Home-cooked dried beans are an easy way to stretch a dollar, boost the nutritional value of dinner, and round out a meal. Canned beans also have a place in my home, but the flavor, texture, and versatility of dried beans can’t be beaten.
The key to cooking a delicious batch of from-scratch beans on the stovetop depends on two things: the age of your beans and knowing when to salt them. The rest is up to you.
WHICH DRIED BEANS TO COOK
I use this simple stovetop method for small, medium, or large beans such as the following:
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- Navy beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Black beans
- Pinto beans
- Great Northern beans
- Cannellini beans.
Note: This method will not work for lentils or split peas, which are not really beans per se but still in the legume family. Lentils cook much quicker than the aforementioned beans and don’t require pre-cooking.
HOW OLD ARE YOUR BEANS?
If you’ve ever spent hours on end cooking beans and they are still too firm to enjoy, the culprit probably isn’t the recipe or your cooking technique, but rather the bean itself. If you happen to get to the point where you’ve cooked these beans and come to this unfortunate end, unfortunately, your best bet is to pitch them.
For the most part, dry beans are best used within two years of harvest. Knowing a harvest date isn’t always the easiest, but most dry beans at the supermarket have a best buy date printed on the bag. Check it before you buy or, barring that, if you’ve got a random bag lying around in the pantry, before you cook it.
If the beans are past their prime, save them for pie weights and replace them with something fresher.
To ensure freshness when shopping for beans at the supermarket look for the best buy date on the bag and have a general idea of when want to cook them. Alternatively, look for local producers at your farmers market and ask them about harvest dates.
The best part about beans that they are a relatively low maintenance and low cost nutritional powerhouse. You don’t need to overthink them.
SHOULD YOU SOAK YOUR BEANS?
The Internet debate on soaking will go on until the end of time. Overnight soak, quick soak, or no soak at all—these are all hotly contended!
The biggest benefit to soaking beans the night before you want to use them is that it will reduce your cooking time. Look at your schedule for the day and the time you have on your hands, and make the best choice for you. If that is a priority for you, then by all means soak away.
I tested both Great Northern Beans and garbanzo beans (chickpeas). I found that the unsoaked beans took only 30 minutes longer than the soaked beans to reach peak tenderness, and I didn’t notice a discernible difference in texture when it came to the finished bean.
Like many things when it comes to home cooking, your desire to soak or not soak is a personal choice. You will not destroy your beans, your dinner, or your gastrointestinal system by choosing one method over the other.
Ready to soak (or not)?! See below for the scoop on each method.
OPTION 1: SOAK YOUR BEANS OVERNIGHT
This method is for you because:
- Soaking reduces cooking time
- Creates a plumper bean that cooks evenly
- Reduces the beans’ negative impact on your digestive system
What to do: Put the beans in a bowl. Cover with water. Cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap. Leave overnight on the countertop. Drain, rinse, cook, and eat.
OPTION 2: QUICK-SOAKING YOUR BEANS
This method is for you because:
- Like the overnight soaking method, this reduces the cooking time, which is nice when you are braising beans like in this Cowboy Beans
What to do: Put beans in a pot. Bring them to a boil. Cover. Remove from heat and let rest in the warm water for an hour depending upon the bean. Proceed with recipe.
OPTION 3: DON’T SOAK YOUR BEANS
This method is for you because:
- Soaking requires planning ahead and that’s not your jam.
- You want creamy beans. When you soak beans, they release starch in the soaking water, which can reduce the creaminess of the beans in your final dish.
- You like bold colors. You want your black beans black and your red beans red. No soaking means more of the color stays with the bean, and not leached out in the water.
What to do: Put beans in a pot. Cook. Eat.
HOW LONG TO COOK DRIED BEANS
Since cooking time depends on the age of your beans and whether your soaked them, there’s just no way of providing specific cook times when it comes to beans, but in general:
- Small beans (black beans, black-eyed peas and navy beans): 45 to 90 minutes
- Medium beans (Great Northern, kidney, pinto, garbanzo beans): 60 to 120 minutes
- Large beans (large Lima, Cannellini beans, butter beans): 80 to 180 minutes
Want really fast beans? Make them in the pressure cooker! How to Make Fast, No-Soak Beans in the Pressure Cooker
WHEN TO SALT YOUR BEANS
This debate about salt is as endless and contested as the soaking debate.
In my tests, salting the beans at the beginning of the cook time resulted in a firm-textured bean that took longer to cook. However, salting the beans in the middle of the cooking process gave the beans enough time to season properly and resulted in a creamy texture. The latter is definitely better.
In short, season the beans with salt when they are tender enough to taste (meaning you can bite through them), but not completely cooked through (still a little toothsome). This may be anywhere from half to three quarters of the way through the cooking process.
A NOTE ON ADDING SUGAR TO BEANS
If you want to make sweet beans, such as Boston Baked Beans, prepare yourself for the long haul. Sugar, like salt, makes it difficult for the beans to soften. They will eventually cook, but it can take five hours or better.
HOW TO MAKE A POT OF BEANS
Here’s the run-down of how to make a basic pot of beans, bringing together everything we’ve talked about so far:
- Sort the beans. Toss out any stones and wrinkled beans. Give them a quick rinse under running water.
- Soak or don’t; it’s up to you.
- Add beans to a pot and cover with three inches of water. Do not add salt.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Don’t let the beans boil aggressively or they will break apart and turn to mush. A slow and gentle simmer is the best way to cook a bean.
- Add salt when the beans are edible but al dente. If you add the salt too soon, it takes longer for the interior of the bean to become tender. If you add it too late then the beans won’t be fully seasoned.
- Test the beans every 15 minutes toward the end of the cooking time to determine when they are perfect for you.
A few extra notes:
- For soups and salads, pull the beans off the heat when they are cooked through, and tender, but not creamy. This assumes they will continue to cook in the soup, and you want them to hold together in your salad.
- For beans you plan to use on their own or in a dip, let them cook until soft and tender, but still intact. Cooks Illustrated recommends covering the beans, removing them from heat and letting the residual heat continue cooking the beans until they reach your desired consistency.
- I’ve been known to let the cooking water reduce, while stirring occasionally to help release the starches, which creates a creamy bean broth that I personally love.
WAYS TO FLAVOR A POT OF BEANS
From the start of cooking:
- Add 1 bay leaf, 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, and a handful of parsley stems tied with twine, so they can be easily removed from the pot. Peel and quarter a yellow onion. Leave the stem end intact and toss half of it into the pot as well.
- Toss peppercorns, chilis, cumin seeds, garlic cloves, and coriander seeds in a square of cheesecloth. Tie it up and add it to a pot of black beans, pinto beans or black-eyed peas.
- Add onion, cumin, chili powder, and smoked paprika at the beginning of the cook time.
- Add parsley stems, thyme, onion, garlic, and carrot.
After the beans have been cooked and drained:
- I’ve never met a pot of beans that didn’t benefit from a little red wine vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice.
- For Italian-inspired beans (and my favorite way to eat white beans): Drizzle them with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and freshly minced parsley.
- South of the Border Beans: Add lime juice, chopped chilis, freshly minced red onions, and cilantro.
HOW LONG DO COOKED BEANS KEEP?
Once cooked, beans will keep in the fridge for up to four days and can be frozen for months. Whether you store the beans in their cooking liquid or drain them first is depends on how you intend to use them.
If I know I’m probably going to use the beans as a side dish on their own or in a soup, then I want the creamy liquid full of starchy goodness. If I will probably use them in a salad or possibly a mashed filling in my child’s black bean quesadillas, then I will likely drain them.
HOW TO FREEZE COOKED BEANS
If you’re looking for a great way to maximize space and get ahead of the cooking game, check out Emma’s post on How to Freeze Beans and Broth.
Save your Cooking Liquid!
If you don’t store the bean in their liquid save it anyway. Depending upon how you season the beans the cooking liquid can be frozen and added to soups or chilis to add body.
You can also reduce the liquid until it becomes Aquafaba (bean water). It’s ready when the consistency of the cooking liquid is similar to egg whites. Then use it as an egg replacer in any number of recipes. Vegans have been doing it for years.
GREAT RECIPES TO USE A POT OF BEANS
- Lemony Broccoli Rabe with White Beans
- Refried Beans
- Kale and Sausage with White Beans
- Easy Black Beans and Rice
- Texas Stacked Enchiladas with Corn and Black Beans