5 Ways to Cook Beans to Perfection
Much of this was taken and adapted from:
Cooking Basic Beans in the Rancho Gordo Manner
There is not one single method of cooking beans. At its most basic, you want to simmer in water the pot of beans until they are soft. Soaking can speed up the process and vegetables or stock will make them more flavorful. But it really is that simple. There's all kinds of fine tuning and variables, but basically, this is it.
Generally, we put the beans to soak in the morning, after rinsing in lots of cool water and checking for small debris. I cover the beans by a couple of inches or so. If you haven't soaked, don't fret. Go ahead and cook them, knowing it will just take a bit longer.
Heirloom and heritage varieties don't need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh, which we define as harvested within two years. You can use a ham bone, chicken stock or as I prefer, simply a few savory vegetables. A classic mirepoix is a mix of onion, celery and carrot diced fine and sautéed in olive oil. A crushed clove of garlic doesn't hurt.
Stove Top Method
Add the beans and their soaking water to a large pot. You have been told before to change the water and rinse the beans. The thinking now is that vitamins and flavor can leech out of the beans into the soaking water you are throwing down the sink. There is conflicting scientific evidence that changing the water cuts down on the gas. If you want to, do it. If it seems unnecessary, don't. I usually don’t.
If you've soaked them, the beans will have expanded, so make sure they are still covered by at least an inch, maybe a bit more. Add the sautéed vegetables and give a good stir. Raise your heat to medium high and bring to a hard boil. Keep the beans at a boil for about ten to fifteen minutes. After so many years, I think this is the moment that really matters. You have to give them a good hard boil to let them know you're the boss and then reduce them to a gentle simmer, before covering. I like to see how low I can go and still get the occasional simmering bubble. Open and close the lid, or keep it ajar to help control the heat and allow evaporation. The bean broth will be superior if it's had a chance to breathe and evaporate a little.
When the beans are almost ready, they won't smell so much like the vegetables you've cooked but the beans themselves. At this point, I'd go ahead and salt them. Go easy as it takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt. If you want to add tomatoes or acids like lime or vinegar, wait until the beans are cooked through.
If the bean water starts to get low, always add hot water from a teakettle. Many believe that cold water added to cooking beans will harden them. At the very least, it will make the cooking take that much longer to bring them back to a simmer.
So you're done! Once you've mastered this method, go ahead and try some different techniques. Your bean friends will swear by this or that method and you should take their advice, keeping in mind there are few absolutes when it comes to cooking beans, only that it's very hard work to mess up a pot of beans.
Cooking beans in a crockpot
Sauté half of a chopped onion in about one tablespoon of olive oil (or oil/fat of your choice). Place in a crockpot along with any other aromatics you'd like (such as Mexican oregano, garlic, bay leaf), followed by beans that have been picked over and rinsed. Cover with water (about one part beans to three or four parts water). Turn the heat to "high" and give the contents a stir. Do this in the morning, and your beans should be done by the afternoon. Cooking time will be 4-6 hours, depending on your crockpot and the variety of beans.
Cooking beans in a pressure cooker
First consult the manufacturer's instructions for the exact method for your model. Place cleaned beans in the pressure cooker and cover with three or four parts water. Generally, you want to cook under pressure for at least 20 minutes, release, and then cook open on the stovetop for another 20 minutes after you add some salt. In an Instant Pot Pressure cooker, simply hit the chili/bean setting and let them go for 44 minutes (which is what the presetting for ours does).
Cooking the beans by this method will cook them as fast as on the stove top and you won’t need to babysit them as much. It’s perfect for a cold winter day…a good way to warm the kitchen.
Preheat the oven to 350 ° F. Add 2 cups of dried beans and 6 cups of water to a cast iron Dutch oven or ceramic bean pot. Bring to a boil on the stovetop. Once the water boils, let it boil for 10 to 15 minutes, then cover and place in the oven. (Note: many ceramic pots do not tolerate being used on a stovetop, if that is the case, boil beans in another pot and then slowly add to the ceramic pot before putting your bean pot in the oven.) Cook the beans 1 to 3 hours depending on size and age. Older and/or larger beans will take longer to cook no matter what cooking method you use. Check the beans every 45 minutes to see if they need more water and if they are tender.
Old beans - Some say beans can be too dry ever to soften. But we've successfully cooked beans that are many YEARS old, and once you know the tricks, the results are good. First soak the beans. The quickie soak isn't very useful for OLD beans, so soak them overnight, 12 hours at least (even 2-3 days). If you’ve got a bucket of old beans, experiment to see how long a soak is needed. Then, if you have reason to think they are going to be tough, bring them to a boil, turn off the heat, ⅜ teaspoon of baking soda per each cup of beans your started with (remember you started with 3-4 cups of water per cup of beans). Then cover and let soak for about an hour. Then boil them as usual (15 minutes hard boil then turn heat down to a gentle simmer for 2-3 hours until beans are soft.). IF they are still too grainy, hard, and crumbly, then pull them out, and pressure-cook them (put some of the spices, except salt) in the pressure cooker to impose flavor on them. Could be 15 minutes more, 30 minutes, or even an hour. Eventually you get soft, even tasty, beans. Honest!
Store your beans in a cool, dark place. It is fine to keep your beans in their packaging, although some prefer to transfer them to a glass jar with an airtight lid. After 2 years the quality may begin to decline, but they will still be healthy for many years to come.
So there you have it. The magic of cooking a perfect pot of beans. Many of us were raised on beans and coming back to them is comforting as well as delicious. Slow your life down so that you can actually cook a pot of beans and discover the expansive world of heirloom beans. I invite you to jump in and make beans a major staple of your diet as you plan and prepare for a long and healthy life.
Dr Kyle Christensen