How to cook beans from scratch

This is the time of year when I start to make more bean-based soups and chilis.  And as soon as it stops being 80 degrees around here, I’ll get right on that.  Actually, regardless of the season, we are a bunch of bean eaters in this house.  Besides chili, I use beans in Mexican dishes, salads, pastas, veggie burgers, with braised greens or in dips.  There are many varieties of beans that we eat — from garbanzos to black to pinto to Cannellini and more.

Beans are incredibly versatile and they happen to be a great low-fat source of fiber and protein.  Beans are one of those low-glycemic foods that gives you long-lasting energy without spiking your blood sugar.  Hooray!  No insulin surge!  And what’s more is that several types of beans including kidney, pinto and black are off the charts in antioxidants, as in a whole heck of a lot.

Beans are quite affordable, especially if you make them from scratch.  A pound of dried beans can cost anywhere from $1 to $1.50 and that will yield the equivalent of 3-4 15-ounces cans.  If you buy high-quality organic beans from a company like Eden Organic, which doesn’t line their cans with BPA, one can costs approximately $2.30.  You can do the math here and realize that you would save a lot of money buy cooking your beans from scratch.  Not only that, most cans are lined with BPA, which is a carcinogen that is not easily detoxified.  And wouldn’t you feel better about not throwing all those cans into a landfill?  Yes indeed.  

I am teaching a black bean and pumpkin soup recipe this month in my classes and I have noticed my students furiously scribbling my instructions for how to cook dried beans.  I realized this would be a good thing to post, so here are a few of my tips for preparing beans from scratch.

  1. Buy beans from a store with a high turnover to ensure you don’t get very old beans which take longer to cook.
  2. Plan ahead since you need to soak beans for at least 6 hours and then cook them for an hour or more.
  3. Pick through the beans before soaking and look for any small stones or debris.
  4. Place beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with a generous (4-6 inches) of cold water.  If you have a piece of kombu (kelp), add that to the beans for additional digestibility and alkalinity.  Leave the bowl on the countertop or in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight.  Check to make sure all the beans stay below sea level!   I usually start soaking in the morning when I’m making breakfast.
  5. Drain the beans in a colander and transfer (with kombu, if using) to a large pot.  Sometimes I add some onion and celery if I know I’m going to use the beans for a salad, but I usually don’t add vegetables.  Fill with fresh cold water to cover by at least 4 inches and bring to a boil over high heat.
  6. Lower heat to a simmer and skim off any foam from the top.  Maintain a gentle, active simmer.  Boiling the beans rapidly can make them lose their shape.
  7. Start to test the beans for tenderness after 50 minutes.  Continue to taste them until desired tenderness is achieved.  This can take an hour or more depending on the age of the beans.
  8. Turn the heat off and if you have time, add some kosher salt to the beans and allow the beans to cool in their cooking liquid.
  9. Drain and now they’re ready to eat!  Or store them in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Update 4.30.13:  I have had great success cooking dried beans in a slow cooker.  Whereas the beans are more digestible if you presoak them, they will still cook to perfect tenderness without soaking.  I put 2 pounds of dried beans in my slow cooker and filled it up with water (an inch or so under the lid.)  Set it on LOW for 7 hours and they will be perfect.  So exciting!