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Help! My beans don't cook evenly.

Hi all. I have been buying dry beans over canned ones for a while now, but I am still having problems cooking them. Almost always, half the beans will be done (or overdone, as in bursting) while others remain underdone. This has been most pronounced with black and kidney beans, but I also have this problem, to a lesser degree, with chickpeas.

I buy the beans in bulk from Whole Foods and store them in glass containers on my counter. I don't mix batches of beans in the container, at least not intentionally. I usually cook the beans within a few months but it is possible that sometimes they are older than that.

Here is my cooking process:
-Soak the beans for 24 hours or more in ample tap water. Sometimes they soak for 48-72 hours as I don't get around to cooking them when I originally intended. Smaller containers vs larger containers don't seem to make a difference.
-Rinse off the soaking water.
-Place beans in a large pot, covered with fresh tap water at least twice the height of the beans if not more. I never add salt, but sometimes I put bay leaf and thyme in with black beans.
-Cover pot and bring to rolling boil over high heat.
-Reduce to medium or med-high heat and keep the pot covered while cooking.
-Stir a few times while cooking.

Any ideas on what I am doing wrong?

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  1. You're soaking them WAY too long. Steve Sando, the Bean King from Rancho Gordo, once reported on his blog that over-soaking would lead to hard beans (counterintuitive, I know). If I bother to soak my beans (and most of the time I don't, with no ill effects), it's only for 3 or 4 hours. It doesn't seem to make any difference in how fast they cook.

    Also, it may be that your source is mixing beans from different batches, some fresher than others.

    1. Is it possible that when you are soaking some of the beans are in the air and others are in the water? Also, what kind of pot do you use? Is the heat distributed evenly?

      I have been cooking beans from dry for years now and have never had any difficulty.

      1. Change brands...Soak less

        Fun!

        1. Okay, first of all, you're not mixing batches of beans, but I guarantee you, Whole Foods is. When the bin gets low, they just add a new bag. Get your beans from somewhere else.

          Dried beans are not immortal. They begin with a certain amount of moisture, and, over time, that moisture level drops. The less moisture they have, the harder it is for moisture to penetrate them. Think about how flash flooding occurs when it hasn't rained for a while. Beans dry up just like the ground does, and then won't take water when they get wet (rice as well). It's their ability to accept moisture that dictates whether or not a bean can cook all the way through.

          Buy the freshest possible beans from a source with good turnover. Since very few people are cooking with dried beans, this is not an easy task. As you look at the bag, look for wrinkles- wrinkles are a sign of age.

          If your beans are old, it's possible to bring them back to life with soaking, but once they hit a certain age, you can soak them for a week and they still won't soften in the center when cooking.

          Soaking isn't about X hours- it's about the water penetrating the whole bean. However long that takes- that's how long you want to soak for. As the beans soak, you can see the progress by popping open a bean. You'll see how far the moisture has penetrated. If the core is still dry, it will never cook properly.

          6 Replies
          1. re: scott123

            Scott, I can say that you are mistaken about very old beans no longer softening when cooked. Now that I have ceramic pie weights, for the heck of it I cooked up the navy beans I'd been using as weights. I had actually only baked with them two or three times, but they had been in a jar in the cabinet for over a decade. I did the soak with boiling water, then let them cool in the water, refrigerated them, and cooked them the next day. Not a lot of flavor, and it took extra simmering time, but they did soften as much as a typical bag of newer beans.

            1. re: greygarious

              Thanks for conducting the experiment. Even the driest soil will accept water if it's drenched in it long enough...

              1. re: greygarious

                Greygarious, at first glance, your results certainly seem to conflict with my previous statements, but, if you dig deeper, there may be more going on.

                Sure, baking dry beans 2 or 3 times will pretty much guarantee that they will be devoid of all moisture, and a decade more than covers the 'too old' requirement, but... when you baked with them the first time, I think it's pretty safe to say that they weren't old/had some moisture in them then. Baking anything with moisture in it will cause the water to turn to steam and expand. Assuming there was moisture in the beans, this moisture would have somewhat violently forced itself out when you baked them, leaving cracks and fixtures. It its through these cracks and fissures that, 10+ years later, the water can penetrate the bean.

                At least, that's my theory :) Regardless of whether I'm right or wrong, in order to be absolutely fair, the old-beans-will-never-soften theory needs to be tested with beans that were never baked.

                And Full tummy, dirt doesn't contain starch- starch that expands when it gets wet/hot. The expansion of the starch in the outer layers of the bean creates an impenetrable barrier to moisture (when the bean is very old/dense).

                1. re: scott123

                  Well, I don't have any decade old beans sitting around, but 2-3 years, yes, and I have never had a problem. Most stores shouldn't be selling beans older than that, but you never know. Anyone have older beans? Please cook them so that we can determine whether age makes them unsoftenable...

                  1. re: Full tummy

                    Oh, and just so we're all on the same page here- we're talking about black beans or kidney beans. I've cooked decade old lentils without a problem and, although I usually work with canned chickpeas, I would assume they don't have as much of an age issue either.

                    1. re: Full tummy

                      My stepmother routinely cooked the pre-historic beans she stored in the garage. They always came out soft.

                      However the couple of times I tried to cook with them, I couldn't get them to soften. I'm not sure what I did wrong.

              2. I agree with scott123 on this. I have the same problem as you do, barryg, and have long suspected that my source is the culprit -- a mix of old and new beans. I began testing other sources, and found that doing so sometimes resolved the problem. Very frustrating. I think we need to launch bean-cooking campaigns to solve this problem.... I have the best luck when I purchase the beans in bulk from the local co-op, which I think has the highest turnover.