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How to Cook Beans

how to cook beans

This is the fourth in a series of answer posts to reader-submitted questions. Many of these questions and answers were incorporated into the revised edition of the Learn to Cook book.

How to Cook Dried Beans

To cook beans from scratch, the first step is to sort the beans. If you usually skip that step, take heed, children, for I too was once of the mind that a quick look-over would suffice until the woeful day when I chomped into my chalupa and found a rock.

  • Put 2 cups of dry beans (any variety) in a colander and look through them…really look at them. Pull out any funky looking beans or anything that is not, in fact, a bean. Then rinse them and put them in a big ass pot.
  • Now you have two options: To soak or not to soak. Soaking may remove some of the gaseous qualities of legumes (though it’s really a very tiny percent, like 1%) but it also requires forethought. With deeply pigmented beans such as black or kidney, it also drains away their color. Do not soak lentils. I usually don’t soak any beans, but here are the two methods:

To soak:

Cover the beans in the big ass pot with 3″ of water. Cover and leave to soak at room temperature 8 hours or over night. Drain and put in enough fresh water to cover by  2 inches. Put the lid on the pot, leaving a crack open. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, 1 – 2 hours depending on the bean, until they are softened enough that one can be easily mashed between your thumb and finger.

To cook directly:

Cover the beans in the big ass pot with 4″ of water and bring to boil over high heat. Crack the lid to let keep from boiling over. Reduce to medium and cook at a strong simmer for 1 1/2 – 3 hours, adding hot water as necessary to keep the beans covered, until they are softened enough that one can be easily mashed between your thumb and finger. (This is the method you’ll want to use for lentils and dried split peas, both of which are quick-cooking and will only need boiling for an hour or less.)

Seasoning ideas for various types of beans:

With either method, you can add salt and non-acidic seasoning ingredients when you begin cooking.

I almost always add a couple (2-4) whole cloves of peeled garlic to my beans no matter what I plan to do with them. Sometimes I’ll add a bay leaf, too if I’m making something Mexican-style or Cajun-style or just planning on eating them on their own. Chopped onion and jalapeño of course go well with Mexican cookery. Small amounts of diced bacon or ham also add a great umami flavor to beans. I’d say 4 ounces of salted meat per pound of beans is a good place to start. Diced celery or carrots or a few sprigs of thyme also add flavor, especially to Cajun or French recipes.

Avoid adding tomatoes or other acidic ingredients (citrus or vinegar) at the beginning because they can make the bean skins tough. Ingredients like these can be added once the beans have softened.

  1. Black Beans: Classic: onion, garlic, jalapeño; Cuban-style: onion, garlic, bay, coriander, finished with orange and lime juice
  2. Pinto Beans: Classic: garlic and bay leaf; Charro beans
  3. Kidney Beans: Classic: onion, celery, bell peppers, sausage; Red beans and rice
  4. Garbanzo Beans: Greek: garlic, bay, oregano, finished with lemon juice and fresh parsley; hummus
  5. Navy Beans: Classic: garlic, onion, celery, ham; Greek: garlic, rosemary, finished with fresh tomatoes and parsley; Ranch-style beans
  6. Lentils: French: garlic, thyme, bay, onion, finished with sherry and parsley; Morroccan: garlic, smoked paprika, carrots, bay, finish with lemon juice and cilantro or parsley

Salting your beans:

For a pound of beans, start with 2 teaspoons of salt at the start of cooking. It is said that salt toughens beans and lengthens the cooking time but in my experience, the slight increased cooking time is worth the trade-off for beans that are seasoned through to their very souls, rather than beans which are just swimming in an ocean of salty bean broth. Once the beans are fully cooked, you can add more salt if needed.

Baking soda???

An old trick for cooking garbanzo beans in particular involves baking soda. I haven’t researched the science of why it works, but adding a pinch of baking soda to the water helps hard beans (like garbanzo and lima) cook faster but maybe more importantly … the baking soda alters the final texture. Hummus made with baking soda-chickpeas turns out smoother and silkier. Try it — you’ll be impressed! Your homemade hummus will have the same luscious texture of those at the finest Middle Eastern restaurants.

Now Eat!

That’s it! Cooking dried beans is easy, economical, and offers endless variations. Cooled, cooked dried beans can be packed in useful-for-your-house sized containers (covered in their cooking liquid to keep from freezer burn) and frozen for up to 3 months. Often, on weekends when I’m feeling thrifty, I’ll cook a pound of plain black or pinto beans (our favorites) and separate into quart or pint containers for the freezer. One pound of dried beans, cooked, will yield about 6 cups of cooked beans (and for reference, there are about 2 cups of dried beans in one pound). I’ll pull one out at the beginning of each week and we’ll have enough beans to fill out several meals that week. We love beans with migas, or beans in taco salad, veggie bean burgers, and black bean or minestrone soup. Hummus can be made with fresh cooked garbanzo beans.  And these homemade “Ranch style” beans are the most delicious in the world. Beans! It’s what’s for dinner?

7 Comments

  1. leonard on January 21, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I like beans!

    • Hilah on January 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Me too!

    • julia on January 17, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      Beans, beans, the magical fruit
      the more you eat, the more you toot
      The more you toot, the better you feel
      So eat some beans with every meal.

      My brothers used to say this every time we had beans. Sad but true!!!

  2. Olaf on March 10, 2016 at 3:33 am

    Hilah, I seem to remember you writing either here or in the FB group that you use a slow cooker to prepare beans? I’m unable to find that comment so did I imagine it? If not, can you comment on why that might be a good way to prepare beans and how you do it? I’m a bit on the fence on getting one. We’re vegan, so the sole purpose for such a device would be to cook beans I guess. Can’t see it being useful to make slow cooked Tofu… 😉

    • Hilah on March 10, 2016 at 10:04 am

      Hi Olaf!
      Sure thing. Here’s how I cook pinto beans in the slow cooker (copied from my slow cooker cookbook) but you can use the same ratio of beans:water to cook any other kind of bean you like.

      1 pound pinto beans
      5 1/2 cups water
      1 onion, chopped coarsely
      4 large cloves garlic, peeled
      1 jalapeño, stemmed and halved lengthwise
      1 tablespoon butter or oil
      2 teaspoons salt

      1. Pick over the beans and rinse them in a colander. Put everything in the slow cooker.
      2. Cover and cook 8-10 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high until the beans are very soft.
      3. Remove the jalapeño and serve. If you like, you can mash the beans with a potato masher or immersion blender before serving.

      Slow cookers are also good for baking whole potatoes, if you like baked potatoes without heating up the whole oven.

  3. Pia on February 18, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    The reason to soak beans, lentils, chickpeas is to get rid of some of the purine, wich has to be considered by cout and arthritis. That’s what we learned in Switzerland.

    • Hilah on February 18, 2017 at 6:05 pm

      That’s interesting! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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