The Salting Beans Myth
My understanding is you should always cook your beans first and then add the salt second otherwise the beans will not get done. I have seen this over and over – in Southern Living and elsewhere.
– Comment on my Pressure Cooker Senate Bean Soup recipe
I have a lot of bean recipes. 1 In most of them, I recommend soaking the beans in slightly salty water – in other words, brining them. I get a lot of questions about this in the comments, usually with an undercurrent of “how dare you add salt to beans!”
The Salting Beans Myth
To misquote H.L. Mencken: For every bean cooking problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
Cooking beans is tricky – sometimes they out delicious and creamy; other times, they never soften. For years, the blame was pinned on salt. It turns out that salt actually helps – it softens the skin on the beans. If you’re going to soak your beans, adding a little salt seasons them through and helps them cook evenly.
Don’t believe me? All my food science heroes agree on this:
- Kenji Alt, SeriousEats.com The Food Lab’s Top 6 Food Myths: #6 – Salting beans during cooking will make them tough.
- Cooks Illustrated: Salty Soak for Beans
- Harold McGee, NYTimes.com Harold McGee on Salt: Question #2
But, really, the best way to is to test it yourself. Try my (or Kenji’s, or Cook’s Illustrated’s) salting while soaking technique. That’s what converted me – it makes my beans taste better.
What’s it all about then?
So, if it’s not salt, what causes all the tricskyness in bean cooking? There are two culprits:
1. Hard water. That is acidic water…or cooking beans with other acidic ingredients, like tomatoes. If you keep getting tough beans, you may have hard water – add a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of baking soda with the water to reduce the acidity.
2. Old beans. From the US Dry Bean Council: “If stored longer than 12 months, or exposed to unfavorable storage conditions, beans may never soften sufficiently, no matter how long they’re soaked or cooked. On the other hand, some beans can cook up tender after years of storage.” I know – kind of a wishy-washy answer, right? Might be good after a year, might not. Good luck!2 I try to buy beans from a store with lots of turnover. My local health food store has good beans in their bulk food aisle, because they sell a lot of beans. On the other hand, that bag of generic kidney beans sitting on the shelf at the big box grocery? I can see it toughening from here.
In summary: don’t be afraid of seasoning your beans – a little salt is good for them.
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
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