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How to cook humble dried beans is the source of much argument among cooks. Whether beans must be soaked, quick-soaked, or left unsoaked before simmering and the effects of salt on the beans' tenderness, are topics that have been debated. After cooking batch after batch in the test kitchen, we now know what works and what doesn't.
Brine Your Beans, Not Just Simply Soak, for Tender Skins
Recipes often recommend soaking beans in water overnight before cooking. A quick-soak alternative is to bring the beans and water to a boil and let them stand for an hour or so before cooking. Both of these classic methods produce beans that are more evenly cooked than starting with unsoaked beans -- and in far less time, too (in our experience, soaking can shave 45 minutes off the cooking time).
Soaking makes for tender, creamy bean interiors, but intractable bean skins often remain noticeably tough, regardless of the soaking time. We discovered that soaking the beans in salt water -- in essence, brining the beans, as we often do with meat and poultry -- tenderizes the skins.
This works because as the beans soak in salt water, some of the sodium ions in the water replace some of the calcium and magnesium ions in the bean skins. The sodium ions are weaker than the ions that they replace, so they permit water to enter into the skins, which leads to softer texture. During soaking, the sodium ions enter only into the skins, so the bean interiors are not affected.
No More Exploded Beans: Simmer in the Oven, Not on the Stovetop
Simmering on the stovetop usually results in beans that are exploded because keeping the liquid at a constant gentle simmer is near impossible -- inevitably, at some point, the liquid bubbles vigorously enough to cause the delicate beans to blow out. We turned to the method we use for keeping stews and braises at a steady, even simmer: the oven. Cooking the beans at a near-simmer in a 250-degree oven results in beautifully plump, whole beans.
STEPS FOR COOKING DRIED BEANS
1. Rinse Beans and Pick Them Over
Bags of dried beans sometimes include grit and small pebbles, so the beans should be rinsed and picked over. Also discard any beans that are blemished.
2. Dissolve Salt in Water and Let Beans Soak
For 1 pound of dried beans (about 2 cups) dissolve 3 tablespoons of salt in 4 quarts of water. Add the rinsed beans and let them soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. (If you're short on time, quick-soak the beans: Place the beans in a large heatproof bowl. Bring 2 quarts of water and 3 tablespoons of salt to a boil. Pour the water over the beans and let them soak for 1 hour before draining and rinsing.)
3. Drain and Rinse Beans
After soaking, drain and rinse the beans to rid them of excess salt. The beans are now ready for the pot; they can be cooked in broth, water, a combination thereof -- or whatever liquid your recipe calls for.
4. Add Salt Later
Season the beans and their cooking liquid with salt at the end of cooking, after the beans have softened.
5. Cook Beans in Low Oven
Cooking the beans at a near-simmer in a 250-degree oven results in beautifully plump, whole beans.
6. Wait to Add Acidic Ingredients
If your recipe calls for adding acidic ingredients such as tomatoes to the beans, you'd be wise to hold off adding them until the beans have fully softened -- the acidity can prevent the beans from becoming tender.
READY TO COOK? Enjoy our recipe and step-by-step tutorial for Tuscan White Bean Soup, free for Yahoo! Shine readers through March 4, 2013. In our full Risotto, Polenta, and Italian Beans course, available to enrolled online cooking school students, we teach you everything you need to know, from our method to almost hands-free risotto, to stocking up on essential equipment, to knowing exactly how to guarantee perfect polenta texture.
Tuscan White Bean Soup, by America's Test Kitchen Online Cooking School
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