Wait, There's Actually No Need to Soak Your Beans
Dried beans are having a bit of a moment. Chalk it up to the rise of the Instant Pot and and growing realization that eating meat at the rate Americans have been for decades is deeply environmentally unsustainable. Or perhaps the rise in bean awareness is thanks to the realization that high-quality dried beans really do taste better than canned. But whatever it is, the number of bean obsessives has been growing, and you can very much count me among their ranks.
But despite the many, well-documented positive things about dried beans—they’re cheap, versatile, filling, good for the environment, and have a very good shelf life, with a depth of flavor and a tender texture that canned beans just can’t muster—they can still be intimidating to cook. Common wisdom suggests that you should soak them first, but who remembers a whole day ahead to soak beans? But according to Joe Yonan, author of the cookbook Cool Beans, you actually don’t need to worry about it.
“The biggest myth is the soaking,” Yonan said. “It’s one of the big reasons people haven’t cooked beans as much as they could have, because they feel like it’s too late. But I’d like to dispel that one. You don’t really have to soak beans.” Yonan should know. His book isn’t just filled with 125 inspirational, vegetarian bean-based recipes, it’s also a love letter to what the subtitle calls “the most versatile plant-based protein,” and a guide on the best way to cook whatever bean you come across.
Soaking Cuts Out Flavor
In the course of his testing, Yonan found that soaking only cut down on cooking time by 25 to 30 percent, and it also had real drawbacks. “You lose a lot of flavor when you soak them,” Yonan said. “I’ve never had a pot of black beans as good soaking as when I don’t soak them. [When you soak black beans,] you end up with a pot full of inky black broth.” In some circumstances, as with more freshly dried heirloom beans, soaking isn’t just unnecessary—it can cause the beans to sprout.
You Don't Need to Soak to Make Beans Less Gassy
Soaking can cut down on the gas-inducing effect of beans, Yonan notes, but so can other methods. He prefers to cook unsoaked dried beans with a strip of kombu—Japanese dried seaweed, available at health food stores, supermarkets with a robust East Asian section, or online—which has the same effect on gas reduction. “Kombu does the same thing as soaking, in terms of the softness of the beans,” Yonan said.
The Quick-Soak Method Doesn't Makes Sense
And while we’re at it, Yonan would like to dispel with the “quick soak” method of cooking beans, where you bring a pot of beans up to a boil, turn off the heat, and then let them sit in the water for a while. “You could have just been cooking the beans that whole time!” Yonan said. “It never made sense to me.”
The Exception to the No-Soaking Policy
But there are circumstances where soaking is good. Even though dried beans last forever in the pantry, their cooking time tends to lengthen as they sit around. If you’re unsure about how old your beans are—and if you're not buying them from a source known for freshly dried heirloom beans, you probably are—soaking them can even the playing field between fresh and not-so-fresh dried beans. Beans bought from the bulk bin of a health food store, or found at the back of a pantry after a questionably long era, could probably benefit from a soak. It’ll help the beans cook evenly, no matter what their age. “Soaking is an insurance policy,” Yonan said.
The Best Soaking Method, When You Need to Soak
When he does opt for giving beans an overnight soak, Yonan prefers a twist on the usual technique of covering the beans with a few inches of water—he’ll also add a tablespoon of salt to the water bath. Turning the soaking liquid into a brine means that the beans cook up creamier, with more tender skins. (Adding kombu to the liquid does the same thing, so doing both is overkill.)
Why bother fussing with cooking dried beans from scratch in the first place, you ask? It’s not just that they’re economical, or that Joe Yonan doesn’t care for the gummy texture and muddy taste of canned beans. It’s that dried beans (soaked or unsoaked), cook up to provide another flavorful benefit: the bean broth they produce after simmering for hours in aromatics. Even making dried beans in the Instant Pot gives you a rich, flavorful liquid to work with. “The beans taste amazing themselves, but the secondary product, the broth, you can use in soups, or in sauces,” Yonan said. “It has enough body to qualify as a stock. And the beans store so well in that liquid.” Skip the soaking step, and you just might find yourself cooking up a pot of dried beans more often. Trust him: Beans are worth the trouble.