Climbing the Beanstalk: Cooking Dried Beans 101

Climbing the Beanstalk: Cooking Dried Beans 101

I mentioned before that Red Beans and Cornbread is more than just a staple meal in Texas.  It’s comfort food, but it’s also a clear indicator of a family’s finances.  If there’s ham in the beans, the family is sitting pretty.  If the ham is replaced with bacon, things are tight but manageable.  If there isn’t any bacon and we’re really broke, we add a little saved bacon grease for flavor.  If there’s no meat and no saved fat, those are ‘naked beans’.  Naked beans mean we’re worried about keeping the lights on and the bellies full.  We have eaten (more than) our share of naked beans in the past, but thankfully we have ham in our beans now!  (Of course, it helps that we raise our own pork!)

I’d like to share my recipe for Red Beans and Cornbread, but I thought we should take a little time to discuss cooking dried beans.  Canned beans are pretty expensive, compared to dried.  Plus, dried beans are super easy to make.  If the weather is cool, a pot of beans simmering on the stove is comforting.  If it’s hot, beans can easily be made in the crock pot or pressure cooker. There are many main course bean meals.  However, they can also be used as sides or as ingredients in other dishes.

Dried beans are cheap, nutritious, and unbelievably easy!  A quick and unscientific poll of my friends, coworkers, and family revealed an interesting trend.  I was surprised that age, rather than culture or income seemed to be the deciding factor for bean cooking.  In my quick survey, the majority of people under 30 had never cooked dried beans.  Most of those in the 30-40 age range had some experience cooking dried beans.  Those of us in the 40+ range largely consider dried beans a quick-and-dirty busy-day meal.  There were exceptions in each group.  The most notable was a few young healthy-eating vegetarian hipsters.  I’m starting a campaign to make beans food for the masses again!  Beans: They’re not just for hipsters (and geriatrics) anymore!

Let’s get started with bean basics.

The major thing that affects cook time for dried beans is age.  Dried beans store well, and last a l-o-n-g time.  However, older beans take longer to cook and decline in nutrition.  As odd as it may sound, we should choose ‘fresh’ dried beans. By fresh, I mean under a year old.  According to the US Dry Bean Council, beans are optimal up to one year.  However, they note that some beans cook properly after years of storage.  I’ve cooked beans much older than a year with no issues.  But, if you’re new to cooking dried beans, err on the side of caution with a $2.00 ‘fresh’ bag of dried beans.  (Ok, pause for a moment here.  Who knew there was a US Dry Bean Council?!?  It makes me wonder what other random ingredients have their own council representatives.  I mean, if there is a US Gooey Chocolate Ganache Council, I WANT IN!  Okay, back to beans.)

Before cooking beans, it’s important to know dried beans are harvested by machine.  These machines don’t know a ‘hill of beans’, from a pile of pebbles.  No, seriously, they don’t!  Take the time to check your beans for debris, funky beans, or stones.  The harvesters will occasionally scoop up a rock or two with your bag of beans.  Once you’ve picked through the beans, there are several options.  NOTE: If you’re intimidated by cooking beans, go directly to option 1.  Do not pass go!  Do not collect $200.  Options are good, but when you’re anxious they can feel overwhelming.  None of these methods are difficult, but make it easy on yourself.  Next time, you can be braver and experiment.

Option 1: Overnight soak

Many people soak their beans for ~12hours.  An overnight soak reduces the cook time slightly, but also requires advance planning.  According to the US Dry Bean Council (Seriously, where do I join the Ganache Council?), there’s evidence that soaking helps prevent some of the…ahem…’digestive issues’ that beans may cause, IF the soaking water is discarded and replaced with fresh.

  • Place dried beans in a large bowl or pot.
  • Cover with cool water to about two inches above the beans.
  • Cover the container and allow it to rest on the counter overnight.
  • Before cooking, drain beans and replace water with fresh.
  • Proceed to recipe.

Option 2: Short Soak

If you want to soak your beans, but forgot to start them 12 hours before, you still have time.  You can simply use the short soak method.  This method is reputed to have the same benefits as the long soak, but to a lesser degree.

  • Put beans in a pot and add water to two inches above beans.
  • Bring pot to a full rolling boil.  (This is a serious witchy boil.  If you stir it and the bubbles stop, it isn’t boiling yet.)
  • Boil one full minute.
  • Cover, turn off heat, and allow beans to rest for one hour.
  • Before cooking, drain beans and replace water with fresh.
  • Proceed to recipe.

Option 3: How my Mama does it

I am not, as a rule, a bean soaker.  I tend to do what my Mama does.  However, writing this post made me curious, so I did a little digging.  I am going to explain what we do, and then I’ll give you the information I found about this method.

  • Put beans in a pot and add water to two inches above beans.
  • Bring pot to a full rolling boil.  (Insert creepy MacBeth quote here.)
  • Boil for one full minute.
  • CAREFULLY, remove from heat and place in the sink.
  • Call all available nerds, geeks, and small children to watch.
  • Stir one tablespoon of baking soda into the pot.  It will froth and foam, and the water will turn green.  (This step makes me feel like I’m in 5th grade Science class.)
  • Use a colander to drain and rinse beans thoroughly with cold water.
  • Rinse the pan with cold water.
  • Return beans to the pan and cover (plus two inches) with fresh water.
  • Proceed to recipe.

According to my mother, this process helps reduce gas, makes the beans cook more quickly, and counts as a homeschool Science lesson.  I’m assuming this process provides similar cook-time and gastric benefits as the short soak method. I also think that rinsing in cold water ‘blanches’ the beans and helps them cook more quickly.

According to the US Ganache Council US Dry Bean Council, baking soda makes dry beans more tender.  They say, it can even make fresh dried beans (oxymoron, much?) mushy.  However, in an effort at full disclosure, I need to add a couple of things.  The US Dry Bean Council doesn’t have my family’s unorthodox bean methods on their list of possibilities.  Their baking soda option involves adding ¼ t (teaspoon) of baking soda per pound of beans, during cook time, and not rinsing or changing the water.  They also point out that baking soda can make some of the vitamin B in beans less easily absorbed.

The recipe I plan to post later this week is supposed to have some of the beans cooked till they fall apart.  I like mostly whole beans, with just enough mushy ones to thicken the broth and feel rich in texture.  So, I add the baking soda and use Mama’s “blanching” method.  If we were eating beans more consistently, I would probably change methods for nutrition’s sake.  As I said, this is comfort food for my family. I think part of that comes from the cooking, not just the eating.  I have childhood memories of watching the beans froth as Mama stirred, and I’ve made memories with my kids over the same pot of beans.

Option 4: Cook the Crud out of ‘Em

None of the above options are really necessary.  The simplest way to cook dried beans is to cook them until they’re done.  Easy peasy.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  Seriously, I promise you don’t have to ‘pretreat’ your beans.

If I use the ‘cook the crud out of ’em’ method, I season in the beginning. (Except for salt. Never add salt to beans early in the cooking time. See note below.
  • Be sure you have about half an hour to an hour longer to cook them, than if you chose options 1-3.
  • Rinse beans.
  • Stick beans in pot.
  • Stick pot under faucet and fill to two inches over beans.
  • Stick pot on stove or in crock pot. Done.
  • Proceed to recipe.

Once you get your beans in the pot or crock pot, your work is pretty much done.  Put in whatever seasoning you want or leave them plain.

NOTE: It’s important not to add salt to beans until the last few minutes of cooking.  Salt makes beans tougher, and therefore take longer to cook.  I wait until they are done, add the salt, and give them about ten more minutes.

If cooking on the stove, bring pot to a rolling boil.  Then, turn down to a simmer (occasional bubbles) and cover.  Check on the pot every thirty minutes or so.  Stir the beans and make sure you don’t need to add water.  If you do, no biggie.  Just add hot tap water, and turn the heat up until you are back to a simmer.  Depending on the option you chose, the size/age of your bean, and the vigor of your simmer I would plan on 2-4 hours for most beans.  If they’re ready sooner, that’s okay!  Depending on how soft you want them, you can leave them simmering much longer.  The window for getting beans right is pretty wide and easy to hit.  To see if they’re done, just catch a random bean in a slotted spoon.  Blow on it, mash it, and then, if you think it might be ready, taste.

If you’re using a crock pot, you can put the beans on low or high.  On low, I plan on 6-8 hours.  On high it is more like 4-6 hours.  One thing with crock pots is the juice doesn’t really thicken.  So, I take the lid off the last half hour to hour of cook time.  This helps the liquid to be more sauce, than broth.  One other trick for thicker bean ‘juice’ is to mash about 10% of your beans when they are done.  I use an old-fashioned potato masher or stick blender, but you could easily ladle some into a blender, KitchenAid, or food processor.  Then, stir the mashed beans back in with the rest.  They make the sauce more like gravy.

I like to cook large unseasoned batches of both pinto and black beans.  Then, I divide them into portions and freeze them.  If we want baleadas, bean nachos, taco salad, Moros y Christianos, or another dish using beans, I simply thaw them, mash if needed, and season.  However, there are tons of ways to season beans while you cook them.  I’ll be covering several of my favorite bean recipes over the next few weeks.

So, grab a bag of your favorite dried beans, and we’ll get started.  If you don’t have a favorite, do a random eyes-closed grab.  You can leave me a comment, and we’ll find a great way to cook them together!  So, what’s your favorite way to serve dried beans?  Did you grow up watching your Mama make them?

This post is shared at some of our favorite blog hops and linky parties!

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  1. Hi. Loved this article on beans. I have had mixed results cooking them, hoping this will help. I would like your take on canning beans: Like as in canned beans….cooked and soft to use right from the jar: how would you do it? I have heard NOT to soak when canning as this makes them too soft and mushy, but what about de-gassing if you don’t soak and change the water? Other than this option, this was a very complete post.
    Thank you!

    1. I actually plan to do a series on canning, and beans will be a part of that. The recommended way to can beans is to presoak. This is one of the few areas of canning where I don’t follow the rules. I cover unsoaked beans in boiling water. (There are specific measurements, so your jars don’t explode.) They process for the same time and at the same pressure as raw packed chicken. So, whenever I can chicken, I fill in the empty spaces with beans. For canned beans, we don’t use the juice. Normally, I put them in a dish or make refried beans. So, I give them a quick rinse. The gas issue has never been a problem this way. I’ll be working on the canning posts soon. I hope you’ll check back and follow along. Thanks, for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

  2. Sadly not in the under 30 crowd anymore, but I have never cooked dried bean! Thanks for the easy instructions & for sharing on Homestead Blog Hop! 🙂

    1. Liz,
      I left the under 30 crowd behind a long time ago! I hope you give dried beans a shot. I’m all for cheap, easy, and tasty. Have a great week, and thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thanks for all these great information about beans. Congratulations on being featured on Homestead blog hop. Have a healthy happy & blessed day. Pinned & tweeted!

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