“Is Slow Food Really Slow?” is a series here on Comestibles in which we explore the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe.
Unless you’ve come up with a way of folding time and space in the kitchen, it does take longer to cook with dried beans than canned ones. However, the flavor and texture is vastly superior, and there are some things you can do to make it go a little faster.
I know I sound like your mother, but plan ahead. If you make a big batch of beans on the weekend when you have more time, you can store them in the refrigerator (7-10 days) or freezer (2-3 months), with or without their cooking liquid, to use later in soups, salads, purees, etc. To prevent them from growing mushy in the fridge or freezer, mix in a little lemon juice or vinegar, the acidic quality of which will help them retain their structural integrity.
Another important consideration is the age of your beans. Often the dried beans found in the grocery store are 2-3 years old. The older the beans, the more slowly they absorb water, which makes everything take longer. Older beans can also have a flat, cardboard-y flavor. Unfortunately, there aren’t any use-by dates on packages of dried beans, but there are ways to find fresher beans, which will cook faster.
It helps to buy from a store that has good turnover in their bean section. Look for ethnic markets where beans figure prominently in the cuisine (e.g., Central or South America, or the Caribbean). Another option is to buy from a local bean farmer. You’ll pay a little more (about the same price as canned) but they’ll be very fresh with complex earthy flavors and a firm creaminess you won’t find in the grocery store. At the New York City farmers’ markets there are several good options. Cayuga Pure Organics from Brooktondale, NY sells organic beans for $4/lb. on Wednesdays at Union Square and Saturdays at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, and Maxwell’s Farm of Changewater, NJ whose beans are priced at $3/lb., can be found at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on Mondays and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Saturdays.
Once you have good, fresh beans, you do need to soak them, but not necessarily “overnight” as most recipes direct. According to food science maven, Harold McGee, soaking beans for more than four hours doesn’t gain you anything. See, we’ve cut some time out already!
Next, be sure to use enough water. Beans should be cooked in three times their volume of salted water; adjust the heat so they are simmering and not boiling hard, and partially cover the pot. Depending on the type of bean, they can take anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour to cook. To avoid over cooking, taste them every 15 minutes or so during the cooking process. They are done when they are tender, but not mushy, with a creamy interior.
Finally, if you’ve made the classic mistake of not reading the recipe all the way through, discovered that you were supposed to have soaked the beans, and your dinner party guests are arriving in 3 hours, here’s a trick to shorten the process. Put the dried beans in three times their volume of water and bring them to a boil, boil for 2-3 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the pot to stand, covered, for 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans and cook as usual. They will cook in about the same amount of time, and you didn’t have to soak for 4 hours. This method also has the advantage of removing some of the chemical compounds which cause digestive issues with beans for some people.
Yes, cans are easier and faster, but using fresh, dried beans from a local farmer, reduces kitchen waste, supports your local food economy, and just plain tastes better.