Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dry-Bean Primer

Once upon a long time ago, when we were signed up for WIC, each month we were to receive a couple of pounds of dry beans. I had no clue what to do with them, other than turn them into bean-bags for the kids. Shame on me. So here's a primer on what to do with dry beans, in case anyone else is intimidated by the prospect of turning a little bag of hard things into an edible dinner.

First thing to know is that you probably want to start the day before, especially if you aren't going to be home to cook during the day that you'll be eating the beans. If the beans are for Sunday lunch, you can start Friday morning, Friday night, or at the latest Saturday morning. If the beans are for Thursday supper and you're at work during the day, sort your beans on Tuesday night, and start soaking them Wednesday morning.

First thing is to sort any mudballs or rocks out of your pound of beans. When I first started using dry beans, I was looking at each individual bean. What a pain! If you're not experienced at sorting beans, try this: pour about 1/3 or 1/2 cup of dry beans onto a dinner plate, and scan them to see if there's anything icky. Usually it's hard balls of dirt. In 25 years of using dried beans, I've only found an actual pebble once or twice. Sometimes you'll find part of the seed pod or another part of the plant. Sometimes you'll see a bean that was significantly bug-gnawed. Sometimes you'll find a different kind of bean (which wouldn't be a problem unless the oddball is a bean that takes much longer to cook than the rest of the crowd). Once you've picked out anything icky from the beans on the plate, dump them into a colander or sieve, and scan another 1/2 cup of beans. When you've checked the whole bag, rinse the beans under running cold water, rubbing them a bit between your hands to wash them.

Put them in a pot or bowl. You want a 6-quart pot (or larger) for a pound of beans. Cover them with lots of cold water. I mean, you want them covered very deeply because they're going to swell to 2-3 times their size. Let the beans sit all day. Or overnight. Eight hours. Do not use the quick-soak method on the back of the bean bag. You're more likely to get mushy beans that way.

If you want to use the crockpot to cook your beans, drain them in the evening, cover them with plenty of water, and leave them in the crockpot on low overnight. Don't turn the crockpot on until right before bed, and check first thing in the morning. Sometimes I've crockpotted beans overnight and then woke up to find them too soft. If you're okay with cooking them on the stovetop, drain the soaked beans, put them in a heavy pot, cover with plenty of fresh water, and bring to a good boil. Then turn the heat down to a simmer and let them bubble gently for an hour. The bag may say to cook them for 2-3 hours. It seems to me that I've been having my beans become soft in 40-90 minutes. So start checking sooner than the instructions on the bag indicate.

Do not put a lid on the pot. Well, if you LIKE cleaning messes off your stove-top and scouring the outside of your pots, go ahead. Beans, like potatoes, will boil over if there's a lid. If you must have a lid, then make sure it's sitting a bit cock-eyed on the pot, so that you've got an inch or two uncovered for steam to escape.

Oh, by the way, don't use your soaking water to cook your beans. And once you've simmered your beans, you're going to want to dispose of that water too. Recipes will often say to cook the beans in the soaking water, and then to reserve the cooking water for your recipe. Do that only if you eat beans ALL the time. My father-in-law has a rhyme that he recites every single time beans are served: "Beans, bean, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot." The people you live with and work with will appreciate it if you use fresh water at each step of your bean-cooking. Granted, you lose nutrients if you keep changing the water. But you also lose odiferous farts. I think it's a valid trade-off.

Sometimes your beans will foam. If they do, you may want to get a wide-mouth jar or tin can out of your recycling bin and skim the beans. Use a slotted spoon to lift that 1-2" tall cloud of foamy stuff off the water and dump it into your disposal container. (For those of you who don't have septics, it can probably go down the drain. I've never experimented to see if bean foam has a deleterious effect on my septic, though.) Usually my beans don't foam. But now and then they do, and you probably want to scoop that gunk off.

You know the beans are done when you lift one bean out of the water with a spoon, blow on it, and the skin begins to crack. If the skin really really cracks open, they're probably overcooked. Oh well. That happens. They're not ruined. When the bean is cool enough to put in your mouth, bite it. If it's still hard, keep cooking. If it's actually soft, turn them off, but cook them a shorter time next time. Hopefully you will catch the beans when they've just begun to not be hard any more, but still have plenty of SHAPE to them. In other words, you want them done to the point that they are firm but have NO hardness in them. If you cook them to mush, turn them into soup, or flavor them like as if they were refried beans without the refrying.

Do NOT add salt, any salty meat (such as salt pork or a ham bone) to beans during this first stage of cooking. Nothing acid either, no vinegar, no tomato. Acid and salt slow down the cooking time immensely. It gets very frustrating to cook your beans for 12 hours (or 30 hours) and still have them be hard. Heads up: old beans take longer to cook. If they've been in your cupboard for five years, expect them to be simmering for quite a while!

When the beans are done, drain the water. (Hooray for less farting!) If you're ready to put them into a recipe, go ahead. If you need to wait before you put together your recipe, you can easily store your cooked beans in the refrigerator. Rinse them a few times with water to cool them down. Then put them in a big bowl or a water pitcher and cover with cool water. They will store nicely in the fridge for a couple of days. If you want to store them longer (maybe a week), then you should drain them and give them fresh water every other day to prevent spoilage.

Don't be afraid to add salt. Beans need salt. Just make sure to add it after you've cooked them the first time.

There you go. Dry beans cooked up so that they're handy for soups, baked beans, salads, hummus, burritos, etc. And at a fraction of the cost of canned beans.


  1. Ruth mentioned that extremely hard water stops the beans from softening (or slows it considerably). She suggested using a jug of store-bought water to cook beans if your tap water is very hard.

  2. About the farting...just thought I'd throw this out there. If you eat beans often, like a few times/week or more, your body will adjust, and the beans won't make you gassy anymore.

  3. We noticed that too, Meghan. Another trick (for those who don't eat beans very often) is to throw a pinch of ginger into the beans -- not enough to taste the ginger but just a tiny bit to have a gas-reducing effect.

  4. Can you freeze the cooked beans?

  5. I have never tried it, Rebecca, but I'm guessing it might work. I know that you can cook the dry beans and then can them with a pressure canner.

    To be safe, maybe it would be good to try freezing a cupful of beans that you reserve from some other recipe. Haul them out of the freezer a month later and try thawing them to see what you've got.