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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


        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.

                1. I know you didn't mention this but I have to ask if you are adding any additional liquid to your pot during the cooking process? I add more liquid to my pot if the beans need it but it must be hot because adding cold or room temp liquid (stock, water, wine, etc) on top of your hot liquid will slow the cooking process and cause the beans not to cook evenly.& toughen them. Also, don't over salt the beans while they are cooking as that will make them tough as well, salt near the end of the cooking.

                  You are definitely over soaking your beans. No need to soak black eyed peas, pintos, red beans, navy beans, etc. more than 8 hours. Other beans like lentils and chickpeas don't need to be soaked. If you are soaking your beans and find that can't cook them after those 8 hours, drain them and put them in the refrigerator in a sealable container. They need to be cooked within a couple of days.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Cherylptw

                    I have always soaked my red beans for at least 12 hours and never had a problem with them not cooking properly.

                    1. re: roro1831

                      I didn't say that soaking them for 12 hours would render them un-cookable, I said they don't have to be soaked more than 8 hours to make them soft enough to be cooked sucessfully. If you want to soak yours more than 8 hours that's your choice, but 24 hours (as the OP said he's done) is too long.

                  2. Thanks for the tips everyone. I will try soaking less and see how it goes. I have been looking for alternate suppliers but so far most seem to be more expensive than Whole Foods and appear to have less turnover. I can probably get decently fresh pre-packaged bags at the Mexican grocery stores in my area, but I prefer the organic stuff WF has.

                    1. A theory pulled out of my hat (or someplace lower?): With prolonged soaking, the beans on top might have more exposure to the water than those nearer the bottom of the bowl/pot, therefore softer at the top than at the bottom before cooking. In that case, the age of the beans would not be a factor. If you are sufficiently curious, you could test that idea by soaking two batches of the same beans, for the same prolonged time, but periodically stirring one batch. Cook in separate but same-size pots at the same time (precluding any difference due to longer sitting time for one of the batches) and compare.

                      1. Btw, since my old-beans-never-soften theory has a few detractors :P, I've been thinking about other culprits in this scenario.

                        As I took another look at your recipe, I couldn't help notice that you're using tap water. Is your tap water hard? I still think it's age that's the issue, but that might be a contributing factor. You know how baking soda in baked beans prevents them from getting overcooked? Well, the minerals in hard water are alkaline as well- if you have enough of them, they will be a deterrent to softness.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: scott123

                          Last week I soaked a bag of dry large lima beans, Shaw's brand. When I dumped them in the water, I thought "Hmm, I can't recall buying beans at Shaw's", where I very rarely shop now. Only in late 2007 did I stop buying canned beans, but have always bought bagged lentils and split peas, and sometimes limas, for soup. What I hadn't done before is cook lima beans any other way than in soup and this time I was going to use them as a side dish. I like CI's brine method for dried beans but wanted to experiment, so instead of salt I used a big glug of Mr. Yoshida's, a thick, salty and sweet teriyaki-type marinade. By morning, the beans had absorbed most of the solution, but most of the skins were split. I thought at first that it must be something in the Mr. Yoshida's - but then I fished the bag out of the trash and saw that it had a Dec 2006 use-by date. God knows how long before that I bought them! I cooked them in fresh water and although there were skins all over the place, they were deliciously flavored, and cooked in about an hour.

                        2. I used to have this same problem. I thought I must be a terrible cook if I couldn't even get beans right. But then I splurged and bought myself a nice clay bean pot (http://www.bramcookware.com/). I soak my beans overnight, but when I first add the water - i discard any floaters - then I cook them the next day, nice and slow, in the bean pot and in the same water I soaked them in! I haven't had a problem with unevenly cooked beans since! Clay distributes and defuses heat much better than any type of metal, which, I think makes a substantial difference in bean cookery. Good luck.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: waywardchef

                            I, too, recently bought a beautiful clay bean pot from Bram -- how long after an overnight soak should it take for the beans to cook, and at what temp? Reading so much about taking it easy on the new pot until it's fully seasoned, I'm afraid to turn my electric burner up - so not getting that initial boil that I'm used to with beans. So far, my pintos have been on the stove for 4 hours and still very hard.

                            Note - I did the initial seasoning just as the instructions indicate (rub with garlic, season in oven, let cool fully), and am using the diffuser. How high can I go? I'm tempted to pour them into a regular pan to boil, then return to the clay pot....

                          2. A couple of suggestions ...

                            Judy Rodgers has a section on cooking beans in which she states that she does not soak, as she has found soaking to produce uneven results like the ones you describe. So I would try not soaking and see how that goes. I never soak black beans anyway - they are pretty soft and will cook through in about 90 minutes even if you don't soak.

                            You mentioned that you cook on medium to medium-high heat -- try turning your heat down so that just a few bubbles are gently rising to the surface now and then.

                            There was a recent thread on chickpeas that advocated a baking soda soak for chickpeas, derived from Nigella Lawson. If not soaking doesn't work, you could try that.

                            You could also try cooking your beans in the oven instead of boiling them. I've never actually tried this, but many people report success with this method. This would be especially worthwhile if you can't get your stovetop to maintain the right temperature.

                            Lastly, your water could be an issue if it contains a lot of minerals. So you could try cooking in bottled water. If that's the case, you would want to make sure to use a bottled water that doesn't have a high mineral content. For me this would be a last resort though, as one of my favorite things about beans is that, besides being delicious and healthy, they are so cheap!

                            1. I'm skeptical of this over-soaking theory of Bean King's. Beans absorb as much water as they can, and that's it. If you leave them for 72 hours they might start to ferment, but that's a different problem. Barryg, you left out one piece of info: how long did they cook? The burner was set at medium to medium-high, which sounds like you tried to cook them too fast. Beans kept at a very low boil (almost a simmer) for 3 or 4 hours always cook pretty well in my experience.

                              1. I've had an enormous problem with black beans since I started working with them about a year ago. I always bought them in bulk from my health food store. I used the same cooking method as you.
                                soak at least overnight >8 hours or more.
                                I've experimented numerous times with beans never ending in results that I've wanted.
                                My problem has been that I've been using the wrong kind of pot/pan and the wrong kind of cooktop. I can almost bet 1,000,000 that if I had a gas cooktop that I would be better off.
                                I used an electric stove and all sorts of different cooking pots - glass, aluminum, steel.

                                I found the best results with a cast iron pot. Anything think that cooks with the food not with the heat. Difficult to explain.

                                Also, a bean cooker might be most effective.

                                1. Would love to see this thread continue, but sorted by bean ( gandules or pigeon peas, and black beans are my nemesis), and with cooking illustrated-type- experiments.

                                  1. When I started cooking dried beans I had the same problem. Went half-crazy trying to figure out what the cause was: pot? water quality? cooking method? soaking? bean source? Aaaarrrrgh!

                                    I tried via stovetop (in my case, electric smoothtop) and also via stainless-steel Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker. I bought various types of beans from both Rancho Gordo and from Purcell Farms, both highly recommended mail order sources. I always soaked the beans overnight after rinsing, then rinsed again before cooking in fresh water. Filtered water is used for all our cooking and prep. No altitude issues here. No salt added. And yet the beans were NEVER consistently cooked to my liking throughout, until I started to add 1/8 to 1/4 tsp of baking soda to the soaking water. A caveat here that I do NOT like my beans to be al dente; I prefer them canned-bean-soft. So this may or may not work well for you, but the baking soda did cut down the ratio of underdone beans from the original 50% to I'd say 10% or less, and brought the actual cooking time needed right in line with the recommended times per bean variety vis-a-vis my desired result.

                                    As to bean sources, I know many people swear by Rancho Gordo but since I ordered a selection of beans from both sources at the same time, I was able to compare them side by side as to quality and results, and IMHO the quality of Purcell's beans is better. Prices are pretty much the same, btw. This is what I observed consistently about RG's beans compared to what Purcell sent:

                                    * all of RG's beans had a much larger percentage of debris (little stones, chips of whatever, and field dust) when picked over before cooking, than Purcell's have. The beans that I got from Purcells were extremely clean.

                                    * I always ended up picking out many more 'bad' (extremely wrinkled or otherwise ickylooking) beans from the same amount of dried beans from RG than from Purcell. I usually cook 3/4 cup of dry beans at a time, and I may need to remove just 1, 2 or maybe 3 beans from a Purcell portion; close to a dozen is more what I had to take out of the same 3/4 cup of RG beans

                                    * this may be an aberration but I'll relate it FWIW. I had ordered chickpeas (my fave) from both Purcell and RG. Tried the Purcell beans first, for chickpea salad and then at another time for homemade hummus. They were great. Tried the RG chickpeas (prepared in exactly the same way as the Purcell) first in chickpea salad and had a violently upset stomach (NOT bean-gas, that's not an issue for me) a couple hours afterward. I put it down to perhaps something off in the other ingredients. The following week I made my usual hummus recipe using the RG chickpeas out of the same bag, and again had stomach problems afterward. The only ingredient that was duplicated in the salad vs the hummus was the RG chickpeas. I tossed the rest of the RG chickpea bag in the trash, as I didn't want to risk my intestines a third time.

                                    Overall I am not impressed with RG's quality control and when I order beans online now, it's from Purcell. And I always add 1/8 tsp of baking soda (well stirred in) to the approx 4 cups of final soaking water for my 3/4 cup of dry beans. It has worked like a charm for me, YMMV of course.

                                    btw, I have heard the theory from RG that overnight soaking will lead to hard beans, and I asked Lorna Sass about that. She disagrees, and she apparantly knows quite a lot about beans, both via pressure cooking and stovetop. So, just passing it along FWIW.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: dessert_diva

                                      I tried baking soda only once - it changed the flavor, made it duller and with an unpleasant aftertaste. For anyone who hasn't used it before, I'd recommend cooking an experimental half-cup or so and tasting them before making a larger batch or more complicated dish.

                                      Having dabbled in both RG and PF beans, I now default to bagged supermarket brands, presoaked in salted water and cooked in unsalted. I use the pressure cooker. I like to have different colors for inclusion in salads, so I put the beans and water in smaller open containers, then place those on a rack in the pressure cooker, with half an inch of water. That way I can cook Black, Navy, and Salvadoran (small red) beans simultaneously. 12 minutes, gradual release.
                                      These are a little softer than al dente but firmer than canned beans.

                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        Funny that you mentioned an aftertaste, because one of the other issues I had when first starting to cook beans was that I didn't like the almost-metallic aftertaste they had. Since it wasn't the pot(s), nor the type/source of beans, I was aggravated with that too. The taste was most pronounced just and shortly after cooking. However, after I started using the baking soda in the soaking water, I noticed that the aftertaste seemed to be gone. Our water's pH is 6.34 which is slightly acidic but not drastically (the filter doesn't change the pH), but apparantly the baking soda's alkalinity counterbalances it enough to neutralize the aftertaste I was getting. Or else it covers it up, LOL. Either way works for me, as long as I don't have that taste anymore. :-)

                                        1. re: dessert_diva

                                          Aha - my water is VERY alkaline, so it makes sense that the baking soda helped your beans but made mine taste wrong.

                                    2. Old thread but I'd like to offer my $.02

                                      I was having this problem for a while and I tried a variety of things, soaking less, soaking more, and came to the conclusion that beans MUST be cooked at low heat (around 200 degrees is good) to be even. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I've soaked beans for 9 hours, then cooked them at a medium boil for like 6 hours and still half the beans were hard. Then I got a slow cooker and found that if I cooked beans in it (on the high setting), they would be perfectly soft after cooking only a few hours.

                                      Not sure, but maybe exposure to high heat causes dry beans to harden? Not sure. If you don't have a slow cooker, cook them at a heat so that there are some bubbles but before boiling.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: MaxGu

                                        I, too, use my slow cooker on high for beans. With no pre-soaking (I am too lazy). I have perfect beans in three hours.