In the pantheon of perfect pantry staples, dried beans are especially valuable. They'll last in the cupboard for months, and when you do decide to cook up a batch, they make a protein-packed and fiber-rich base for a meal. Another bonus—they're incredibly budget-friendly.
The only downside? They can leave amateur cooks baffled. How do you get those hard little rocks to turn into tender beans? Let's break it down.
The conventional wisdom about dried beans is that that you absolutely need to soak them first, no exceptions. On the other hand, a small but ardent group of cooks maintain that unsoaked beans actually taste more flavorful and hold their shape better.
We'll let you decide for yourself.
The Conventional Method: Soaking Dried Beans
Everyone from your grandmother, to Bon Appetit, to the Bean Institute recommends soaking dried beans before cooking them. Why? Supposedly, soaking beans not only helps them cook more quickly but also makes them less likely to cause...that unfortunate digestive side effect.
First, rinse beans thoroughly. Select a very large pot or bowl, as the beans will double or triple in size as they soak. Pour in enough water to cover the beans by at least two inches. Soak for at least eight hours, or overnight. When you're ready to cook, dump out the water and give them another quick rinse.
The Unconventional Method: Cooking Beans Dry
Chefs and legume aficionados are beginning to question the age-old tradition of soaking beans, and instead choosing to cook them dry. Why? As food writers from both the Los Angeles Times and Serious Eats explain, the flavor and texture of unsoaked beans are worlds above their soaked counterparts—plus, soaking beans takes up a lot of time.
Oh, and those aforementioned uncomfortable and awkward side effects on the digestive tract? Personal tests found no difference between soaked and unsoaked beans.
So if you identify as a rebel, skip the soaking process mentioned above and proceed directly to cooking beans as they are. You wildcard, you.
Each variety of beans has its own cooking time—consult this handy chart to see how long certain beans need. Soaked beans will cook faster than dried beans.
Again, you'll need a very large pot to give the little legumes room to expand as they cook. Keep the water at a gentle simmer while cooking, and stir the beans frequently to maintain an even consistency throughout.
Another crucial step: Seasoning beans. Bland beans are no fun at all. Throw in anything from a whole carrot, to a bay leaf and an onion, to a hamhock to infuse this staple food with lots of flavor.
Of course, no dish is complete without a pinch of salt—this can be surprisingly complicated when it comes to beans, though. Some cooks contend that salting the beans during the cooking process will toughen them or keep them from softening up. Others, however, say that adding a touch of salt to the soaking liquid or a pinch of salt right at the beginning of the cooking process won't make a difference. Try a few different methods for yourself to find the one that works best.
When they're done, don't drain the cooking water immediately. Instead, let the beans cool gradually in the water to prevent their skin from shriveling up.
Now, you've got everything you need to cook up a storm of garbanzos, black beans, aduki beans, and everything in between. Get started with these vegan chickpea patties, or serve your favorite bean simply dressed with olive oil and herbs.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont