In these days of pantry dinners aplenty, you may be wondering how to cook beans to their best advantage. Luckily, we got advice on the matter from Steve Sando, bean impresario behind Rancho Gordo. So we’re bringing his tips on how to cook dried beans back into the spotlight.
Watch Sando demonstrate proper bean cooking procedure, or scroll down for written pointers:
Beware Old Beans
Dried beans have a long shelf life, but after about two years, they won’t cook up as well—they’ll never get tender. (Adding a small amount of baking soda can help if you run into this issue, but don’t use that trick with fresher dried beans or they may turn to mush.)
Since dried beans don’t always come with an expiration date on the bag, Food52 recommends labeling them with when you bought them so you can at least keep track of how long they’ve been in the pantry.
If your beans are truly ancient, you don’t have to toss them—use them as pie weights!
Give Your Beans a Bath
To be sure your beans are clean, give them a rinse and pick through them for any small pieces of debris (including broken bean bits and even the occasional pebble). Then proceed with the steps below.
Be Sure to Soak Your Beans Before You Begin
Soaking beans helps them cook more quickly, but this does not mean an overnight soak is in order—in fact, two to six hours are optimal. Soaking beans overnight can actually be bad if your dried beans are really fresh; after too long in the water, they may start to sprout and the skins will contract, making them tougher.
Then again, there are advocates for never soaking dried beans at all. Skipping this step won’t be that big a deal, but your beans may need more time to reach tenderness.
What to Do with the Soaking Liquid: Cook in It or Drain It Off?
This is sure to be a point of contention to some—you may have heard that you should always throw away the soaking liquid because it makes the beans easier to digest (and ensures you’ll pass less gas later), or even that there may be harmful substances in the soaking liquid.
In truth, it’s fine to use this liquid, but it also may not make that much difference in the flavor or color of your cooked beans (at least according to Cooks Illustrated—they stand by brining beans before cooking them).
Bottom line: If you love saving every last scrap and aren’t afraid of any potential gastrointestinal repercussions (ahem), use the soaking liquid to cook the beans. Otherwise, drain it (if not down the sink, use it to water your plants) and cover the beans with fresh water by two inches—or use another, more flavorful liquid like stock or broth. If you go the latter route, just watch out when adding more salt, as the beans may not need as much as they would if using plain water.
Don’t Add Acid Too Early
Wherever you stand on soaking, you’ll want to be sure not to add acid too early. This includes lime or lemon juice, tomatoes, vinegar, molasses, or other such substances you might add to flavor your beans. Adding the acid too early will inhibit proper cooking and the beans won’t get tender.
But Do Start Off with Aromatics
Before you add your beans to the cooking pot, saute onions, garlic, and other aromatics in it until soft to help flavor the beans. Celery and carrots also work here. So do woody herbs like thyme and rosemary. Throw in a bay leaf if you like.
Staub Cast Iron Round 6-Quart Cocotte, $249.96+ at Sur La Table
A Dutch oven or cocotte is great for making beans, but any large, heavy-bottomed pot will work.
Related Reading: The 10 Best Dutch Ovens of 2020
If you have more time to spare, cook your onions even longer, per this easy tip for the best-tasting beans ever from Mokonuts in Paris.
Be a Goldilocks When It Comes to the Water Level
Whether the cooking liquid you’re using is the soaking water or something else, make sure you don’t use too little—or too much. Too little and you’ll be constantly topping it up, which will interfere with proper cooking. Too much and your pot likker will be bland and thin. Aim for the liquid to cover the beans by about two inches.
Don’t Boil the Beans Too Long
You will want to bring your beans to a boil to get them started, but don’t leave them there too long or they’ll fall apart. Sando recommends a hard boil for about 10 minutes as ideal. Then, turn the heat down low and let the beans gently simmer for about one to two hours (the total cooking time will depend on the age of your beans).
Salt Toward the End of Cooking
Sando prefers to salt his beans when they’re just about done cooking; there’s a little magic to the method, but when you stop smelling the aromatics (onion, garlic, etc.) and start smelling that ineffable bean pot aroma, that’s when you should salt. (Of course, if you started by soaking the beans in salted water, this rule does not apply.) Add about one tablespoon of salt per pound of beans—but of course, always start on the lighter side and taste before adjusting.
This is also when you can add any acidic ingredients to the pot, without compromising the beans’ interior tenderness.
How to Know When the Beans Are Done
To save your tongue from blistering-hot beans, simply pick a few up in a spoon and gently blow on them; if the bean skins wrinkle, then they’re ready!
See more bean cooking tips at Rancho Gordo.
If you’re looking for a more hands-off method, try our Easy Slow Cooker Baked Beans recipe or our Slow Cooker Ranch Style Pinto Beans recipe. Or, if time is of the essence, go with Instant Pot beans. Of course, if you need to eat right now, canned beans are still a good option (just be sure to store them properly).
Header image courtesy of Claudia Totir / Moment / Getty Images