Dear Home Ec 101,
I thought if anyone might have the answer to my questions about how to cook with dried beans, it would be you – I need a “definitive” guide to dealing with dried beans. So far, my Internet and even cookbook searches always yield really varied results. Should I add salt? Vinegar? Baking soda? None of the above?
Is soaking dried beans overnight the same as cooking them? Do the “quick soak” methods really work?
Why won’t they keep cooking once you put them into the recipe (e.g., baked beans)?
I also have a slow cooker that I’d like to use, and have done all right with it sometimes (chickpeas are my friends) but failed miserably other times (black beans seem to elude me…). How do you use a slow cooker with dried beans?
It’s all very confusing. I know dried beans can be a great money saver, and I like knowing what’s in them, but it doesn’t work so well when I ruin every other batch. I’d love some light shed on this subject or some direction on where to look!
Dear Bean There:
Whoo boy, slow down a little bit.
I love cooking with dried beans. Well, that isn’t exactly true; I love what cooking with dried beans does for our grocery budget. It took a little while, but so far, I have the kids sold on pintos, refried beans, and black beans, and occasionally I can get them to go for the tightwad classic beans and rice. I’m working on getting them comfortable with chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans. It’s a slow process with young kids, but we’re making definite progress.
How to cook with dried beans.
I’ve written about how to use dried beans in recipes before, but a refresher is always good.
Should I add salt? Vinegar? Baking soda?
Yes, no, yes. The salt camp is divided, and I have good luck adding salt early in the cooking process. Vinegar. No, it’s an acid that can inhibit the cooking process, but it’s fine if the beans have already been cooked when added to the recipe. You’ll often see vinegar in chili, for example. That’s fine, the vinegar is there to help with the tough meat, but the beans for the recipe have generally been cooked separately.
Baking soda can be helpful if your water has a low pH.
Is soaking dried beans the same as cooking them?
To check soaked beans, take one out of the water and cut it in half with a sharp knife. If the color is even throughout, it’s ready to cook.~commenter Camilla
No, but with two caveats. Not all dried legumes need to be soaked.
Peas and lentils are great examples. Now don’t come for me. I know that peas and lentils are legumes and not beans, but they are all sold together, and most people think of them in the same general category when cooking. We’re not going to get nit-picky.
If you’re patient, it is possible in some recipes—those without tomatoes—to cook beans from the dried state to the fully cooked state without soaking.
Some say that cooking without soaking increases their hmm — how do I put this delicately? — musical qualities.
You can’t boil beans that haven’t soaked and expect good results. They must be simmered gently for a long time. I hear you asking, “What’s the difference between boiling and simmering?” Is there a difference? You bet. Boiling beans causes the protein to coagulate quickly, making them tough. Simmering beans slow down that change; the protein dissolves and is reabsorbed later in the cooking process, yielding tender beans.
Do the quick soak methods for beans really work?
Yes, but you must pay careful attention, or you may accidentally boil the beans too soon, making them tough.
Dry beans can go bad. No matter how long you soak them, they will never soften when this happens. Add them to your compost pile, or use the rest for art projects or crafts like draft stoppers or heat packs.
You can read about why beans that have gone bad won’t soften here.
Why won’t cooked dried beans continue cooking after adding them to recipes?
They do. The beans will eventually fall apart if you cook the recipe too long. That said, the presence of calcium or sugar inhibits this process which is why your baked beans or ham and beans (when made with a ham bone) can be cooked for a significant period of time without falling apart.
This is why, unless the recipe has a very long cook time, adding sweet or acidic ingredients (like tomatoes) should be held to the end.
Can I use my slow cooker?
When in doubt, go with the FDA guidelines. Generally, yes, However, there is an exception for kidney beans which MUST be boiled for 10 minutes prior to being placed in a slow cooker. There is a toxin that causes gastric distress if they are not cooked at a high enough temperature for a long enough time. This toxin is increased by about five times if cooked at too low a temperature compared to raw, soaked kidney beans. Use care and use already cooked kidney beans in slow cooker recipes. No one wants gastric distress to save a few minutes.
Slow cookers can be used to cook beans, with good results, provided acidic or sugary items are added until the beans are mostly cooked. So if your recipe for black beans includes tomatoes, I would hold the tomatoes until the last hour. Just be sure you know what setting to use on your slow cooker. In newer models, the high setting may be over the boiling point, which, if it isn’t clear by now, isn’t good for cooking dried beans. Test your slow cooker by filling it 2/3rds with water and checking at the one and two hour mark.
I hope you feel a little more comfortable using dried beans.
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