson from Steve Sando is that if you start with good beans, there's really no right or wrong way to prepare them. So many (often contradictory) methods yield beautiful pots of beans. They're remarkably forgiving. And even if you overcook them, they're still great as the base for a hummus!
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 17, 2019
This is awesome, Laura, thanks for sharing. (And you're totally right—many means to a great end!)
 
Beanerisum April 16, 2019
Often you won't know the age of your beans or pulses so forget about the overnight soaking and instead soak the beans until they ferment - just a small gathering of bubbles , may be a good two days. Rinse well , then bring to the boil, stir and just let them roll as quietly as possible . Test after half an hour and take it from there until they're done .
 
J April 16, 2019
This piece needs to be translated for home cooks. I'm a vegetarian who cooks beans always from scratch and who has been doing so for at least 20 years. 1) "Start with really good beans." I agree, no supermarket dusty bags. However, not everyone can afford Rancho Gordo (they are indeed the best). DO test out your local market's bulk bins: give each type of bean a try. I don't have bulk bins available to me here in the middle of nowhere, so my "really good beans" are amazoned from Arrowhead Mills, Bob's Red Mill, and Camellia (for black-eyed peas). 2). "Soak 'em" we agree. 3) "add as much water as humanly possible" . No, no, and no unless you have a gigantic freezer in which to save the enormous amount of watered-down aquafaba. "Bean juice" aka "aquafaba" is precious and we need to save it. However, we home cooks have limited freezer space, and, if we freeze precious liquids in small quantities, guess what, we can always add water later! 4). Stovetop, oven, give it a try and good luck. I did for years with variable results until I discovered that the Instant Pot delivered perfect beans every time. 5). The Great Bean Salt Debate: everyone, it seems, has a different opinion on this (even Marcella Hazan recanted). I salt during soaking, I rinse, and then I salt again before cooking. I want salt IN my beans from the very first moment. Trust me: it does not affect their texture, only their flavor. 6). Save Bean Water: Please see my response to #3, above: I never throw it out, always freeze it in Ball jars, and then use it to flavor chili or as a vegetarian stock. 7). Freeze. Yes! I freeze in 2-cup Pyrex containers, since I like to use mixed beans in chilis and such. Freezing in small containers gives me so much flexibility when it comes to which type and how many beans to use in a dish.
 
Shelly April 16, 2019
How can you tell the good dried beans from the poor quality?
I once had a batch of black beans that were soaked overnight and cooked for 8 hours and were still hard. What would be the problem?
But not being one to waste food I puréed then put the purée on mini pitas, topped with grated cheese then heated in the oven. They were delicious!
 
J April 16, 2019
You're not wrong, Shelly...that's the kind of variability that can occur with any type of bean. Solution #1 (if you can afford it) is buy your beans from Rancho Gordon: these will have been harvested within the last year and will cook like a dream. I suggest trying again with a small batch of black beans if your local supermarket has bulk bins, since these may be somewhat fresh. If that doesn't work, please see my suggestions in my comment above: I don't have access to bulk bins, so I amazon all of my beans. Good luck!
 
Ritch D. April 16, 2019
To the question regarding oven temperature, after using Rancho Gordo's suggestion of hard boiling for 5-10 minutes, I to put them in the oven at 200 F and check on them every 30-45 minutes to get them at the perfect point of creamy but not falling apart.
 
Susie April 16, 2019
I recently had some leftover ham and a craving for beans. I went from dry pinto beans to a delicious beans & ham dinner in about two hours with my InstantPot!
 
Sherry April 16, 2019
What temperature Should the oven be to slow cook the beans?
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Hi Sherry, you'll want to cook them at 300°F! Hope this helps.
 
Bri L. April 15, 2019
Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot. And therein lies the problem...not the taste, nor the obsessive worrying about how to cook them or flavour them, but the intestinal repercussions. Solve that (OK soaking helps as it leaches out some of the indigestible sugars thar make our microbiota so happy), and you have a worthy blog post. Until then, I’ll skip the gas mask and eat something else.
 
Carlos C. April 16, 2019
epazote has been used by Mesoamericans for many years to solve that problem. It is a common seasoning in black beans, especially in the yucatan, and it alleviates gas. Asafetida is also used in South Asian cuisines to help reduce gas.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
I'd never known that about epazote, Carlos—thanks for the super-interesting tip!
 
dharma C. April 16, 2019
I used to think I couldn't eat beans, even after using Beano or another enzyme helper. My Instant Pot has really helped me make creamy, less gassy beans. But here is the main secret, the moreoften you eat beans, the more your digestion adapts and becomes less noisy. Start with lentils, which are very digestible. Garbanzos are also a good "starter" bean. Black and pinto beans are still iffy for me but I love the heirloom Cranberry Beans from Bob's Red Mill as a perfect sub for pintos. I've got a big pot of them in the fridge right now. Soaked overnight and cooked in the Instant Pot for 20 minutes. Perfect, creamy and no unpleasant after effects.
 
Ritch D. April 15, 2019
I love beans, all kinds, and my doctor cheers me on each year during my annual wellness session. I admit to being frustrated for years as I struggled for the results I sought: , perfectly done, not mushy or even broken up, properly salted, etc. Your article outlines what I have learned as I persevered in my efforts. So bravo to you for sharing the wisdom with your other readers, and thanks for confirming what I have taken so long to discern . Despite the high cost, I am a fan of Rancho Gordo, particularly for the "freshness" of their products, and also for the varied selection. I try to have some beans each and everyday.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Thanks for reading and saying so, Ritch!
 
Clarissa P. April 15, 2019
One more comment my friend sent me this article because I told there was nothing good about beans lol and that’s because I’m having allergies problem with them and she was trying to defend them.
 
Clarissa P. April 15, 2019
When I read this article I thought I was going to read that I was cooking beans wrong. But I’m not the only thing I don’t do is cook them in the oven. Through the years my mother had taught me how to cook beans let me just say I hate them even more so now because of illness. I tried cooking them in a crockpot and I didn’t like the way the they turned out so I continue to cook them in my grandmothers Dutch oven which has been in the family over 150 years. The one thing that I do differently is after soaking them overnight and rinsing them I will have all the veggies cut up and in my Dutch oven then I will add the beans to the mixture and stir it for about five minutes then add vegetables broth and water never tough at all. A seven year old loves them so if I can get child to eat them I’m doing good. Loved the article.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Thanks for reading and sharing, Clarissa!
 
Anne J. April 15, 2019
I do believe that there is a strong belief that at some point beans need a 2 minute boil, something to do with bacteria that lurks in beans. I have heard this from South Asian friends, Italian friends and good old Southern United States friends so there is some real belief. I spent most of my life in New Orleans so I have never met a bean I haven't cooked and enjoyed. The great Deborah Madison has many interesting and subtle recipes that include beans. I don't usually cook mine solo in the oven, in New Orleans the red beans go on the stove stop for many hours usually on a Monday so that mother could get all the washing done, steam aplenty so who cares about a bit more, but the French have many ways to cook them including the cassoulet and variations on that theme. And white beans cooked down, served with rice and fried catfish, that is some good eating there. Beans are an endless topic
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Fascinating, Anne—I'd love to know the science behind the boil theory. Will have to read up on it! The recipes you mention also sound delicious.
 
Mg April 16, 2019
My understanding is that kidney beans and several related varieties contain a toxin that requires a 10 minute boil to destroy
https://www.statefoodsafety.com/Resources/Resources/toxic-beans
 
Mary April 15, 2019
I have never soaked my dried beans. After rinsing them I put them in my CrockPot, add onion, ham diced carrots Add water enough to cover 1-2 inches above the beans, put on low and cook over night. I have a lady say to me they were the best Bean Soup she 'd ever tasted. The bean is soft cooked and flavor perfect.
I cook all beans like this because slow cooking 6-8 hours is the secret to a perfect cooked bean.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Thanks for reading, Mary! Low and slow is definitely the way to go here.
 
David C. April 15, 2019
I get fresh beans of many varieties at my local farmers market. I’m not sure the best way to cook them. Please advise!!
 
Mary April 15, 2019
Try using a crock pot.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Hi David, thanks for reading! You can cook the same way as you do dried beans, just skip the soak and start checking your beans a bit earlier—say, 2 hours in.
 
Ann F. April 15, 2019
How do you determine how long the beans need to cook? Anywhere from 3 to 8 hours is pretty vague. If my beans are not ready in 3 hours I may have to keep cooking them for another 5 hours? There will be no dinner tonight!
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 16, 2019
Hi Ann, thanks for reading! As we mentioned up above, you'll know the beans are done when they're super tender and can be easily smashed. Start checking around 3 hours in and give the pan a peek about every hour after that until the beans are ready. This is a great cooking project for a day when you have some time around the house and can do other things as the beans bake!