Beans are an elemental food. We take them for granted because we usually buy them in a can, drain and rinse them, and then add them to other things where they fade into the background--little more than a pleasing texture or a cheap ingredient to add bulk.
But beans are an integral part of almost every culture. From the soy, mung, and adzuki beans of Asia to the cannellini beans of Italy to my grandmother's October bean patch, beans are a plentiful, inexpensive, and toothsome source of protein and fiber.
While canned beans are convenient, knowing how to cook dried beans is an essential kitchen skill. Not only will you be able to find a greater variety of dried beans than canned, they will taste better and have a better texture into the bargain.
You have probably heard all sorts of rumors about cooking dried beans--that they take hours to cook, that you need to soak them, that you shouldn't salt them before cooking. Don't let this sort of gossip keep you from cooking dried beans.
Myth #1: Dried beans take hours to cook. The truth is that every batch of beans is a little different. Some beans take very little time to cook--30 minutes or so. Lentils can take even less time. But even the toughest beans, such as chickpeas, don't take "hours" to cook. Sometimes, you may want a thick, soupy consistency--my favorite way to cook cranberry beans--in which case you can let them stew over low heat for hours. However, most beans are tender within an hour, 2 at the most.
There are other variables that impact cooking time--bean size, how old the beans are, how hard your water is--and so cooking beans is a "by feel" technique, but there's no need to chain yourself to the stove in order to serve beans at your next meal.
Sometimes, when beans have been stored in a warm, humid place for too long, they become so hard that they are no longer fit to eat and are difficult, if not impossible, to cook. This is why it is best to buy only the beans that you know you will use within six months to a year.
Myth #2: You must soak dried beans before cooking them. If you have time and can remember to do so, soaking beans is a great thing to do. Soaking will decrease the overall cooking time, and the beans will cook through more evenly. If you soak beans in salted water, it can substantially decrease the cooking time and season the beans in the process (thank you Harold McGee for that fun fact). My trouble is, I can rarely remember to soak beans.
There is the famous "quick-soak" method: Boil the beans for one minute, then take the pot off the heat, cover it, and let it stand for an hour. Then finish cooking the beans. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t actually save any time. By the time you’ve soaked beans for an hour, you could already be well on your way to a fully-cooked pot of beans had you simply started simmering them from the get-go.
I've found that beans don't really need to be soaked, and I almost always dispense with this step. Slowly simmering dried beans or cooking them in a pressure cooker seems to produce results almost as good as soaking them does.
Myth #3: Salting beans before cooking prevents them from cooking as quickly. This is somewhat true--if you add salt to a pot of simmering beans, it will initially prevent the outer hull from absorbing water and softening (though we think the difference in cooking time between salted and unsalted beans is negligible). However, if you salt beans during the soaking phase, they not only cook faster, but will be better seasoned, the salt penetrating to the core of each bean. I prefer not to salt beans before cooking for the simple reason that I feel like I have a better handle on the seasoning after the beans are cooked (and we never discard our bean cooking liquid, preferring to cook it down until it is concentrated, which amplifies the presence of salt). But if you like, salt away!
Our basic method for cooking beans:
- Rinse the beans. Beans are dirty. They are often covered with dust and dirt and can have little pebbles or twigs mixed in. Don't be tempted to skip this step.
- Add just enough water to cover the beans in a Dutch oven or pot. As they cook and the water starts to evaporate, don't let the beans dry out--they will become hard and leathery.
- Add any flavorings you want. We always cook beans with a bay leaf thrown in. We also love wedged onions and whole (peeled) garlic cloves. If we’re going to serve beans as part of a Mexican or southwestern style meal, we add dried epazote, avocado leaf, and a dried and seeded guajillo pepper as well. For southern-style beans, add a ham hock. Italian style beans can take a sprig of sage, a glug of olive oil, garlic, and maybe a couple dried red peppers.
- Simmer the beans until they're done. This is vague, but there are many variables that determine how long beans take to cook. We usually start with 30 minutes on the timer, and then we start tasting them. If the beans are still hard or chalky inside, set the timer for 10 to 30 more minutes, depending on how hard they are. Check them at regular intervals until the beans are tender but still firm. They shouldn’t be falling apart. A great way to tell that beans are done or almost done is to blow on a spoonful of them. If the outer skins of the beans peel back (it's very noticeable), keep a very watchful eye on them--they're almost done if they aren’t already done. The key word here is "simmer." Never boil beans--it can affect their integrity (they may fall apart), and it can cause the exterior of the beans to overcook before the interior is fully cooked. The one exception to this rule is kidney beans. Raw kidney beans contain the toxin phytohemagglutinin and must be boiled for 10 minutes to destroy it. Phytohemagglutinin is not lethal by any means, but may cause gastrointestinal discomfort and symptoms similar to food poisoning. Always boil kidney beans for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer until cooked. If using a pressure cooker to cook kidney beans, you do not need to pre-boil for 10 minutes as the very high temperatures reached inside the pressure cooker are adequate to destroy the toxin. If using a slow cooker, you MUST pre-boil the kidney beans.
- Season the beans. Add salt and pepper to taste and a healthy glug of olive oil. You may be surprised at how delicious beans are on their own.
Pressure cooking dried beans: The average amount of time we pressure cook dried beans is 20 minutes. Some smaller beans, such as black-eyed peas, take less time, and others, like chickpeas, usually take more time. There are two main downsides of using a pressure cooker: You can’t see how tender the beans are until the cooker has depressurized (so, if the beans are not tender yet, you have to repressurize the cooker and guesstimate how much longer they should cook, or you can finish simmering them in a pot on the stovetop); and there is almost no evaporation in a pressure cooker, so you’re not going to get as concentrated a bean broth as you would just simmering them in a pot.
There is, however, a very detailed chart that I would be remiss not to show you. What's really great about this chart is that there are cooking times given for both soaked and unsoaked beans.
I hope, at the very least, that this inspires you to cook up a big pot of beans. They are the people’s food--inexpensive, plentiful, healthy, filling, and delicious. And cooking them, once you know the basics, is so easy it's almost instinctual.