How to Cook Beans

By Analiese Paik

A steaming pot of beans means endless mealtime possibilities including a snack of beans topped with grated cheese.

It’s time celebrate the bean. This lowly legume has a reputation as peasant food, but it’s a comfort food in our house and my go-to solution for quick meals. Beans are easy to cook and will come out great if you follow my Golden Rules. Once cooked, beans are both versatile and delicious. Serve them as a side dish with pork, a main dish with rice and a vegetable, in a burrito, as soup, and in chili.

I suppose beans got their peasant reputation from being relatively inexpensive compared to other proteins. With all of us watching our budgets, figuring out ways to serve family-friendly meals on Meatless Mondays, and searching for leftovers that actually reheat well day after day, reaching for beans is a no-brainer. Additionally, groundbreaking research has revealed that the iron in beans is more readily absorbed by the body than iron supplements or the iron found in meat, making it a top food choice for anyone suffering from iron deficiency, the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide and the most common nutrient deficiency in children.

Besides the superior taste and texture of home-cooked beans, they’re also healthier than canned beans containing bisphenol-A (BPA) in their linings. BPA is a known endocrine disruptor commonly found in the lining of canned foods and made headlines when it was banned in baby bottles and sippy cups in 10 US states. Some companies, like Eden Foods, never put BPA in their liners. It’s not just canned beans that can expose you to BPA, it’s all canned foods. Prevention Magazine recently published a list of 7 Foods That Should Never Cross Your Lips and canned tomatoes topped the list because their linings contain BPA and the acidic nature of tomates causes it to leach. Choose jarred tomatoes instead, a product available at farmers’ markets. Visit this post on TreeHugger for a list of retailers and food manufacturers that use BPA-free cans.

Don’t wait for the FDA to finish its “in-depth studies” in order to make a determination about whether to ban BPA on March 31; take steps to avoid it now. Canada declared BPA toxic in 2010 and regulates its use in food and consumer products. The FDA is way behind as usual. This excerpt from the FDA’s website should get you motivated to avoid canned food with BPA in their liners (you will not find any such information on the cans.)

“….both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children. In cooperation with the National Toxicology Program, FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research is carrying out in-depth studies to answer key questions and clarify uncertainties about the risks of BPA.”

Now, back to making beans. Follow these simple rules and you won’t go wrong. Beans are cheapest when purchased in bulk and one of the widest selections is available in the bulk aisle at Whole Foods Market, including an enticing line of heirloom beans from Cayuga Pure Organics in New York state.

The Golden Rules of Cooking Beans

  1. Always soak dried beans overnight in water.
  2. Always rinse beans before cooking.
  3. Never boil beans or they will crack and break.
  4. Always skim off the foam that rises to the top.
  5. Never add salt until they are tender.
  6. Do not drain excess cooking water after the beans are done.
  7. Season beans with aromatics and spices during or after cooking.

Anyone who wants to quibble about my Golden Rules is welcome to comment below. There’s scientific research and/or common sense behind each one, not to mention firsthand experience!

Basic Bean Recipe

Homemade burritos start with a pot of beans and can be as simple as this version with roasted and peeled Poblano chiles, a dusting of Beaver Brook Farm's raw, aged sheep's milk cheese (Pleasant Valley) and a splash of sriracha sauce on a whole wheat organic tortilla.

Time: overnight soaking plus at least 2 hours for cooking

Servings: 6-8 as a main dish, 12 as a side dish or snack


  1. 3 cups dried beans – black, pinto, cannellini, navy, or heirloom varietal


  1. Measure out beans, place in a single layer on a cutting board or sheet pan, and remove any damaged beans or foreign objects. The light background of a cutting board provides a contrast that makes this easier.
  2. Rinse the beans, place them in a medium bowl and cover  with cold water until it rises above the level of the beans by 4 inches. They beans will absorb the water and expand to fill the bowl. Leave them undisturbed overnight or at least 6 hours.
  3. When ready to cook the beans (within 24 hours of beginning the soak), drain and rinse them, then place them in a cast iron French Oven (Le Creuset) or other sturdy pot with a lid that’s large enough to hold the beans and enough water to cover them by 2 inches.
  4. Add cold water to cover the beans by 2 inches, cover with a lid, and turn heat to medium to bring it to a boil. Once the beans reach a full boil, immediately remove the lid and turn the heat down to a low simmer.
  5. Take a metal or wooden spoon and skim the foam that rises to the top of the beans. Optional: If you wish to add aromatics like onion, celery and carrots to the pot, now’s the time. Just tie them up in a piece of cheesecloth so you can easily remove them when the beans are done. Add a fresh habanero or dried chipotle to the pot for a simple seasoning. Dried, ground chiles like Anchos, make a delicious addition along with some ground cumin and Mexican oregano.
  6. Cook uncovered at barely a simmer until beans are soft, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the bean. The beans should remain covered with water so add some fresh, cold water if necessary.
  7. When the beans are tender, add salt and taste. Add more salt as necessary to bring out their flavor.
  8. Serve with rice and a vegetable for lunch or dinner; spoon into a tortilla and top with roasted peppers, aged or fresh cheese, and some hot sauce to make a burrito; or spoon into a bowl and top with cheese for a quick snack. To make soup, remove and puree half the beans or puree the entire pot with an immersion blender.
  9. Store leftover beans in their cooking liquid. When you reheat the beans, this liquid is your insurance against dried out or burned beans. Beans freeze well!

2 thoughts on “How to Cook Beans”

  1. Bring on the beans. They are a staple in our household. Jacques Pepin says they actually don’t have to be soaked, and our experients prove this to be true — but if you don’t soak them, they’ll need to simmer much longer. So, the environmentally friendly method is to soak.

    Your recipe is very thorough. I deviate from your Golden Rules in one area only. I salt at the beginning of the cooking. Some say this makes the skins of the beans tough, but I find that it gives the beans more flavor.

    • We should do a side-by-side test one day and see if that salt rule is a myth. I recall trying it many years ago and it took forever for the beans to cook. But, it could have been an old batch of beans. A friend of mine told me this weekend that his Mexican wife doesn’t soak the beans and cooks them in 45 minutes in a pressure cooker!

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