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Cooking Beans from Scratch: The Secret’s in the Salt

March 26, 2009


Cooking beans from dried isn’t hard or complicated at all. I used to think it was intimidating and then we did it in culinary school and I felt so silly for having been wary. Just cook the beans in plenty of salted boiling water. That’s it. And yes, salted. Unless you live in an area with very hard water, salt won’t make the beans tough or lengthen the cooking time, and it will make them a lot tastier. I just add a big pinch when I add the beans to the water.

If I could banish one urban legend from the miasma of urban legends that is the internet, it would be this one. Salt and beans. Beans and salt. They love each other. They need each other. Spread the word!

And, please don’t tell anyone, but I almost never soak my beans. I just put them in a pot with plenty of water to cover, and the aforementioned pinch of salt. Bring it to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer so the hulls won’t get shaken off of the beans with too-violent bubbling, and cook them until they are done. That’s it.

Of course, if you want to cut your cooking time by a lot, and you are good at planning ahead the night before, then by all means, soak away. I’m lucky because I get my beans from a place with high turnover—the bulk aisle of a local health-food oriented grocery store in Portland, Oregon—so my beans don’t take all that long to cook, even when I skip soaking. You see, the longer ago that the beans were harvested, the longer they will take to cook, and they may not become as soft in the end. If you suspect your beans are old, I would definitely recommend soaking overnight before you cook them. And if beans make you gassy, that recommendation goes double: soaking can help break down some of the gas-causing sugars (called oligosaccharides) in the beans.

But if your beans are old, do try and find a place to get better beans. Don’t buy the dusty plastic sack of Goya sitting on the bottom of the Safeway shelf.

If you decide to soak your beans, be sure to drain them and rinse them after soaking, and cook them in nice clean water. The soaking water can get a little oogy.

If you decide not to soak your beans, be prepared to replenish the water once or twice during the cooking time. Other than that, you can just hang out. Do some laundry. Write a blog post. The beans will cook, cook, cook away with very little help from you. There are a lot of ways that people will say to test the beans to see if they’re done, like smooshing them against the side of the pot. My favorite: eat one. Or three, just to make sure.

Beans will increase in volume by about a factor of three when you cook them from their dried state. Thus, a half-cup of dried beans equals one can of canned beans. I’ve found that chickpeas increase a little bit more than other beans do.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa Piccone permalink
    April 8, 2009 4:56 am

    When adding water to beans while they cook should the water be boiling?

    • secretnatasha permalink*
      April 8, 2009 4:44 pm

      Not strictly speaking. The whole thing will go faster if the water is boiling, though–one easy way to do it is to heat up a tea kettle and just pour some of the boiling water out of that to top off the beans. Currently, I don’t have a tea kettle, so I just pour some water in from the tap, turn up the heat and keep an eye on things until the pot starts simmering again!

  2. Annmarie permalink
    April 17, 2009 8:12 pm

    Have you experimented at all with the acid / base additions to the bean pot for texture variations? I hear that vinegar will help keep the beans nice and solid, while baking soda will help them break down, but I have never actually tried it out at all.

    • secretnatasha permalink*
      May 4, 2009 3:21 pm

      You know, I’ve never tried that–I just go by cooking time, taking the beans out earlier if I want them firm and cooking them longer if I want them softer. The issue with baking soda is that it destroys some of the nutrients, specifically the B vitamins, in the beans. If I had hard water and my beans were taking forever to cook, though, I would think it would be worth trying.

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