Ask five people how to cook beans that you purchased dried, and you'll probably get five different answers. Some people will tell you dried beans take 90 minutes; others will tell you to start a day ahead. And don't even get these people started on adding salt to the simmering pot—it's either completely disastrous or utterly necessary, depending on who you talk to.
When these debates started happening within our own ranks awhile back, we took the conversation where it belongs: to the kitchen. Grabbing a dozen bags of pinto beans (Goya, if you must know), we started cooking, covering a half-pound of dried beans in 8 cups of water, bringing them to a boil, then reducing to a simmer until tender. Twelve pots of beans, and so many burrito bowls later, we'd broken a few bean skins, busted a few myths, and settled on a few official Epicurious E-pinions.
With a stash of cooked-from-scratch beans in the fridge or freezer, you can pull together a slew of healthy meals in minutes.
Myth 1: Dry Beans Must Be Soaked
Do you actually need to soak your beans? The idea behind soaking dried beans is that it makes the beans faster to cook. (It's also thought that soaking beans breaks down some of the complex sugars that make them hard for some people to digest. We didn't test for digestability, because every stomach is different.) Testing this theory was simple: we covered one batch of beans in water and left it out on the counter to soak overnight. The next day we placed the beans and liquid in a pot, and in a second pot went unsoaked beans and fresh water. The soaked beans finished cooking first—but the unsoaked pinto beans were finished just 10 minutes later. (Keep in mind that pinto beans are small, and that cooking times will vary depending on bean type.) Our feeling: Why bother?
Takeaway: Don't bother soaking beans.
Myth 2: Dry Beans Must Be Cooked in Fresh Water
After our first test, this myth became a moot point—if you don't soak your beans, you're always going to cook in fresh water. But diehard bean soakers will still want to know whether they should drain their soaked beans and refill the pot with fresh water, or cook their beans in the water they were soaked in. When we tested this, the beans cooked in the soaking liquid were much more flavorful, had a prettier, darker color, and retained their texture better.
Takeaway: You still don't have to soak. But if you do soak the beans, don't throw out the water. Just cook beans in their soaking liquid.
Myth 3: If You Don't Soak Overnight, You Should at Least Quick-Soak
Man, people are just really attached to this soaking idea. If it's not an overnight soak, it's the so-called quick soak: a method where you cover beans in water, bring them to a boil, turn off the heat, and then let the beans sit in the water for an hour. We tried this method, and although the cooking time didn't vary much (the quick-soaked beans cooked just 5 minutes faster than the overnight soaked ones and 15 minutes faster than the no-soak beans), the flavor was our favorite of the bunch.
Takeaway: Quick-soak. But do it for the flavor.
Myth 4: Always Cook Beans With the Lid On
If you cook beans without a lid, some say, the result will be a firmer bean. Keeping the lid on? Your beans will be creamy. When we tested both methods, we found the beans with the lid cooked about 15 minutes faster, but the flavor of the beans cooked with the lid off was much better. This is because the liquid reduced more, creating a more flavorful bean broth that coated the beans.
Takeaway: Leave the lid off.
Myth 5: Cooking Beans in the Oven Is Easier
Cooking dried beans is simple, but we heard that the process could be simplified even more by placing the pot in the oven. So we brought some beans to a boil on the stovetop, then placed them in a 325°F oven. The beans ended up pretty creamy, but they took much longer to cook, and they didn't taste very good—according to my colleague Anna Stockwell, they tasted "water-logged." Makes sense: the water in the pot had barely reduced.
Takeaway: Unless you're making baked beans, keep them on the stovetop.
Myth 6: Salted Beans Take Longer to Cook—If They Ever Finish Cooking at All
One of the most persistent myths about how to cook dried beans involves salt. Some recipes advise not to add salt until the very end of cooking, because salt keeps beans from getting tender. Other recipes say to add it in the beginning, because, well, salt is flavor, and we're going to eat these beans, aren't we? In our test, we compared a batch cooked with salt added at the beginning against a batch made with salt added at the end, and guess what? The beans that were salted early on were more tender.
Takeaway: Salt early and often.
The Best Way to Cook Dried Beans, According to Our Findings
For the Epi Test Kitchen, the results were clear. Quick-soaking the beans, salting them at the beginning of cooking, and cooking in a pot without a lid resulted in beans with great texture and a flavorful broth. Here's how to cook dried beans, step by step.
1. Quick-Soak the Beans
Place 1 lb. dried pinto beans in a large, heavy pot. Add water until it's about 2 inches above the top of beans. Cover pot, bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Let rest 1 hour.
2. Salt and Simmer the Beans
Stir in 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt (and flavorings if you'd like, see below) and bring to a boil over medium heat. Uncover, reduce heat, and simmer until beans are tender and creamy, checking after 1 hour and adding more water as necessary to keep beans submerged, 1–1 1/2 hours total.
3. Add Flavorings, If You Want
Of course the above is the bare minimum. To turn out really flavorful beans, you may want to add a halved onion or tomato, or a few garlic cloves to the pot, along with the salt. A dried chile is a nice way to give your beans some heat (fish it out once the beans are done). You could also add herbs, like bay leaves (1 or 2 leaves per pound of beans) or a dash of dried oregano—fresh sprigs are good too, such as rosemary, thyme, or marjoram. The rind from a wedge of Parmesan or another hard cheese can give the beans a lot of savory flavor, similar to a ham hock or the ends of a hard sausage—keep these kinds of things in your freezer for your next bean cooking session and you'll have a flavorful pot of creamy, tender beans in no time at all.
Looking for bean recipes? Oh, we've got those.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious