I agree with McGee

Buying and cooking dried beans

By
September 27, 2007

For such a simple, elemental food, known for providing low-cost protein to the masses, I find that beans can be tricky to get right. By tricky I mean a little fussy, requiring more care than you might expect.

You would think that cooking beans is a simple matter of boiling them in water until they soften to an edible state. This is mostly true, but for perfectly textured beans — beans that hold their shape and whose interior is pleasingly tender — cooks must give minimal but careful attention when shopping and cooking.

Like complaints about steak, the most common complaints regarding cooked beans have to do with their doneness. They are either falling apart (overcooked), chalky and crunchy (undercooked), or they have cooked unevenly — some beans are mushy, while some are too firm. The key to cooking a delicious pot of beans is knowing a bit of background about different bean varieties, appropriate cooking vessels, and temperature.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to turn beans into gourmet food. I’m just saying that when it comes to eating a bland starch like that contained in legumes, there’s a big difference between OK and excellent. And you want your beans to be flavorful, so satisfying that you’ll find yourself standing alone eating them in the kitchen, sprinkling a little salt and drizzling a little olive oil over them as you go.

Use a wide pot to cook beans so they don’t crush one another as they simmer.

Canned beans do not offer this kind of appeal. While canned beans are useful, and in my opinion a necessary convenience (a filling bean-and-cheese quesadilla is dinner 9-1-1 for preschoolers), they are truly second-best in taste and flavor compared to beans cooked from scratch.

As a bonus, the liquid left over from cooking your own beans is a miracle broth when stirred into soups, adding a round, mellow flavor. Large white beans in particular leave lots of starch in their cooking broth, making it almost gelatinous, like a meat stock. Vegetable-based soups can seem thin or watery, but adding leftover bean “stock” gives them body.

A great deal of lore circulates about how to cook beans, most of it focused on avoiding digestive difficulties. Beans contain carbohydrates that our bodies cannot digest. Food scientist Harold McGee says that when beans pass through our lower intestine, bacteria break down what our digestive enzymes cannot, causing gas.

Yet McGee eschews soaking beans as a technique to combat flatulence. Not only does soaking leach out the difficult carbohydrates, he says, but it also removes vitamins, minerals, and flavor, especially if you discard the soaking water.

Instead, McGee recommends long, slow cooking. This, he says, breaks down beans’ carbohydrates into digestible sugars. I have cooked a lot of beans and I agree with McGee: It is essential to cook beans thoroughly.

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But even better is how beans taste when they’re slowly cooked. Plenty of time in the oven or on the stove over low heat yields creamy and luxurious beans. Slow cooking also gives beans a chance to absorb the flavors of any herbs, fats, and aromatic vegetables you might have added to the pot.

Beans should be cooked at a gentle simmer in a wide pot, so that each bean simmers in hot liquid without getting crushed. Boiling will eventually blow apart your black-eyed peas, flageolets, and cranberry beans.

Though I endorse slow cooking, I won’t go so far as to discourage all bean presoaking. For one, beans do cook more quickly if soaked ahead of time. More importantly, making beans easy to digest, in my opinion, takes precedence over preserving every single nutrient. After all, if you associate beans with discomfort for you or those you’re feeding, you’re not likely to eat them in the first place, in which case you reap none of their abundant health benefits.

Those benefits include fiber and vegetable protein. A bean combined with a grain provides a complete protein. Beans are free of cholesterol and saturated fat as well. And their low glycemic index makes them a good choice for diabetics.

Because beans take a long time to digest, you’re left feeling full for longer. You get a steady energy from beans, as if the fuel you’re getting is on timed release.

Buying beans

Many of the common frustrations of cooking beans — they cook unevenly, the skins remain tough even when the insides are soft, or they take longer than two hours to soften — can be sidestepped by finding beans that haven’t been stored an excessively long time.

Ideally, beans should be cooked within one year of their harvest. The conundrum here is that beans are often sold in bulk, so how can you tell how old they are? Check their appearance. Beans that have been stored too long split, crack, and chip.

Your best approach is to look for beans grown in your region. I had not realized how sweet and light chickpeas could taste until I got some from a co-op of farmers in a neighboring state. The peas’ high quality could have been related to a number of factors: the variety of garbanzo or how it was sown and grown, for example. I’m betting, though, that their pure taste, free of the off-putting funk I sometimes detect in chickpeas, was because the beans were fresh. “Dried fresh” seems like an oxymoron, but the truth is that most foods lose flavor the longer they sit on the shelf.

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1. by anonymous on Sep 27, 2007 at 1:58 PM PDT

Beans will not get soft if you add tomatoes or tomatoe acid before AND Beano will not create any gas providing you chew two tablets or two drops with the FIRST bite of the food

2. by sassyradish on Sep 27, 2007 at 2:44 PM PDT

this is actually super helpful. I’ve been trying to figure out better ways to cook dried beans because i absolutely love them...

3. by Kelly Myers on Sep 27, 2007 at 8:18 PM PDT

Thanks, sassyradish. If you can, bake your beans rather than cooking them on the stovetop. It’s the most gentle way to cook them, and the heat is more evenly distributed. Also, for recipes and new ideas I highly recommend a little book called Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy by Judith Barrett.

4. by jdixon on Sep 29, 2007 at 11:36 AM PDT

Kelly,

While we’re lucky to get have great local beans here, those who live elsewhere can order good beans from Rancho Gordo

http://www.ranchogordo.com/

My approach is much like yours, but I skip soaking. I combine the beans, water, salt, and olive oil in a ceramic beanpot, then cook in the oven at about 250F until they’re done, anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hrs. I’ll often turn the oven off and let the heat form the pilot cook them longer and slower.

I use a ceramic pot because an old Italian farmer was quoted in Saveur a few years back in an article about fagioli in fiasco saying, “beans cooked in a metal pot aren’t worth eating.”

And to anonymous....MeGee writes that acid is what keeps bean from getting soft at all, so tomatoes should only be added after the beans are done...unless you like tough beans.

Jim

5. by becsfarm on Oct 4, 2007 at 2:01 PM PDT

Thank you for this posting. I cook only dried beans which I buy in bulk. I believe beans are very healthy. They are also economical, and really not that difficult to get creative with. I’m so spoiled with delicious recipes I’ve invented with beans, that beans are now like a comfort food for me. I can taste the difference between dried beans and those awful tasing ones in the can. Just last week I created a new bean recipe and I posted it on my blog. If you would like to receive my recipe for “Italian Bean and Corn Stew” please let me know and I’ll email it to you.

6. by rica on Dec 23, 2007 at 1:38 PM PST

can I use a pressure cooker to cook beans stored 5 years??????please answer soon..bollin77@juno.com

7. by teri gelber on Jan 20, 2008 at 11:18 AM PST

Kelly,
Your articles are truly concise and informative. I feel like we’re on the same culinary wavelength in terms of what to eat and how to stay ahead in the kitchen. I appreciate all of your knowledge and food-wise prose and promise to stay more up to date on your latest articles (now that Theo, my almost 3 year old, is in school part-time).
Teri

8. by Deb on Jan 23, 2009 at 1:31 AM PST

Using a crockpot has been my never-fail bean cooking method. They cook low and slow in ceramic rather than metal.

It’s my understanding that salt as well as acid will make the beans tough. So adding a hamhock (for my infamous hambone soup) is done after the beans are mostly cooked.

I like to cook extra beans and store them in the freezer. They’re almost as fast to use as the commercially canned ones, but so much better.

9. by jdixon on Jan 23, 2009 at 9:15 AM PST

Deb,

McGee debunks the “salt-makes-beans-tough” in his books and the article in the NYT, and salting the beans when you start cooking makes them taste much better (ditto for adding the ham hock at the beginning).

I recently made my annual investment in the world’s best beans (grown by Anthony and Carol Boutard at Ayers Creek Farm here in western Oregon). At $6/lb, they’re not cheap, but they taste so much better than any other dried bean I’ve ever had.

And if you compare the price with canned beans, they’re actually a great deal. The very cheapest canned beans are about a buck, organic canned beans at the store where I work are about $1.75. The typical 14 oz can yields about a cup and half of cooked beans. While I haven’t measured it precisely, pound of dried beans provides more than a quart of cooked beans, along with incredibly delicious “bean juice” (as an old Chicano coworker calls it).

So the Boutards’ beans are really a pretty good deal, especially given the heirloom varieties such as zolfino, tarbais, and borlotto that are hard to find anywhere else.

Jim

10. by Deb on Jan 23, 2009 at 1:07 PM PST

Jim-
Thanks for that info on the salt. I don’t know that I ever tried salting before they were done, I just did as I was taught. It would be a lot easier and understadably tastier if I added the hambone at the beginning.

I find it interesting that most recipies using canned beans will recommend rinsing the beans, and here we are talking about using the ‘bean juice’. I guess the commercially canned beans have way too much salt to make it usable.

I was gifted with some of the Ayers Creek Farm zolfino beans last summer. They are good! I thought about planting a few of them, but forgot. Guess I’ll have to ask sis to stand in line at their Farmer’s Market booth and pick up some more.

I have a couple of friends who pressure can dried beans so they have the convenience of canned beans without all the salt and other additives the commercially prepared ones have in them. I haven’t tried that yet, maybe this year.

Deb

11. by anonymous on Mar 1, 2009 at 12:12 PM PST

If possible, the BEST way to cook beans is know as bean hole bens. You dig a hole in the ground, line it with fire bricks on the bottom, and on the sides if needed to maintain the heat. Build a good fire several hours before you plan on “putting your beans down”. Keep adding wood til you have a nice bed of coals. Make sure your beans are hot and in a suitable pot. We had a fancy cast iron one, but it oly held 4 pounds. We bought a cheap $5 stainless steel pot and have used it many times. It will hold 8-10 pounds plus a roast if desired. Make sure your cover is tight. we put tinfoil between pot and cover and again on top of cover to ensure sealing. Take coals out of fire pit, lower bean pot in, cove carefully with coals on top and around sides. Carefully cover pot with dirt and make sure no smoke escapes. Leave overnight or at least 8 hours. Carefully take off dirt and remove pot when done. Best beans there is and use your favorite recipe.

12. by JudithK on Mar 10, 2009 at 1:27 PM PDT

Rancho Gordo is the best! Steve knows beans like no one else, he also stocks the widest variety of heirloom beans...and he is just an all round great guy.
Deb, I have a question for you: are you sure you saw zolfino beans? The reason I ask is that they are indigenous to a small region in Tuscany and are part of an ongoing Slow Food project to protect them from extinction. They are wonderful, one of the most aromatic beans I’ve ever encountered. If they are being grown in the US thats a very good sign!

13. by Deb on Mar 10, 2009 at 4:04 PM PDT

Hi JudithK-
Yep, the label on the beans is Zolfino, they’re small white beans. The person who gifted me with them says that people stand in line at the Farmer’s market to buy them. I have a small handful left that I was saving for ‘many bean soup’ maybe I should plant them instead?

14. by winnie67 on Oct 22, 2009 at 8:27 AM PDT

How do you store the dried beans? I just purchased 3 lbs. of beans from Rancho Gordo and am excited to cook them but there are only 2 of us and I need to space out the times we eat these. Should I put them in quart jars with lids until ready to use? Leave in the cupboard?
Also, if you use a slow cooker, can you give me an approx time to cook the beans before needing to check for doneness?
Thank you!

15. by Lorna Sass on Dec 6, 2009 at 10:38 AM PST

For last-minute bean cooking, nothing can beat a pressure cooker. No need to pre-soak. Add a little salt from the start to enhance flavor and be sure to use the natural release to maintain the beans’ shape.
About 35 minutes under pressure for chickpeas from scratch!

16. by W. Wise on Feb 9, 2010 at 3:09 PM PST

I was raised on dried Great northerns, as Mother was raised before WW I in eastern Montana where their main crop was thesde beans. Someimes I soak them, sometimes not. I ususaly start by sauteing garliv and onions, adding beans and no-salt beef broth, simmer very slowlly in my Dutch oven, added herbs depending on my mood.

Right now i’m searching for a recipe for making my own pork and beans, using the above beans as a bsdr.

Any suggestions will be appreciated.

No-Salt Walt (a cardiac condition, don’t ys know)

17. by Stephanie on Mar 16, 2010 at 12:01 PM PDT

I was so happy to read the salting tip. I read McGee’s NYT article after seeing this, and cooked beans bought from last fall’s last farmer’s market. They were unbelievably good!
Cranberry and Jacob’s Cattle, if I remember correctly. We shelled them in December, and I’ve kept them in an air-tight container.
I usually quick-soak: put into hot water, boil for 5 minutes, turn off heat and soak for an hour. We were short on time, and I figured the beans are relatively new. So 30 minutes of soaking, then drained and put in salted water. After about 30 more minutes, these beans were incredible! Soft and buttery, flavorful like no others!

I’m going to plant beans this spring!

18. by Kristen on Mar 16, 2010 at 2:00 PM PDT

This is actually a question. I have been cooking a bag of 15 bean ‘soup’ for 5 hours. I soaked them all night and boiled them, simmered for 3 hours, boiled them again for one hour and they are still hard! Are the bad? Stale?

19. by JudithK on Mar 16, 2010 at 4:07 PM PDT

By any chance are you at altitude? I was cooking at around 8500 ft and after 2 days of simmering the beans were still hard. Think the problem is the higher you are, the lower the water temp and at certain height/temp the beans will just never cook.

20. by leanne on Jun 23, 2010 at 12:35 PM PDT

these are great comments! i will say my mom has ALWAYS used a pressure cooker for dried beans... however i just have this fear of it! haven’t bought one yet. I can hear that thing hissing from my childhood ;)

21. by Cooking in Mexico on Dec 1, 2010 at 4:52 PM PST

Soaking beans is a good idea because it reduces phytic acid, thereby increasing mineral absorption. See http://hubpages.com/hub/phytic-acid to read more about it.

Judith, old beans take longer to cook; some old never cook tender. Beans from the last harvest are best.

Kathleen

22. by anonymous on Mar 20, 2011 at 2:24 PM PDT

If you are at high altitude use an Electric Pressure cooker.

23. by JudithK on Mar 20, 2011 at 4:22 PM PDT

Anonymous... I’m too scared to try a pressure cooker at altitude! When you open a can of coffee, the coffee literally explodes out of the can. Think of a bottle of soda shaken for 10 minutes and then opened.
Cannot even begin to comprehend how to adjust the time/temp/pressure at altitude!

24. by anonymous on Oct 22, 2011 at 4:11 AM PDT

Beans and tomato are not an ideal combination - the protein and acid fight with each other and are very hard to digest together - this is the cause of gas - not the beans themselves but the two together.

25. by anonymous on Nov 24, 2011 at 8:26 PM PST

thanks for affirming my thoughts about over and under cooking. both are very much a been killer i’ve found. i have taken undercooked beans out of the slow cooker, blended and simmered them for 20 minutes or more and they remain grainy. overcooked beans on the other hand lose all of their flavour and taste have a bland sodium-rich taste with a pasty/gooey texture to boot.

also want to add that buying beans in the supermarket in sealed packages is better than buying at the local bulk store. those beans have the same taste and texture of the overcooked beans i described above no matter how you cook them. the ones i am getting at the supermarket come in very thick and durable sealed plastic bags. for now these will be my beans of choice.

btw i pick and rinse the beans and put them with water 1:3 (3 parts water) on low for about 10 hours and they are perfect. no more trying to mess with high setting on the slow cooker since that can easily overcook them without warning. like you said, and i thank you for this information, that there is a window of ‘doneness’, just like any other veg, pasta, rice etc.

thanks again!

26. by marie simmons on Nov 30, 2011 at 6:11 PM PST

I agree with all the above comments. I have been cooking beans in a casserole or enameled cast iron pot in a moderate oven for years. I use water barely to cover, couple of garlic cloves,a drizzle of olive oil, a slice of onion and maybe a bay leaf, celery top or a stem of fresh herb. I salt after the beans are done. The gentle cooking, as expressed in above comments, helps the beans to keep their shape. Also oven baking discourages lid lifting and stirring (a bean crusher for sure). As the beans cool they absorb much of the liquid in the pot. I don’t always soak beans, but if I do the beans, depending on type and source, cook in 1 to 1-1/2 hrs. but like so many foods from natural (versus big commercial companies) beans differ from season to season and are done cooking......when they are cooked.

27. by anonymous on Jan 2, 2012 at 9:21 AM PST

I’ve found, to “release the gas” from beans, all you need to do is ...
1) soak the beans overnight (I prefer Pinto beans),
2) bring them to a boil
3) remove from heat
4) add and gently stir in a heaping tablespoon of baking soda. This will create a great deal of foam (usually green and disgusting), so be sure you’re close to the kitchen sink as the foam can quickly outgrow the pot.
5) gently rinse beans in cold water and ... start (cooking) again in fresh, cold water.
Your gastronomical epicurean experience will be far less gaseous, thereby more enjoyable!

28. by drfugawe on Jan 11, 2012 at 5:47 PM PST

I’ve gone through a bad period of some five years during which every time I tried to cook dried beans, they’d take forever - so I kept buying new ones - but they too were old, apparently. I was beginning to feel cursed. Then I started to buy my dry beans at our local health food store, and I’ve never had a problem since - and I discovered that their prices are even less than the big grocery!

29. by anonymous on May 23, 2012 at 6:53 PM PDT

After soaking overnight, these Whole Foods beans have been cooking 3 hours plus and they are still hard!

30. by anonymous on Jun 2, 2012 at 1:41 PM PDT

I have canned my own beans from time to time. Beans that will not get soft, no matter what you do, are perfect for this. You can store them for a very long time and they are so soft and delicious. Canning in glass retains the beans flavor and doesnt cause that nasty “canned” taste. Makes a good easy fast meal after a hard day of work and the family is starving. Canned beans and canned venison with some fresh veggies and its time to eat!

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