Magic beans

[Method: Soaking dried beans]

About once a week Quinn (my six-year-old) asks me who she is, the lady on the wall. “I don’t know,” I tell her. “But she’s pretty,” Quinn replies, as if by her beauty we would know what to call her.


She is incredibly pretty, La Conchita*: eyelashes black and thick, a braid barely bronzed swept over her shoulder, her mouth set in a serene red line. You can tell she’s thinking about something, and I know what it is:


Yes, this is the woman who brought me my beans, or at least accompanied them on their journey from California, the big state next door. She saw that they arrived safely in their snug plastic packaging, all six varieties, plus some popping corn for good measure.

It’s like she’s my personal patron saint of beans.

You know that beans are back, right? It’s the cheerless economy and heirloom food movement two-for-one that’s suddenly put borlottis and Christmas limas center plate. Vegetarians and legume-lovers everywhere are smiling.

Still, the debate simmers, and not just in my head, over which is better: canned or dried?


I’ve always had my flip-flops planted firmly in the canned camp, and I refuse to be embarrassed by this. I was raised to have good morals and eat beans from a can, and I regret neither.

Which isn’t to say that my mom didn’t give a go or two with dried beans. She did, but reported that for all her soaking methods, she could never get the beans to budge much from their hard place. Until last year I’d never even tried using dried beans, and I didn’t think there could be a whole lot of difference in terms of taste. Nutritionally speaking, dried and canned are on the same plane. Canned just took way less time and forethought.

But then I got hold of my cherished local teparies last year. After a few failed attempts (that my family gamely crunched through), I found a soaking method that works. Turns out freshness counts with dried beans; old beans don’t give themselves over to softness quite as readily.

With a no-fail soak method in my repertoire, I was ready to try some of the unusual (to me) varieties from Rancho Gordo.

Little did I know the beans’ guardian would be traveling with them to find her place on my kitchen wall. We’re glad to have her around.

Quick-Soaking Beans, the Mark Bittman way

from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

1 lb dried beans, washed and picked over
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put beans in a large pot and cover with cold water by 2 to 3 inches. Bring to a boil and boil uncovered for 2 minutes. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid. Turn off the heat and let beans soak for about 2 hours.

Taste a bean for tenderness. If it’s tender, add a large pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper. Make sure beans are covered with about an inch of the soaking water. If not, add water. If beans are still raw, don’t add salt yet and cover with 2 inches of water.

Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle bubble. Cover partially and cook, stirring occasionally, checking for doneness every 10 to 15 minutes and adding water as necessary. If you didn’t add salt in the previous step, add it when beans are turning tender. Stop cooking when beans are done to your taste. Adjust seasoning.

Use immediately in any recipe application of your choice (you have choices!). Beans can be stored up to a week in the fridge, covered, with their cooking liquid (add a splash of white vinegar or lemon juice) or in the freezer for up to six months.

* ‘La  Conchita’ is the name of the painting, by Jesus Helguera.  I Googled it to learn that it means ‘little shell,’ but is also the name of a community near Santa Barbara, California.



11 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    rich said,

    Vote: canned.

    The number of times I’ve forgotten to soak the blasted beans the night before is enormous.

  2. 2

    Kathy said,

    Lawdy, I loves me some beans!!! I’ve been dying to try Rancho’s beans, so I just might break down and order some this week.

    If you use a pressure cooker, you can have creamy wonderful beans in 30 minutes. No soaking! I don’t know what I would do without mine.

  3. 3

    maggie said,

    congrats on tackling the beans. I like rancho gordo but could NOT get these limas to soften. smaller beans, yes, but not these. will have to try again with this method.

  4. 4

    Melissa said,

    I have a box from RG sitting by my feet right now. Just got delivered to my office today and I can’t wait to go home and check out my order. Their beans are AWESOME.

    You know, I’ve never soaked. A fellow blogger gave me a slow cooker method – one that even RG endorses – and I’ve never done them any different. They’re perfect.

  5. 5

    Trisha said,

    Rich: I forget that night-before prep stuff all the time, too. Lately it’s when I make bread. I have to make the soaker and biga the night before, and I forget half the time… Aaah. We try, right?

    Kathy: I’ve heard those pressure cookers are nothing short of miraculous. That 30-minute thing sounds good to me.

    Maggie: Good luck! Let me know.

    Melissa: I’ve tried the slow cooker method, without luck. I’ll have to see if RG’s instructions for doing so are different, because it seems like such a handy way to do it. Enjoy your latest shipment!

  6. 6

    Alex said,

    Ooh those beans look like marbled chocolates! Beans and pulses in general are so underated…

  7. 7

    What a goregeous photo of the Christmas beans! I think you’re right about the freshness of dried beans counting for something. Lately, I’ve been converted to the overnight (or all-day) soak. I really get the best results that way -the beans retain their shape and cook to an even tenderness in less time.

  8. 8

    Arjun said,

    First blog I read after wakeup from sleep today!


  9. 9

    […] A tip for bean cookery by Mark Bittman can be found at The Zest in a post titled “Magic Beans“. […]

  10. 10

    Karalyn said,

    Got my first Rancho Gordo beans today. Was pouring rain and cold here in mid-Missouri so I put on a pot of beans. Wonderful. Great meal and I can hardly wait to try more. Good old-fashioned comfort food!!

  11. 11

    […] follow the directions for soaking and cooking them. I’m a fan of Mark Bittman’s “Quick-Soaking” method. If using canned, just skip to […]

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