Bean

How to Cook Dried Beans

October  9, 2012

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. 

steam

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?

55 Comments

Cleve H. October 13, 2016
I cook beans all the time and rarely pre-soak; however just as with grains, after simmering until tender, I always allow beans to rest. I turn off the heat and leave the pot covered for 15 to 45 minutes without peaking. Then I stir and reheat to a simmer. In this way, the beans have time to absorb more moisture and become creamier inside without being crushed by excessive simmering and stirring. Try it. I think you will find that this really is one secret to a good batch of beans.
 
Ilana K. October 12, 2016
I cook beans weekly in my slow cooker. No soaking or monitoring of any kind needed and get perfect beans every time. I do add 1/4 tsp baking soda when cooking garbanzo beans because they seem to be the most challenging. We love beans!
 
trampledbygeese July 29, 2016
Really great article. A couple of words in favour of pre-soaking the beans. One school of thought is that pre-soaking actually begins the germination process, thus converting the sugars and giving the beans a different nutritional profile which makes it more digestible for many people. Think sprouts! To take advantage of this, the beans need exposure to oxygen during the soaking process. One can do this by changing the water or simply stirring the beans every few hours. Another advantage is that pre-soaked beans can cook much faster, cutting down on time and fuel costs, making beans even more affordable. Of course, sometimes one just needs to cook beans from dry. The kombu is a great tip and I can't believe I forgot it.
 
Joan C. July 31, 2015
One piece pf advice for people living with very hard water..either use filtered water or use a 1/8-1/4 tsp baking soda. Even with soaking beans can have difficulty softening when the water is very hard. Also Rancho Gordo beans are wonderful!
 
Betty J. April 19, 2015
Thirscfeld--my partner has jars of ajwain which he uses for tea daily; he says it is for his stomach.
 
Betty J. April 19, 2015
I cooked my Eden Organic Black Beans in a slow cooker. Unsoaked , I put them in before I went to work and a quick check when I returned (and that's when I salted them) and let cook for another hour or so. The most delicious beans I have ever made.
 
Halli August 15, 2014
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.
 
trampledbygeese August 11, 2014
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.<br /><br />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?
 
Janey April 30, 2014
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!
 
John R. November 3, 2013
On a non-Science related note -- wonderful article and website!!!
 
John R. November 3, 2013
"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.
 
trampledbygeese August 11, 2014
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.
 
Halli October 28, 2013
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.
 
w R. May 7, 2014
Save the discarded water to be used as stock.
 
JohnSkye October 27, 2013
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.
 
cybrcook October 24, 2013
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--
 
Mark G. November 3, 2013
Also limits the risk of salmonella in the spices!
 
RanchoGordo October 17, 2012
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". <br />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.
 
Jan S. October 24, 2013
Sando's slow bubble is the best way to cooks beans. I never soak Rancho Gordo beans, they are perfection season after season.
 
Mr B. October 17, 2012
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?.
 
Author Comment
Marian B. October 17, 2012
Julia is both hilarious and brilliant. So glad I know this now!
 
veganamericanprincess October 12, 2012
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.
 
Author Comment
Marian B. October 17, 2012
I love kombu, too! I always throw some in with my beans.
 
Anh October 20, 2012
Where do you buy Kombu?
 
anntruelove October 12, 2012
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.
 
saltybutter October 10, 2012
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.
 
RanchoGordo October 10, 2012
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. <br />Best to use good, fresh (less than 2 years old) beans!
 
Author Comment
Marian B. October 10, 2012
I've also heard that baking soda can make beans slimy.