Dried beans are delicious, nutritious, and easy to prepare – unless, of course, you have hard water
When I moved to New York, cooking dried beans became a frustrating task. No matter how long I soaked and simmered them, they never quite cooked all the way through. I was flummoxed! Not being able to cook my own dried beans was simply not an option. After a fruitless Google search, I reached for my cooking bible: Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I found the answer on page 488. The culprit: hard water! The calcium in my tap water, even though I filter it, prevented the beans from cooking all the way through.
I put the book down, made a beeline for the pantry, emptied a jar of black beans in a bowl and immediately soaked them with bottled spring water. The next day, I strained the beans and simmered them with a fresh batch of bottled spring water. Within 45 minutes my black beans were plump and soft, to perfection: a triumph!
Effortlessly cook dried black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans… you name it!
Now I cook a pot of dried beans every week: extraordinarily creamy cannellini beans, flavorful black beans, meaty corona beans, colorful borlotti beans, petite Umbrian chickpeas, tiny white purgatorio beans… the list is as long as it is delicious. And every time my pot of beans simmers on the stove, I give thanks to Mr. McGee. Without him, I might have done the unthinkable: given up cooking dried beans altogether.
What are lectins…? And why it’s a good idea to soak and rinse your beans
But there’s another important thing you need to know about beans! Raw beans contain an abundance of lectins, a type of carbohydrate-binding protein that we can’t digest, which causes some pretty uncomfortable symptoms. Fortunately, there are a few things a cook has in her arsenal to defend against those bothersome lectins. Although cooking the beans does remove most of the lectins, soaking and thoroughly rinsing them will further decrease the amount of lectins. What’s more, cooking the beans with a piece of dried komku seaweed also helps reduce their gas-producing properties.
One last trick: for extra-creamy beans, use baking soda!
For an extra-creamy texture, just add baking soda to the cooking water. This is helpful if you want to cook beans for making dips, such as chickpeas for hummus; or if you’re cooking very large ones such as gigante or corona beans. But be aware that baking soda can also turn your beans to mush in no time, so keep a close eye on them as they cook. (Also, very little goes a long way – see cook’s note below.)
Who knew those colorful legumes could be so finicky?! But if you use the right water – and soak and rinse them properly – cooking dried beans becomes as easy as pie. Here are some scrumptious recipes that might inspire you to cook a pot of beans right now!
Heirloom beans from Tierra Vegetables
The colorful beans used in these photographs are from Tierra Vegetables, an amazing sustainable farm (and farm stand!) in Sonoma County, California. They grow about 20 varieties of heirloom beans – some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Cooking dried beans
makes 4 to 6 cups (depending on the bean variety)
active time: 15 min
- 1 lb (455 g) dried beans (approximately 2 cups, depending on the size of the beans)
- bottled spring water for soaking and cooking
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large garlic cloves – peeled and left whole
- 2 large bay leaves
- 1 piece dried kombu seaweed (optional – see introduction above)
- 1/8 teaspoon baking soda (optional – see cook’s note)
Quick soak method
Place the beans in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add enough bottled spring water to cover the beans by 3″. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 to 2 hours. Drain the beans, rinse 3 times and drain well again. Place the beans back in the soup pot and add enough bottled spring water to cover the beans by 3″. Bring to a boil and skim any foam that forms at the surface. Add the olive oil, garlic and bay leaves (and kombu and baking soda, if using) and stir well. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours until beans are tender. The cooking time will depend on the beans’ variety, dryness and age. Remove bay leaves and garlic (and kombu). Either let cool in their liquid and refrigerate for up to 5 days or drain and proceed with your recipe of choice. Always reserve the cooking water; it’s very flavorful and can be used as a stock.
Long soak method
Place the beans in a large bowl and add enough bottled spring water to cover the beans by 3″. Let stand at room temperature for 6 to 12 hours. Drain the beans, rinse 3 times and drain well again. Place the beans in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot and add enough fresh bottled spring water to cover the beans by 3″. Bring to a boil and skim any foam that forms at the surface. Add the olive oil, garlic and bay leaves (and kombu and baking soda, if using) and stir well. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours until beans are tender. The cooking time will depend on the beans’ variety, dryness and age. Remove bay leaves and garlic (and kombu). Either let cool in their liquid and refrigerate for up to 5 days or drain and proceed with your recipe of choice. Always reserve the cooking water; it’s very flavorful and can be used as a stock.
- Cook’s note: Use baking soda only if you want extra-creamy beans or to cook very large beans such as gigante or corona beans. Baking soda will reduce the cooking time and tend to make the beans mushy, so be vigilant.
Hi love the tips. I live in an area of soft water but still had issues with black beans in particular. I will try again with a little baking soda.
Thank you for these tips! I had never heard of the trick of baking soda and hard water. I’d been thinking why canned chickpeas are so soft and mushy while home cooked ones always remain al dente. I can’t wait to try the new tricks out!
Thank you for your comment, Nele! The water is also key, as mentioned in my intro. Let me know how your next batch of beans turn out. Happy cooking!
All these years I thought I just had no luck cooking beans. I always wound up over cooking them, because they were a little crunchy still. Now I know!! Thank you, my beans and guests thank you also. I rarely eat meat anymore and I depend on beans for protein. Now I don’t have to buy canned beans anymore. Thank you!!! Why isn’t this info on bean wrappers, or every cook book? I’m 56 and just finally figured out why only the beans I cooked in all stock ever turned out right. LOL I did know about the baking soda. My mother in law swore that if you added a TBSP of castor oil it would prevent gasiness. I have never tried it, I will stick with the baking soda.
Jannetta, thank you for your note – you made me smile! Enjoy cooking your beans… best part is that now you can cook all kinds of beautiful beans. What a treat!
I make at least two large pots beans each month and then have several meals from them; therefore, I’m always looking for hints like this. Have never heard about the hard water thing nor the baking soda. I’ll be testing out the baking soda next time I make beans and what them for refried. Thanks for this post!
Thank you, Mj, you are most welcome!
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How do you know if your water is hard? I live in Sydney Australia, and have a filter which makes the water taste a heap better, but have no idea if it’s “hard” water or not. I wanted to start my beans tonight to cook on my day off tomorrow, but maybe I’ll have to get spring water?
Hi Josephine, Filters do not remove calcium in water so they are not helpful here. If you get spots on your glasses after washing them and letting them air dry, then you most probably have “hard water”. In the U.S. there are a couple of very reliable brands of spring water, that are low in calcium, but unfortunately I have no idea what kind of spring water you get in Sydney, so you’ll have to experiment a bit. On a side note, I love Sydney. I grew up spending many school vacation there – a beautiful city! Good luck with cooking your beans!
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My once, crunchy dried beans are now saved :). Thank you, thank you!
Arianna! I am so delighted… May your beans always be as soft and creamy as can be!
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Thank you!! I needed this information. We have very hard water, and I have been struggling with my beans being hard and crunchy, after soaking and cooking for hours!!! I just put them in the pressure cooker with some vinegar- that tends to cut the hardness. I hope it works!! Thank you so much for your post!! 🙂
Rachel… You are most welcome! Good luck and do let me know how it works for you. I’ve never looked back!
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OH!! Thank you for this! I just read my own life story. I’ve been cooking my black beans for TWO DAYS!!! I just tried pureeing them and making refried…..still chunky! Off they went to the compost. The culprit makes complete sense now…..we are on well water for the first time and it is HARDHARDHARD.
Off to the bottled spring water stash in the garage……. ; )
Rhonda! You will see that cooking beans is going to be pure joy… I bet you’ll be eating lots of them going forward! Thank you for your comment… It truly made me smile!
A quick note to say thank you for posting this explanation. I just went through the same thing and had no bloody idea when it happened…lesson learned. 🙂
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I guess I have had the same problem…never thinking that it came from the calcium in the tap water..hahaaaaaaaaa!!
However I was in Cyprus (Greek side) and asked a PSISTERIA (traiteur) where I buy my ready food among them white beans or butter beans done with olive oil and tomato sauce and seasoning. the man told me the secret was in the oven (heat & high temperature) after boiling beans once and throwing the water away, they would restart boiling it and continue cooking it in tray going to the oven…they would just melt down if u press them with both fingers or in ur mouth, with out feeling the skin of the bean.
Voila I will try your tip and may be you try mine.
Gerald, thank you so much for your comment. I tend to cook my beans on the stove, but will make them your traiteur’s way for sure! I can only imagine how delicious they must be… Thank you!
Thanks for this very helpful information, Viviane. I had the same problem and resorted to canned beans. Now I will find my way back to dried beans. As always, I learn something new from you.
Viviane! Brilliant… I am certain I’ve had that problem too. Fantastic discovery and advise, Thank you! This is one I am certain to share with my clients and right now with my detox group… I gave them a cannellini & kale soup recipe, this recipe and article will be perfect for them…
Thanks again, Dianne
This is quite the informative article – I had no idea that hard water would cause your beans from softening but it makes sense. Though I’ve never had that problem here, I know what to tell my friends next time when their beans give them issues!! Wonderful post hope you are well lovely 🙂
Thank you Joy! It was a bit of a surprise to find out that hard water could have such a negative effect on cooking beans, but was relieved that the problem was so easy to solve. All’s well here… Hope all’s well with you also!
That’s interesting to know, I’m glad you found the answer to your problem. Even though we don’t have troubles with hard water where I live, I had fallen out of the habit of cooking beans. I’m just restarting. You get such a nicer result than the canned beans- which are convenient of course, but when you’re used to cooking beans, it’s barely an effort at all.
Louise, you couldn’t be more right… The canned beans are convenient for sure, but they have that canned-food-flavor that is not so attractive.
That’s right when you’re used to cooking beans, there sure is no effort required. Interesting to know how the water makes the difference. we’ve been cooking beans in all kinds of water, salty, pure but have always cooked them in pure-clay pots. i am talking about the unglazed version. they cook my beans & lentils beautifully, and the best part is they don’t get mushy…I love these pots, i got them at Miriams Earthen Cookware, a company that makes them right here and sells online. I also see that when i cook with hard water there are some residual droplets that get squeezed through the pots pores and get pushed out. i guess the clay is pulling out the salts & toxins. Beans turn out just the same. very evenly & well cooked. After cooking in these pots, i now know that the pot you use also plays an important part in the process.
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