Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ingredient Spotlight: Dry Beans

After I posted the recipe for Black Bean Soup, I was surprised by how many people told me they had dried bean anxiety. So, as I promised those folks, here are the ins and outs of cooking dried beans.

You can find a wonderful variety at your supermarket - in cooking, they are all treated the same, only some will take longer than others to cook. The different varieties do taste and behave differently, so experiment to see what you like. This variety (all but one) was all purchased at my local supermarket.

small red, soldier, pinto, black
black-eyed, yelloweye, navy, kidney
garbanzo (chickpea), lima, great northern, scarlet runner (grown in Ann's garden last summer)

The Basics: Picking, Rinsing, Soaking

Pick: When beans are processed and packaged, they can get a little dusty. Sometimes, depending on the size the beans, there will also be pebbles or small chunks of dirt in with the beans. So, the first thing you have to do is pick through the beans. This goes pretty quickly: put a handful of beans on a plate, pick out any pebbles or damaged beans, and dump the rest in the pot or bowl you're using. Repeat until all the beans are done. This is really easy if you use a plate that is a contrasting color to the beans.

Rinse: After you've picked through your beans, now you rinse them to remove any dust. Just dump them in a bowl or pot, run in cold water and swish the beans around. Pour off the water and repeat until water runs clear. Depending on your beans, they may need one to four rinses.

Soak: In my opinion, this step is optional. It does speed up cooking, but it requires that you think about soaking your beans at least 8 hours before you cook them. I seldom do it because I can never plan that far ahead. Cover the rinsed beans with 2-3 inches of water. Let them soak for at least 8 hours in the fridge. Soaking can cut cooking time in half. Drain the soaking liquid off before covering them with fresh water for cooking.

Basic Method: Cooking Dry Beans

  • Prep your beans: pick, rinse and soak (if you'd like). Put them into a pot (they will DOUBLE in size, so plan accordingly) and cover with 2-3 inches of water. Add some large pinches of salt. Bring to boil and then simmer until done. Check them every now and then and add more water if needed. You want them covered with water the entire time they are cooking.

  • Depending on your beans, they should take between 45 minutes to 2 hours to cook.

  • Drain and add to chili, make bean dip, put them in your soup, etc.

Other Tips

Don't add acid to the beans until they are almost done. Acid will keep your beans from softening - if your recipe calls for tomatoes, citrus, vinegar, or any other acidic ingredients, wait until the beans are done. The nice thing is if your beans are starting to get too soft, the acid can help hold them together.

If your bean's skins won't soften, you can try adding a little baking soda (1-2 teaspoons) to the water. The soda does the opposite of the acid - it should soften things up a bit.

If you're going to add beans to a chili or a minestrone, or some such thing, it's good to cook the beans in a separate pot, then add them to the main dish. It be very stressful to wait for beans to soften while your minestra is perfect ... except for those damn crunchy beans!

Cooked beans freeze well. Cover them with a little cooking liquid and then into the freezer they go.


Most store bought beans are fine in the bags they come in. Keep them in a cabinet or cupboard - in a dry, dark place. It's very pretty to decant beans into jars to display, but unless you're planning on using them soon, leave them as decor and buy a new bag to cook.

If you are fortunate enough to have a source of fresh dried beans (not a complete oxymoron: these are dried beans that are only a few months dried) keep those beans in ziplocs in the freezer unless you are certain they are 100% dry dry dry (then store them like storebought beans). Otherwise, they can get moldy and you will be sad ... very sad, when you open your jar of furry blue beans.

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