To soak or not to soak?
That's at least one of the questions that come up when you are cooking with dried beans.
For something so ubiquitous and so elemental, cooking dried beans seems to stir up all kinds of opinions, controversies and, for me, angst.
First off, there's the rinsing and the sorting. I know that rinsing is mandatory. It's the sorting I am a bit unsure about. In fact, I am not completely confident I would know a bad bean from a good bean and the whole thing seems rather tedious.
Then there's the whole notion of having to soak them overnight. Of course, preparing something overnight to cook the next day requires, well, it requires forethought and planning. Thinking ahead about my cooking activities is not something that comes naturally to me. It's a whole lot easier to open a can of beans on the fly.
Then there's the problem of trying to figure out how long they take to cook. Never mind the controversy that swirls over when you should salt them.
It's strangely perplexing for a food item that can be found in nearly every culture and country in the world. You'd think there would be a straight forward formula, for heaven's sake.
All of this came to a head for me recently when I decided to make Mark Bittman's Espresso Black Bean Chili. The recipe says the cooking time is 45 minutes to 1½ hours and Bittman lets you decide whether or not to soak the beans first.
I decided to take the "unsoaked" approach and I started assembling the ingredients at about 7:30 p.m. one weekday night. Four hours later, bleary eyed and nearly ready to fall asleep on the kitchen floor, the beans were still rock hard despite the hours of cooking. The whole ordeal was doubly ironic because the recipe calls for two tablespoons of espresso powder, which would have kept me up if I could have eaten the chili.
My solution? Dump the whole business in the crockpot, put it on low, and go to bed. In the morning, I expected to find mush, but the chili turned out perfectly.
All of this led to some research on the topic of bean cooking. First off, if you are going to cook dried beans you had best accept the idea they have a mind of their own. In general, 1 to 2 hours is probably the norm, but there are plenty of variables that can affect the cooking time -- everything from the type of bean, to the size, how old the beans are, even the kind of water you are cooking them in. I made another batch of chili a few days later and the beans cooked on the stove in just under 2 hours. Go figure.
Next, soaking is a matter of choice. No doubt soaking will reduce the cooking time, but still adds to the overall prep time. There's some opinion that soaking them will reduce the discomfort some people experience after eating beans, which may be reason enough to soak them. In any case, just know it's not mandatory.
If you're still on the fence, there is the compromise "quick-soak" or "power soak" method that involves rinsing the beans and then putting them in a pot covered by two inches of water. Bring the water to a boil for one minute, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to stand for an hour. Of course, that just took an hour, which might equal the additional cooking time if you hadn't soaked in the first place.
Yipes! As you can see, it's all a lot more complicated than it seems.
There's also a bit of back-and-forth on salting with some cooks claiming that salting the beans before they are fully cooked will lengthen the cooking process. Yet, salting during the process allows for better seasoning as the salt penetrates the beans better. I didn't salt my beans and they still took 4 hours in the pot plus 8 hours in the crockpot.
All of this can be a bit overwhelming until you taste soup that starts with dried beans. The beans really do taste better -- they have a firmer texture and better flavor than canned beans, by far. This recipe for black bean chili is a great example of how dried beans are superior in taste to the canned ones.
So give it a whirl. Just make sure you have plenty of time to spare and make yourself have extra espresso on hand, just in case.
• M. Eileen Brown is the Daily Herald's director of strategic marketing and innovation, and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.