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Will the beans in my chili EVER soften??

Yesterday, my husband made chili while I was out. Unfortunately, he added the beans (pinto and small red) before they were thoroughly softened (he'd brought the dried beans to a boil, then let them sit for 1 hour). We cooked the chili for a few hours, but the beans are still rather hard and I'm afraid they won't ever soften on account of the acid from the tomatoes and the salt that they're cooking in. We ate something else for dinner last night, and I'm hoping to save this chili and serve it some other night this week. Anyone have any suggestions for softening the beans once they've been added to acidic ingredients? Is it as simply as cooking for many many hours?!?

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  1. The salt is not the problem. kitchen mythology aside. If the beans were *very* old nothing other than parboiling with baking soda would probably soften them enough. (Acids slow down softening; alkali like baking soda speed it up, though one has to be careful with them - and you have to discard the liquid before adding the beans to anything else).

    2 Replies
    1. re: Karl S

      So THAT's why Ma Ingalls put a spoonful of baking soda in her pot of beans... Very good to know.

      1. re: LauraGrace

        Yeah, people think acids tenderize - often, they in fact toughen. But they carry flavor well. Alkali tenderize (that's the Chinese velvetize tough bits of beef, for example), but you have to be very precise in how you do it, because alkali can leave a nasty taste and slick texture.

    2. This happened to me back in the mists of time, before I knew about beans being toughened by the acid in tomato. I pureed the whole shebang and thinned it with some canned tomatos and broth, then called it soup. I can't recall if I continued to cook the puree....But I added cooked rice and some more vegetables, which I think were frozen, so I probably did.

      1. I agree with Karl

        Salt's not the problem. The main causes of beans not softening are age and acid.

        Sorry, but if they haven't softened through hours of cooking, they probably never will.

        I would hesitate to add baking soda to chili. People simmer their beans with baking soda in the water then rinse and drain them, but IMO you can still taste the baking soda. Added directly to the chili, I'm sure it would give the chili a very weird and perhaps offputting flavor.

        1 Reply
        1. re: C. Hamster

          Not to mention an awfully slick texture...ick.

        2. Well, the beans definitely aren't old - I used them with much success just a week ago. So I guess the acid has just killed them! I'll try greygarious' method, and see how that works out...though I don't know if the beans will even puree :)

          1. Here's kind of an off the wall idea. Try freezing the chili. The freezing and thawing process might soften the beans. No idea if it would really work, but it might be worth experimenting with.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Chimayo Joe

              That's a great idea. The chili has been in my fridge since Sunday, and I was going to see if I could work with it again tonight. If they're still too hard, I will absolutely freeze it and see how it thaws. Just can't bear to toss all those good ingredients!!

              1. re: RosemaryHoney

                Definitely try it, but don't get your hopes up. I had a similar problem with a bean soup - using my fancy Rancho Gordo beans - and freezing didn't help the problem at all!

                Good luck!

            2. This thread came to mind when I watched Jacques Pepin making pressure cooker curry on his PBS show. He was with his daughter, who lives in Colorado - he told her that at high altitude, her dried beans would never soften unless she used a pressure cooker.

              1. Well, I just realized that I never responded with an update! The beans did eventually softened to a perfectly edible state. They weren't quite creamy, but had a nice firmness. Basically, I just left the chili in the fridge for 3 days, then reheated/recooked for about 1 hour in a 375 oven. Oh, and I'd added an additional 1c of water before the putting it in the oven. Worked great! Thanks for the suggestions.

                2 Replies
                1. re: RosemaryHoney

                  This is an old thread, but I happened upon it while searching for others' experiences cooking dry beans in chili as I was contemplating a chili recipe today -- my experience was like the OP.

                  Almost all the reliable sources I have found say that acid slows the rate of cooking for beans, and perhaps keeps the skins firmer, but it does not produce "uncookable" beans. I'm not sure if other people have actually encountered this problem, or whether it's just one of those myths, like when to add salt.

                  Years ago, when I was looking for cheap meals, I ate a lot of rice and beans. My parents never cooked dry beans, so I didn't know any better and simply followed instructions on the bag. After a few experiments, I started finding ways to make the flavor more interesting, so I would throw in all sorts of things while cooking them, including salt and at times acidic ingredients like tomatoes and even vinegar. I never used a lot of acid, but certainly a bit. Some batches of beans took longer to cook than others, but it was never significant enough that I noticed a major problem with anything I did. I think the acid sometimes changed the results along the slightly grainy/smooth and creamy continuum of possible bean results. But the only "uncookable" beans I ever encountered were very old. Now that I "know better," I don't put in acid until the beans are done, so I haven't repeated my experiments under closer observation.

                  I did, however, once try cooking chili with dried beans. (Again, I didn't know any better and was improvising off of a recipe that didn't use beans.) I was somewhat surprised when the beans weren't done after the normal cooking time, but I thought it might have to do with the level of simmering or something. So I kept cooking (actually, baking -- the chili was in a Dutch oven in my oven)... and cooking... and cooking. It perhaps took 2.5-3 times as long as usual for the beans to finish cooking, but they softened fine eventually and had a perfectly good texture.

                  Anyhow, the moral of my story is that I personally won't repeat that experiment, not because of hard beans, but because the beans cooked in the chili so long that they ended up tasting like the chili (sort of like how baked beans sometimes almost seem to dissolve into their own sauce). I like the beans to absorb some of the flavors, but I also want just a little sense that I'm eating a bean (with its own distinctive flavor) and not just a weird mushy bit of the chili's liquid.

                  On the other hand, one wants the flavors in the chili to meld a bit, so I could see putting the beans into the chili *slightly* undercooked and finishing them as the chili cooks. That's what I did today, and I think the result was superb. They did take longer to finish cooking than they would have otherwise, but they were perfect by the time the rest of the chili (including tough meat chunks) was finished cooking.

                  1. re: athanasius

                    I ran into this EXACT situation - REFRIGERATE OVERNIGHT = MAGIC. One night in the fridge and the beans are soft without being mushy. Most chilli or soup tastes better next day anyway right - so you can't lose.

                    That being said, next time I will WAIT to add the beans when I know they are done by themselves. Thanks to all the contributors to this thread.