Food + Drink

From the Chronicle Kitchen
Heirloom Beans

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Basic Cooking Techniques for a Simple Pot of Beans

There isn’t one single best method of cooking beans. When you’re in a hurry, you may want to use a pressure cooker. On a leisurely, rainy Sunday, you might want to put a clay pot full of beans in the fireplace. At the most basic, you want to simmer the pot until the beans are soft. Soaking can speed up the process, and vegetables or broth will make the beans more flavorful. It’s really that simple.

Soaking the Beans
Normally on a bean-cooking day (which happens two or three times a week at Rancho Gordo), I put the beans to soak in the morning, after rinsing them in lots of cool water and checking them for small bits of debris. I cover the beans with about 1 inch of cold water.

You will hear that changing the soaking water cuts down on the flatulence factor of beans. For every person that tells you this, there is another, normally a food scientist, who will declare it to be false, or the results negligible. I’ve cooked a good number of pots, and I can tell you from my own experience it makes no difference. The only thing you can do to prevent gas is to eat beans more often, and your body will learn how to digest them. If you haven’t had beans in a while or you eat a very low-fiber diet, I don’t recommend you begin with a big bowl of beans. Start slowly, and you won’t have a problem.

Others insist that beans don’t need to be soaked at all. The entire nation of Mexico, for example. Although I prefer to eat in Mexico over almost any place else in the world, I have done side-by-side comparisons and found that beans soaked in water for 2 to 6 hours have a better texture and cook more evenly. But if you hate the idea of soaking, skip this step.

Another trick is called the quick soak method. Advocates of this technique pour hot water over the beans and let them soak for about 1 hour, then pour off the water, add new water, and start cooking. This sounds scientific, but when you think about it, soaking in hot water is virtually cooking, so why not just start cooking? Obviously I’m no fan of this method, but you are bound to meet some bean cookers who are adamant about it. It’s best just to nod in agreement and then go ahead and do what you want.

Flavoring the Beans
Heirloom varieties don’t need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh, which I’d define as within two years of harvesting. You can cook them with a ham bone or chicken broth, or, as I prefer, simply with a few savory vegetables like onions and garlic. Another option is a classic mirepoix, a mix of finely diced onion, celery, and carrot, sautéed in some kind of fat, often olive oil. A crushed clove of garlic doesn’t hurt. If cooking Mexican or Southwestern, I sauté onion and garlic in mild bacon drippings or even freshly rendered lard. I think flavoring with a mirepoix is the best way to cook a good bean. I love fussing in the kitchen, but this is all you need.

Keep in mind that salt, acids, and sugars can negatively affect the beans as they cook. So don’t add these flavorings until after the beans are soft. This includes molasses in baked beans.

If you’re stuck with old, standard supermarket beans, cooking them with a ham hock and chicken broth might be a good idea, but heirloom varieties taste as good as they look and don’t need a lot of help. To save cleanup time later, I sauté the vegetables in the same pot I use to cook the beans. Once the vegetables are soft, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Cooking the Beans
Pour the beans and their soaking water into a large pot. The beans will have expanded, so make sure they are still covered by about an inch of liquid. If you haven’t cooked the mirepoix in the pot, add it now and give a good stir. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a hard boil.

Keep the beans at a boil for about 5 minutes and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. I like to see how low the heat can go and still produce the occasional simmering bubble. If too much heat is escaping, cover the pot. If the simmer turns into a boil, remove the lid or set it ajar. Allow the beans to cook. This can take 1 hour up or even 3 to 4 hours, depending on the age of your beans. When the beans are almost ready, the aroma will be heady. They will smell not so much like the vegetables you’ve cooked with them but like the beans themselves. At this point, add salt. Go easy as it takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt. For my taste, I find a scant 2 teaspoons salt per pot, made with 1 pound dried beans, is ideal, but this is very subjective. If you want to add tomatoes or another acidic ingredient like lime or vinegar, wait until the beans are cooked through.

If the liquid in the pot starts to get low, you can add more water. Mexican cooks will tell you that cold water hardens the skins and that you must add hot water to keep the beans soft. I keep a pitcher of room-temperature water nearby, and so far the beans I’ve cooked have never suffered from tough skins.

You’re done! Once you’ve mastered this method, try some different techniques. Your bean-cooking friends will swear by this or that method. You should listen to their advice, keeping in mind there are few absolutes when cooking beans and it takes very hard work to mess up a pot of beans.

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Peter Perez
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  • abmatic November 5, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    I was just thinking about cooking beans today. Thanks for the tips! (I’d love to try some of the rancho gordo beans too!)


  • Jill November 6, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Beans are almost always at the top of my list, especially Rancho Gordo beans. And the pressure cooker is usually right there at my side, or on the stove. I rarely have time, or enough brains early in the day, to cook beans all day. Thanks for the post.


  • Helen November 7, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I have always wondered about the to soak or not to soak! Thank you for clearing it up for me. Now when my mom gets onto me for not soaking them I can call Mexico to my defense!


  • holly November 8, 2008 at 9:22 am

    i’ve got a stockpile of local beans, but have been afraid to start using them, having survived with ol’ canned beans up until now. thanks for the information and instruction; your comment at the end that it’s hard to mess it up was very encouraging.


  • Anne November 10, 2008 at 11:40 am

    It’s good to know that soaking for just 2 hours can make a difference – usually I put off cooking dried beans because I always forget to soak them overnight.

    The other day I was trying to see if you could cook beans in a crock-pot and a lot of google results said you have to boil beans for 10 minutes to get rid of a toxin that can cause food poisoning-like symptoms, so it was not advised to cook them in a crock-pot since it never comes up to 212. Any thoughts on this?


  • arienne November 10, 2008 at 11:48 am

    I just finished canning my winter beans. (Local cranberry beans) Would love to try Rancho Gordo beans.


  • Ross November 10, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Great article, but I live in Mexico and in my grandmother’s house there were cooked beans everyday of the week and she ALWAYS soaked them. And in recipes in general there is always the instruction to soake them the night before. And we always discard the soaking water.


  • Erin November 10, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks for the great advice! I love beans! Yum!


  • Erin November 10, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for the information – something so simple to make, but it causes so much anxiety! I will certainly be using this advice in my bean cooking!


  • A November 10, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Thank you for the information. I have a few bags of beans leftover from an past housemate and haven’t tried cooking them yet. Now I have to.


  • Cynthia November 10, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Red beans are my favorite, but it’s rare when I make them, living at 7000 feet, they just seem to take so long. Soaking is absolutely necessary if you ask me!


  • Michelle November 10, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I would love to try some heirloom beans. I’ve been considering investing in a pressure cooker to increase my chances of cooking my own beans instead of reaching for a can.


  • MKato November 10, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks for clearing up the “soak/no soak” instructions for beans. And the simple directions to cook a good pot of beans. I’m inspired to try some heirloom varieties!


  • Kristin November 11, 2008 at 5:50 am

    I love cooking my own beans SO much more than opening a can, but I rarely do it. I never plan ahead.


  • Gwen November 11, 2008 at 6:41 am

    I’ve always used canned beans, but after encountering a particularly gross can of organic cannellini beans last week, I’ve decided it’s time to try using real beans. Thanks for the tips!


  • Sol November 11, 2008 at 8:02 am

    I’m Mexican and everyone I know soaks their beans overnight, and discards the soaking water. I once made them without soaking and they took forever to cook.


  • Lyndsay November 11, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks for the bean cooking tips. I love cooking and eating beans and often wonder why more people don’t do it. They are wonderful. I just wanted to say that I have used the quick soak method often for different types of beans and never had a problem with it. I’ve never tried cooking without soaking and am skeptical that it will work well.


  • Ricky November 11, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    I love easy bean recipes. Reading this makes me want to put on some beans to soak (I haven’t figured out where to get fresh beans around here).


  • Steve Sando November 12, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Hi, Anne.

    All of my slow cookers come up to a low boil by the time the beans are done and I have several brands. I’d suggest cooking on high if they have an old cooker with low temps.

    Steve Sando, author of Heirloom Beans


  • Helen Marie Hardy November 15, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    The other author on this book is amazing and wrote most of the recipes. I took a class with her at Kitchen on Fire a couple weeks ago.


  • geoffrey September 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    hmmm a free bag of Christmas Limas? yummy!
    I bet the offer is actually for the week this was posted back in 2008… rather than THIS week.
    however, just in case
    I want to say their beans are FABULOUS!
    have a pot of RanchoGordo Vaqueros on the stove right now, my first time with this particular bean, which I can hardly wait to taste.

    thanks, Rancho Gordo!


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