6 Tips for Cooking Great Beans

They are eaten all over the world today, but (beans) originated in Mesoamerica and have been part of the daily diet of Mexicans since time immemorial. Instructions for how to prepare such a fundamental dish are usually passed down from parent to child, so written-out recipes and tips about bean cooking can be hard to come by. What to do if you don’t have a Mexican abuela (grandmother) to teach you the basics of bean cuisine? Peruse the following questions and answers for the knowledge necessary to make you a real chef de bean.

  • 01 of 06

    What Kind of Beans Should I Make?

    Mixed dried beans

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    Beans come in hundreds of varieties the world over, and which kind you use will depend on what is available in your area and your own preference.

    In Mexico, more than 70 types of frijoles are grown and consumed. Each region has its favorite. Pinto beans reign in the north, while many southern Mexican states prefer black beans. The central regions tend to be partial to brown-colored beans such as the ones known as flor de mayo. Every town has a market where several different bean types are available for purchase. Each kind is slightly different in texture, cooking time, and flavor, but they are all cooked in a similar way and any one of them can be substituted for any other.

    Certain Mexican recipes indicate that a specific type of bean should be used. That is generally due to the regional nature of the recipe; dishes from Oaxaca, for example, will almost always call for black beans, just because that is the type most used in that state. It’s probably a good idea to go along with the variety of bean mentioned in the recipe if you can get it, just for authenticity’s sake. However, if that specific kind is not available where you live, don’t miss out on the dish just because of that; use beans as similar to the original as you can.

    Otherwise, choose the variety of bean that is most convenient or attractive to you. If you like them, make that same kind each time you cook beans—or be adventurous and try a new type each time. You really, truly cannot go very wrong when deciding on a bean variety to cook!

    Interestingly, Mexican cooks rarely to never mix more than one kind of bean in a single batch. You certainly can mix them, of course, if you feel led to do so!

    Just one more thing: Pretty much everything that you can do with dried beans can be done with fresh ones. Fresh beans are sometimes available at farmer’s markets or organic food stores. They definitely don’t need to be soaked, and they cook in much less time than dried beans. If you get a chance to try fresh beans, definitely take it!

  • 02 of 06

    Do I Really Need to Clean the Beans?

    Cleaning dried beans

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     A common, homey sight in Mexico is a woman sitting at her kitchen table—sometimes accompanied by her children—“cleaning” the dried beans before cooking them. She is eliminating the tiny stones and other unknown objects that can frequently be found among foodstuffs that are dried in the field, stored in silos, and sold by weight.

    Today’s commercially-sold beans (the ones you find in bags at the supermarket) do tend to have less in appropriate material than yesteryear’s more rustic product, but they still are not completely debris free. Ask anyone who has accidentally bitten into a stone hiding in a bowl of soupy beans and you will have your answer: Yes, you should definitely clean the dry beans before cooking. If the task seems tedious to you, do it together with someone else and have a good chat while working.

    Dental work can be very expensive, so clean those beans! Spread them, dry, on a flat surface and go through them one by one, tossing the good beans into the cooking pot and any broken or hole-y beans—plus any debris—in the trash.

  • 03 of 06

    Should I Pre-Soak the Beans?

    Beans soaking

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    To soak or not to soak—that is the question. (And it is one that many cooks are very passionate about.)

    If you soak your dry beans overnight, they will cook in a little less time, so you may save some energy. If you throw out the soaking water and refill the pot before cooking, you will reduce a bit of the carbohydrates that can cause gassiness after eating beans or other similar legumes

    On the other hand, the cooking time saved by having soaked the beans (which in some cases can be just a few minutes) might not be worth the bother, and if you throw out the soaking water, you are also removing some of the flavor.

    Bottom Line: You decide whether or not to soak your beans.

    If you decide to go ahead and soak, it is important to use a container that is large enough. Dry beans expand to 2 or 3 times their volume when rehydrated, so they will need much more space than is immediately apparent.

    How to Soak Beans (If You Choose to Do So)

    There are various methods, so choose the one that most fits your lifestyle or cooking philosophy.

    Cold Water Soak: Cover your cleaned dry beans with abundant water (3 or 4 cups of water per cup of beans). Allow them to soak for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight, then drain and rinse them before cooking.

    Variation on Cold Water Soak: Follow above procedure, omitting the drain and rinse step. Cook the beans in the same water they soaked in.

    Hot Water Soak: Some prefer this method because the beans tend to rehydrate much better with the technique. Pour your dry beans into a large pot and cover with water (about 4 cups water per cup of beans). Place pot on stove and bring to a boil. Let boil for 3 or 4 minutes, turn the heat off, cover the pot and allow to sit for at least 5 hours. Drain and rinse—or not—before cooking.

    Alternate Method: Quick soaking beans

    Note: If you live at an altitude of 1,000 meters (about 3,300 feet) over sea level, your beans will take a little more soaking time to rehydrate that they will at sea level.

  • 04 of 06

    How Do I Cook My Beans?

    Bean mix in a pot

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    Once clean and soaked (or not), your beans are ready to cook! It’s easy—just simmer in plenty of water.

    Keep the Following in Mind:

    • If you have an earthenware (clay) cooking pot, use it for your beans. This is the traditional Mexican vessel for bean cooking, and it adds a wonderful rustic flavor that you will never get when using a metal pot.
    • Cooking time can vary greatly, from half an hour or so to over two hours. Factors that influence cooking time include the type of bean used, the length of time from harvest to cooking (“older” beans will take longer to cook), and if the beans have been soaked. Altitude also plays a role; due to lower atmospheric pressure, beans prepared above 1,000 meters (about 3,300) over sea level will take longer to cook. Consult Cooking Times for Dried Beans.
    • Keep your beans at a simmer, making sure that they do not boil violently, which tends to cause them to break up.
    • Beans expand as they soak and cook, so you may need to add more water to the pot as you go along.
    • Don’t forget to stir your beans occasionally so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. This is also the time to make sure they have enough liquid.
    • When beans boil, a layer of foam forms on the surface of the water. This will not affect your beans’ flavor or quality in any way, so you can just ignore it. However, if the foam bothers you, you can reduce its formation by adding a tablespoon of oil or lard to the pot when you put it on to cook.
    • Onion, garlic, herbs, and spices can be added to the pot at any time. Their flavor will be more pronounced as added when beans are almost cooked.
    • It’s not a good idea to put salt or anything acidic (tomatoes, vinegar, lemon/lime juice, wine, etc.) into the pot until the beans have cooked, as these ingredients can impede the softening of the beans’ outer skin if added too soon.
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Can I Make Good Beans in a Pressure Cooker or Slow Cooker?

    Pressure cooker

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    Short answer: Yes, definitely.

    If you opt for a pressure cooker, follow all the safety instructions that came with that particular device. Don’t fill the pot more than halfway with dried beans and water. Cooking time will be greatly reduced (that’s what a pressure cooker is all about, after all), but there is one caveat: there might not be enough time for the flavors of any other ingredients you may have used (onion, garlic, herbs, etc.) to permeate the beans themselves. If you include any of these ingredients in your pressure cooker beans, allow the pot to just sit for an hour or so after taking the lid off, in order to allow the beans time to absorb the other flavors.

    Note: Add a tablespoon of oil or lard to the cooking water so that foam will not form and potentially block the pressure cooker safety valve.

    To make your beans in a crock pot, cook them on high for 3 hours, making sure that the beans are covered with plenty of water for the entire time. Then lower the temperature to low and let them simmer until soft, which will probably be another 6 to 8 hours of cooking.

  • 06 of 06

    What Should I Do With Leftover Beans?

    Plastic food containers

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    Since beans do take considerable time and fuel to cook, it almost always makes sense to prepare more than you will use immediately and either freeze the leftovers, reheat them, or use them in another recipe within the next several days.

    Allow your cooked beans to cool to near room temperature, then refrigerate them in a tightly lidded container. They should keep well for at least 4 or 5 days. Refrigerated beans tend to thicken, so reheat them slowly, adding more water if necessary or desired.

    In hot climates, it is not uncommon for cooked beans to “sour” (begin to ferment) even when refrigerated. If that tends to happen where you live, take leftover beans out of the fridge and boil them briefly once every day—regardless of whether or not you eat them—then return them to the refrigerator. This process will prevent the beans from fermenting and keep them in top shape.                

    Cooked beans freeze very well. Pour them into freezer containers, leaving at least half an inch of headroom to allow for expansion, then freeze for up to 3 months. Take them out of the freezer to defrost slowly before reheating, or defrost in the microwave.

    Lastly, but Important: Whatever you do, never discard the broth that the beans cooked in. It’s full of flavor, and even if you plan to use your beans in a non-brothy way (bean salad, for example), that liquid is an invaluable start to a delicious soup or stew.