Cooking Beans 101

What do I need to know about soaking and cooking dried beans?

Through the years, we’ve waffled back and forth about the best way to cook dried beans. Admittedly, we haven’t been consistent: some recipes specify that the beans be soaked before cooking, others do not. Our recommendation? Follow the recipe. Each has been specifically developed for soaked or unsoaked beans and should be prepared accordingly.

Soaking Water
So that being said, for recipes that do soak the beans, we typically recommend a long soak—eight hours to overnight. Quick soaking, or bringing the beans to a boil and allowing them to sit for an hour or two before draining and proceeding with the recipe, works fine at rehydrating the beans, though it can rob the beans of some of their nutritional value (see below).

In recent testing, we’ve found that soaking dried beans in mineral-rich; hard tap water can toughen their skins. Some recipes recommend using distilled water to avoid this issue, but we’ve discovered a simpler solution: adding salt to the tap water, which prevents the magnesium and calcium in the water from binding to the cell walls, and it will also displace some of the minerals that occur naturally in the skins. We found that three tablespoons of salt per gallon of soaking water is enough to guarantee soft skins.

Storing Soaked Beans
If you happen to soak beans and aren’t able to use them immediately, they can be drained, transferred to a zipper-lock bag, and refrigerated for up to four days before being used without ill affect to flavor or texture. We do warn against soaking beans much beyond 24 hours as testing has suggested that they can lose flavor and develop tough skins and a mealy texture.

Does Soaking Beans Affect Nutrition?
Soaking dried beans is necessary for hydration, which accelerates the cooking process. While both slow and quick bean-soaking techniques exist, testing has proven that the heated water used with the quicker methods increases the solubility of water-soluble nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. Also, the heat of boiling water breaks down cell membranes within the beans, which speeds the release of water-soluble nutrients. For these reasons, quick soaking tends to leach somewhat more of the nutrients out of the beans than do slow soaking methods.

Foaming Beans
Simmering beans typically produce a frothy cap of foam. It’s innocuous stuff that’s nothing more than tiny pockets of air surrounded by a thin layer of water that are stabilized by proteins exuded from the beans that dissolve in the water. While they won’t harm the beans, we typically skim the foam off for a clearer appearance.

Eliminating Gas from Beans
For some, the greatest obstacle to preparing beans is not the lack of a good recipe but an aversion to the discomfort associated with digestion. The creation of unwanted intestinal gas begins with the arrival of small chains of carbohydrates (called oligosaccharides) into the large intestine. People cannot digest these molecules efficiently, but bacteria residing at the end of the gut do and produce gas as a byproduct. Some sources say that presoaking or precooking beans alleviates gas production by removing these carbohydrates. Our science editor decided to put these theories to the test by measuring the amount of one of the most prevalent small carbohydrates in black beans, stachyose.

His results gave the theories some credence. Beans soaked overnight in water and then cooked and drained showed a 28 percent reduction in stachyose. The precooking, quick-soak, method, consisting of a one-minute boil followed by a soak for an hour, was more effective, removing 42.5 percent of the stachyose. While we have reservations about the quick-soaking method, it might be the best way to prepare your beans if they cause you significant discomfort.

Troubleshooting Hard Beans
Finally, if you’ve cooked your beans for hours and found they failed to soften, chances are they are either old and stale (and will never fully hydrate or soften), the water is too hard, or there’s a acidic element present. Food scientists universally agree that high acidity can interfere with the softening of the cellulose-based bean cells, causing them to remain hard no matter how long they cook. Alkalinity, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on legumes. Alkalines make the bean starches more soluble and thus cause the beans to cook faster. (Older bean recipes often included a pinch of baking soda for its alkalinity, but because baking soda has been shown to destroy valuable nutrients, few contemporary recipes suggest this shortcut.)

But how much acid is too much acid? At what pH level is there a negative impact on the beans? We cooked four batches of small white beans in water altered with vinegar to reach pH levels of 3, 5, 7, and 9. We brought them to a boil, reduced the heat to a low simmer, and tested the beans every 30 minutes for texture and doneness. The beans cooked at a pH of 3 (the most acidic) remained crunchy and tough-skinned despite being allowed to cook 30 minutes longer than the other three batches. The beans cooked at pHs of 5, 7, and 9 showed few differences, although the 9 pH batch finished a few minutes ahead of the 7 pH batch and about 20 minutes ahead of the 5 pH batch. Acidity, then, must be relatively high to have any significant impact on beans. So in real world terms, season with discretion and don’t add a whole bottle of vinegar or wine to your beans until they are tender.

Published in: on April 30, 2009 at 11:24 am  Comments (34)  
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34 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is a very thought out post! Have you ever cooked beans in a pressure cooker before? It totally expedites the process.

  2. Some basic problems with your chemistry – Adding baking soda will decrease acidity and increase pH – thus pH 9 is more alkaline and pH 3 more acidic. There is no way adding vinegar will increase pH to 9, since it will lower pH because it is an acid?

    • He didn’t say that adding vinegar will increase the pH, he said it will make it more acidic, and that will make the beans stay hard.

      • Well, he DID say “water altered with vinegar to reach pH levels of 3, 5, 7, and 9”, and since neutral water has a pH of 7, there’s no way it can be “altered” with vinegar to reach a pH of 9. Any addition of vinegar will lower the pH below 7.

    • He said PH 3 was most acidic if you reread it. He listed the varying degrees of PH they were cooked, he did not say PH 9 was more acidic.

  3. […] cup or so of verdina beans, softened and simmered in water until […]

  4. What about adsorption

  5. I know this web site provides quality depending content and extra data, is there any other web page which presents these data in quality?

  6. […] the ultimate tough bean skin.  Thank you, fucking science.  Fear not, because food geeks have concluded that adding salt to the soaking water interferes with this chemical romance by allowing weak sodium […]

  7. Thanks! I’v been thinking about switching from canned beans to dried beans, and this has been really helpful. *bookmarked*

  8. […] Cooking Beans 101 | Christopher Kimball Blog […]

  9. Superb blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Many thanks!

  10. I grew several varieties of beans this summer and last summer. When I soaked them to be cooked, some varieties rehydrated easily and uniformly, while others had up to half of the beans remain hard and small, or partially so. I used the same type of water, etc., for all beans. Our water is only a little hard, and the ph is around 6. I’ve tried adding salt, even to the separated beans that failed to rehydrate, to no avail. Any thoughts on this? Some of the “failed” beans are smaller, but that doesn’t seem to be the determining factor. This also happened one time with some navy beans that I purchased. Thanks for any feedback.

  11. […] Cooking Beans 101″ […]

  12. […] to your liking, 2 to 3 hours, depending on the beans. To shorten cooking time, use one of these two soaking techniques. Add additional salt and pepper to please your […]

  13. He is absolutely right.Every tip I have used of his and the chefs on America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s County show have worked for me. You rock Christopher!

  14. Beans de La Olla Recipe. I cooked 2 lbs Peruvian bean I had them soak everynight. cooked them next day added bay leafs, toward end of cooking added my sautéed bacon, onion, garlic to pot of beans, then added cumin, 2 tbsp salt, 1 tblsp pepper added cooked diced ham (which I sautéed in separate skillet before adding to the beans. . toward the end added chopped fresh tomatoes, and cilantro. They cooked beautifully. Took more like 3 hrs to cook completely. I let them cool off, I put them in Refrig, Next day I took them out of refri, warmed up over the stove took to family gathering lots of compliments tasted delicious. when cleaning up, we noticed the bean broth developed white foam, family insisted they turning bad and to dispose of them, but they smelled good, and no one got sick, I made them with lots of love and I am very consciencious about safety, to avoid even a slight possibility of someone getting sick I reluctantly tossed the leftover. Which we were planning to have the next day. what could of caused this reaction a day after they had been cooked? Were they turning bad or was it some kind of normal chemical reaction. 3 others had taken beans, and there’s did not react like this, but theres were Pinto Beans and cooked differently…just FYI.

  15. I know this web site presents quality dependent content
    and additional information, is there any other web page which presents these
    data in quality?

  16. Christopher, when you say…
    “Beans soaked overnight in water and then cooked and drained showed a 28 percent reduction in stachyose.”

    Do you mean the beans were cooked in the soaking liquid? I would be interested in the results if the beans were soaked in plenty of water and then they were rinsed, drained and put in new water half-way in the soaking process. This is how Italians do it and since my family is very sensitive to gas, this is how I do it and we’ve never had any problems. It would be great to get clarification on that statement and get hard data on soaking with a mid-way rinse.



  17. x

  18. Hi,
    I cooked navy beans last week and they did turn out tough. I think it’s more related in my case to letting them dry out to much as the oven cut out but the beans were left in the oven an extra hour. I’ve had better luck with previous batches. As for water hardness that is probably a factor but the water is not hard at all here in Newfoundland.

    I found this data on hardness and ours appears very soft.
    According to the Water Quality Association, water hardness is interpreted as:

    Soft 0 – 1 grains per gallon (gpg)

    Slightly Hard 1.1 – 3.5 gpg

    Moderately Hard 3.6 – 7 gpg

    Hard 7.1 – 10.5 gpg

    Very Hard Over 10.5 gpg

    Canadian Water Quality Association published a list to help Canadians identify their water type. It is a great resource. Please contact your gov or search on line. Some cities were well over 50gpg so maybe yours is too.

    According to the Water Quality Association, water hardness is interpreted as:

    Soft 0 – 1 grains per gallon (gpg)

    Slightly Hard 1.1 – 3.5 gpg

    Moderately Hard 3.6 – 7 gpg

    Hard 7.1 – 10.5 gpg
    Very Hard Over 10.5 gpg

    Our water is 0.4 which is very soft. So I think my problem was over cooking and letting the beans dry out too much. I will be more careful next time and see if that gets me back on track.

    good luck

  19. what to use for cooking pinto beans, so when they are cook, they will look white and not red or brown when finish boiling. thanks

  20. Vince Ortega, you cannot make pinto beans white. If you want white beans, I would suggest Great Northern or Cannellinis. :)

  21. […]  This recipe requires soaking beans, so you’ll have to prepare a day in advance. Soak the beans at room temperature overnight for 8-12 hours. If you soak your beans and aren’t able to use them immediately, seal them in a zip top bag and pop in the fridge for up to 4 days.  Thank you Christopher Kimball! […]

  22. […]  This recipe requires soaking beans, so you’ll have to prepare a day in advance. Soak the beans at room temperature overnight for 8-12 hours. If you soak your beans and aren’t able to use them immediately, seal them in a zip top bag and pop in the fridge for up to 4 days.  Thank youChristopher Kimball! […]

  23. Any way to tenderize beans in chili if you put the tomatoes, meat and spices in a slow cooker and then 12 hours later the beans are still not tender. More slow cooking, or is it an unredeemable batch? I know that next time I will cook the beans without the crushed tomatoes first.

  24. I’m wondering if treating beans with yeast might be something to try, or if it might lead to some undesirable result. Seems like it might do a couple of desirable things, like reducing sugars, possibly breaking down cellulose in cell walls, enrichment of the B vitamins. I would like to get more of the proteins out of the cells to link together so as to get a more meat-like texture.

    Any thoughts?

  25. […] best results, soak 1/2-pound of dried beans for 8 hours or overnight. Use 1-1/2 tablespoons salt for 2 quarts of water. Otherwise if you don’t have dried beans or the time to soak them overnight, you can use […]

  26. And I thought I was confused about the issue BEFORE I read the article.

  27. Among our staples in the kitchen is Americas’s Test Kitchen. Ever present. We don’t allways agree but we always respect your input.

  28. Do you only have to soak dried beans? what about Canned or fresh?

  29. […] you want more detailed information about the science of cooking beans, check out what Christopher Kimball has to say about […]

  30. […] chefs over at America’s Test Kitchen have a great article on cooking beans and the possible problems and […]

  31. […] checked for small rocks) in a large pot with about a cup of water- filtered, because hard water has minerals that interfere with the softening of the skin.  The celery and garlic I added to the saute pan with the root […]

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