Do You Soak Your Beans Before Cooking?

I do, but full disclosure: the reason I soak my beans is because my Mom (The Mother Unit) told me I should.

Let’s face it, the reason we do a lot of things in the kitchen is because one of our mentors told us to do it that way, or we are just copying the way they did it. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, it does tend to limit our thinking. The way we cook beans is not immune to that: Should you soak your beans? When do you add salt? Why aren’t my beans getting soft? Guess what.  Like with most things, there is no right or wrong way.

Dry Red (Kidney) Beans

Soaking beans is supposed to make them cook faster and reduce their flatulence producing properties. (FPP for those of us in the know-actually I just made that up). It may or may not affect cooking time and it doesn’t do anything to de-gasify, according to research. The theory is that the soaking water penetrates the seed coat and softens it. Sounds logical, but the thing is,

beans are seeds and seeds are built to resist destruction. All they want to do is germinate and grow into a plant. This makes them tough little buggers. The seed coat is there to protect the seed so water doesn’t just soak in, there are three tiny opening called the raphe, hilum and micropyle, whose job it is to let stuff in, like water, which then can be absorbed and the bean can swell up and soften.

Research indicates that soaking some beans does indeed shorten cooking time but its only marginal, and there is a tradeoff with flavor. Soaked beans may lose some of their flavor and perhaps some nutrients and soaking does nothing for the FPP, which is more complicated. If soaking the beans will have the desired effect depends more on the type of bean, how long they have been in the pantry and a couple of other factors. For example, Black-eyed Peas, split peas and lentils are smaller and softer beans and don’t require soaking. If you have time for a longer simmer, the marginal benefit of shorter cooking time may not be worth it. Like most things, it’s a matter of personnel preference.

If you’re going to soak, Camellia Brand suggests three soaking methods depending upon your preference and how much time you have. For all three, rinse the beans in a colander to remove any dust before soaking. Pick through the beans to remove inferior beans or pebbles. (I never have understood where the pebbles would come from, but get them out of there before you break a tooth). When you’re done soaking and ready to cook, just drain and rinse the beans or you can continue cooking them in the soaking water.

Here’s what they suggest:

8-hour or overnight slow soak. Rinse and sort your bean, then cover with about 10 cups of cold water, cover and refrigerate for 8 hours.

3-hour hot soak. Bring 10 cups of water to a boil, add 1 pound of beans and return to a boil. Remove the beans from the heat immediately, cover and set aside for 2 to 3 hours at room temperature.

1 Hour quick soak. Bring 10 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 pound of beans and return to a boil. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes, then remove from the heat, cover and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

While soaking should help your beans cook faster and be more tender, there are other factors that likely impact whether or not your beans get soft. If you have hard water, minerals can build up on the seed coat and block water from reaching those ports. If this is your problem, try using distilled or just plain old bottled water. If your kitchen is in a high-altitude location, say over 3000 feet above sea level, you may have to simmer your beans longer than cooks at lower altitudes. Higher altitudes have lower atmospheric pressure and marginally less oxygen and this can impact the cooking times of many things, like baking and beans. Another solution to shorten cooking time is to use a pressure cooker. But, the number one answer and most important factor that may lead to tough beans is the age of the bean. Like most things, dry beans continue to lose moisture as they sit. No amount of soaking will turn back the clock; as beans age, the pores tend to close and the outer coating changes. If water can’t get in there, the beans will not get soft no matter how long you soak them. Even though you may have just purchased the beans, you don’t know how long they have been on the grocery shelf. Try to buy your beans at a store with a high turnover rate on their dry goods.

Another of the old wives’ tales is never salt your beans until the end. It’s a common believe that salting your beans at the beginning will toughen the beans thus increasing cooking times. This has been debunked, toughness and longer cooking time are the result of the aforementioned issues-to a lesser extend the altitude and hardness of your water and to the greatest extent the quality and age of your beans. However, there are compelling reasons to hold off on the salt until the beans are cooked. Many seasoning meats have a high salt content and will likely impact the flavor of your beans. Also, many commercial creole seasoning have alot of salt. By waiting until the beans are almost finished, you can judge for yourself and add the amount of salt that gives you the flavor you want. One other thing to keep in mind concerning salt-if you’re using highly acidic ingredients like tomatoes, lemon juice or vinegar, the acid will act on the bean’s starches. This reaction will prevent the beans from soaking in water and swelling so you do want to wait until the end for recipes with acidic ingredients.

OK, so that’s soaking and salting. But let’s be honest, beans are the musical fruit, they make you fart and that embarrasses some people. Why do they do that and can we do anything about it? Beans are a high fiber food that contain complex sugars, (like raffinos and stachyose) called alpha-galactosides. Generally, in the human body enzymes aid in digestions, but we don’t produce any enzymes that can digest these complex sugars. These pass through our stomach undigested until they reach the large intestines where the ferment. (Sounds gross to me). Fermentation produces gases; hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and in some individuals, methane. Rumblie in the tumblie-it’s not going back the way it came in so it takes the path of least resistance….and escapes out the back door disguised as a fart, well actually, it is a fart. There you have it.  He who denied it, supplied it.

There has been research on ways to de-gasify beans (some people have all the fun). Turns out that soaking does not help the beans to give up these sugars. The U S Department of Agriculture (USDA) did develop a process of blanching and soaking beans that eliminate 90% of these sugars, but something else of importance was also eliminated-flavor. I think we all agree that’s not an option, so it’s a tradeoff-optimal flavor and a few farts. It was suggested by the USDA that a solution does exist-eating more beans will condition the body to better handle these complex sugars better than only eating the occasional bean. Maybe you just don’t notice it as much, which is good if everyone else eats a lot of beans.

Soaking-check, salting-check, farts-check. Now, are they good for you? In my experience, Camellia Brands has been my (and most of Louisiana’s) go-to brand for dry beans. They have been around since the late 1800s and this is directly from their blog post about the nutritional quality of beans:

Studies have shown that

  • A diet of beans may reduce your risk of certain types of cancers. For example, the estrogens in beans help can reduce cancers caused by certain hormones.
  • A diet of beans may also reduce your heart disease risk.
  • Beans have a low glycemic index, are digested slowly, and help maintain a normal level of blood sugar.
  • Beans contain folic acid, which is associated with a reduced risk of birth defects.
  • Beans are good for people with certain food allergies: they are a great source of nutrients in gluten-free diets and can be made into gluten-free flours.
  • Beans, which are rich in fiber, can help with weight control. People who eat more fiber tend to weigh less than those who don’t.

It’s no wonder that beans have moved into the spotlight as a superfood. Consider the following:

  • Unlike meat, beans are not only low in fat, but are free of saturated fat and trans-fat. (All the protein of meat, but no cholesterol!) Plus, lean proteins help promote muscle.
  • Beans are a complex carbohydrate and help you maintain your energy level throughout the day.
  • Beans also contain antioxidants, phytochemicals, folate, manganese, potassium, iron, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, and non-lactic calcium.
  • When eaten with grains, beans provide a complete protein.
  • The USDA Food Patternsclassify beans and peas as both vegetables and proteins.
  • In its Dietary Guidelines 2010, the USDA recommends three cups of beans per week.

So, there you have it. Soaking doesn’t hurt, it may help a little. It shortens the cooking time some but does nothing else. There may be a trade-off with flavor so its recommended by USDA researchers for the most flavorful beans skip the soaking and start the cooking in hot water. Salt only at the end? Again, a personal choice; if you’ve got seasoning meat, commercial creole seasoning and/or acidic ingredients, it may be wise to wait until the end. Nutritionally, beans can be considered a superfood due to their outstanding nutritional contribution to our diets. As far as flatulence, you are on your own!

If you’re looking for more information about beans, try some of these links: