That bag of dried beans sitting in your cupboard that you just keep...not cooking? This Genius technique, modified from Tuscan tradition, will essentially do it for you—and make them creamier and more flavorful than ever.
As Rachel Roddy writes in her column for the Guardian, “Every year, usually in October, we visit Maremma, a glorious cummerbund of a region straddling lower Tuscany and higher Lazio … Maremmani know how to cook white beans, simmering them until tender, often in terracotta, and occasionally in time-honoured fashion, al fiasco, in a glass flask in the embers of a fire. Fat, tender, creamy and often still warm, the beans are served with a little of their own broth and some extra virgin olive oil...
“There are plenty of strongly held opinions about cooking beans in Maremma … in Tuscany ... in Italy. Just like learning a language, you listen and repeat; then once you are confident, you do it your way. Then you may get stuck in your ways, digging in your kitchen heels. I am not sure why I had never thought to cook beans in the oven before—which is nearest to the embers, I suppose—but I hadn’t. I now know it is a good way, producing plump, deeply flavoured beans. Not that you can’t get beautifully flavoured beans on the stovetop, but it must be something about the effect of baking as opposed to boiling heat, the taste of both beans and broth is richer and rounder somehow. Same with sage and garlic. In the oven, the sage loses its aggressive bitterness, taking on a savoury, almost meaty fragrance. Garlic, too, benefits from baking; it brings out its kinder side, the inside of the cloves becoming so sweet and soft they can be squeezed from the skin like cream from a tube. I add salt to the beans, along with the oil and herbs. (Seasoning at the start is different to seasoning at the end—I don’t believe it toughens the beans as some people say—but if you prefer, add salt at the end.)"
A few more tips: If you’ve forgotten to soak your beans, don’t worry—this method still works well, it may just take a bit longer. This technique will work with any variety of dried beans, though the cook time may vary (chickpeas in particular will take longer, and the older your beans are, the longer they will take). If you don’t have precisely these seasonings, consider other herbs like rosemary, thyme, or bay leaf, a Parmesan rind, a split onion, a dried chile.
Soak the beans in plenty of cold water for 10 hours. Drain and rinse the beans, then return to a large ovenproof pot or casserole with a lid. Cover with cold water, making sure the water comes a good couple of fingers above the beans (1 to 2 inches, depending on how brothy you like your beans).
Heat the oven to 335°F. On the stovetop, over a medium-low heat, bring the beans slowly to just-before-the-boil (they mustn’t boil), skimming away any surface foam if you like, then add the whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic, sage, a good pinch of salt, and olive oil. Cover the pan with the lid and transfer to the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the beans are tender and surrounded by just a little cloudy broth. Check the seasoning and squeeze the garlic from the skin and stir it into the broth if you wish. Serve alone with more olive oil on top, with sausages, or as part of a soup.