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Beans won't cook.

It all started with a pound of Goya "small red beans."

I soaked them overnight. I changed the water, and soaked them for about 6 more hours. I then proceeded to prepare to make a pot of chili, including browning some meat, draining, sweating onions, garlic, peppers, spices, etc. During this time the beans sat in a colander for maybe 30 minutes or so. Then I put them in the pot with some crushed tomatoes, some stock, salt, black pepper, etc.

Then they went into a very slow oven (220F maybe?) in my Le Creuset for no less than four hours. I had some errands to run, and I wanted to take advantage of my MLK Day off. I discovered to my disappointment after taking them out that the beans were still mostly raw--edible, but VERY "al dente." I put them on the stove at a moderate simmer for about 30-45 minutes, but still it didn't seem to help much.

I know some people say salt toughens beans, but these weren't just tough. Is there anything that will prevent beans from cooking? Was my oven too low? I don't like leaving home for very long with something in a hot oven.

Thoughts? Advice?

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  1. I just made pinto beans from scratch for the first time last week; I cooked them on the stovetop for three hours after soaking close to 24 hours. Al dente is a good description, I just assumed that was the difference when cooked gently and not "canned". I was thinking to try pressure cooking next time, or else to get it out of my head that canned bean consistancy is the only way.

    1. If the environment is too acidic the beans can also be tough...brine the beans when you soak overnight to prevent toughness.

      1 Reply
      1. re: jchulley

        How much salt are we talking here?

      2. Tomatoes are the problem. Cook your chili beans almost done before putting the tomatoes in.

        4 Replies
        1. re: sparrowgrass

          I only added ham and greens to mine, and of course a few herbs. I'm just wondering now how soft beans should be when cooked from scratch? They're not inedible or crunchy, just very firm.

          1. re: coll

            depends on the type of beans, too. Some (split peas and lentils) all but become a paste -- others (garbanzos) will always retain some bite.

            It should take 3-5 hours for most beans (not lentils or peas) to soften.

            1. re: sunshine842

              These were pintos, I'm just now experimenting with pots of real beans. I've been cooking legumes like split peas and lentils forever, and expected the beans to fall apart like they do. Or I should say, I was imagining a canned consistancy but that might be going too far. I do make Great Northern bean soup every year and that does fall apart easily by the 2 or 3 hour mark.

              The Goya pinto bag recomended 2 hours but I gave it 3, didn't think to go any further. Guess I should write all this down, next time will probably be cranberry beans or garbanzos, which is what I have on hand. Guess I'll just give it all afternoon and check every half hour.

          2. re: sparrowgrass

            Precisely. Been there, done that, then learned about acid's effect on bean cooking. They will NEVER get tender. I salvaged the chili by pureeing it and adding broth to create a soup.

            There's a wider lesson to keep in mind, which is that acid slows the softening of other vegetables as well. So if you are making a fairly long-cooking dish and don't want the vegetables to be mush, add wine or canned tomato when you add the vegetables.

          3. This happened to me a couple of years ago. After researching, I figured out that I probably had really old beans. Grocery stores will have beans on the shelf that were packaged up to 7 years ago. Since then I have only bought beans online at ranchogordo.com They have quite a variety to experiment with...my favorite being rio zape. Use as you would a pinto bean.

            6 Replies
            1. re: pagesinthesun

              Where do you get that '7 years ago' data? A plastic bag that age would be deteriorating (sticky, cloudy, etc).

              Bean growers are aware of an issue of hard difficult to cook beans. It's not simply age, but improper storage that is the problem, namely warm humid conditions. A tropical attic, for example, or warehouse without climate control; not modern supermarket shelves.


              1. re: paulj

                Packaged was the wrong description. I meant beans are often harvested, dried, and stored some where in a warehouse for years before they are packaged and sit on grocery store shelves. The fact is that old beans (who knows how old) may be sitting on a grocery store shelf and this could be a reason that beans won't cook. I was simply offering my opinion and stating that I have never had this problem since switching to Rancho Gordo.

                1. re: pagesinthesun

                  do have a source that you can cite for this?

                  1. re: sunshine842

                    maybe that's what Rancho Gordo is claiming?

                2. re: paulj

                  "pages" is right. often beans are stored for years before being presented in the store for sale. Rancho Gordo beans are not only fresh, they are heirloom beans, and make every bean dish taste way better.

                  Rio Zape are also my favorites, and I use them in place of red kidney beans, which (fwiw) are very hard on most people's digestive systems.

                3. re: pagesinthesun

                  Without fail, the dry beans I have to cook the longest come from my CSA and have been harvested only a few months before. The variety doesn't seem to matter--they all take longer to cook than supermarket dried beans.

                  1. It's the tomatoes-- acid in the cooking liquid will keep beans from ever softening.

                    You can salt all you want, but keep the acid out until *after* the beans are soft.

                    1. There are two possible reasons: Age and Acid

                      Old beans will never soften

                      Acid also inhibits softening

                      Salt does not inhibit softening -- thats a kitchen myth.

                      1. Wow, you guys are amazing.

                        The market where I got the beans has a fairly large Latino clientele. I obviously don't have any idea how long the beans were on the shelf, but I would think not "years." I'm guessing that kind of thing turns over fairly frequently.

                        C.Ham, I never gave much credence to the salt thing. Or I'm not such a connoisseur of beans that toughness would even be noticed, let alone keep me from enjoying it.

                        The tomatoes, however... that's probably it. This isn't the first time it's happened to me that a chili won't "finish." I probably use canned vs dried about 75:25, in general. And I feel like I'm more apt to use dried if I'm making a soup or something to feature the beans, rather than a "junky" improv chili recipe.

                        I just hope I remember this in the future. As I just implied, when I make chili it's usually just a matter of throwing in whatever is at hand (that fits in chili).

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: egit

                          mostly I cook my beans separately before adding to a recipe. Id imagine that if you cooked them most of the way and then added the tomatoes etc you would not have this problem, since the skin would have been softened by that point (I think the theory is that the acid in the tomatoes hardens the skin)

                          There is nothing hard about cooking beans, but their requirements have to be respected.

                          As for old beans, I cant say Ive ever had a bag of beans that never softened - but sometimes it took a very long time.

                        2. Yes, it's the tomatoes. Cook your beans first. I've not found soaking to help all that much, just takes time to simmer until they are soft enough for you.

                          Also, I recently got a (small) crockpot and put the beans in with water to cover really welll. Set them to low overnight--about 16 hours. As anyone else who has done it this way knows, they were fabulous!

                          1. By the end of the 4 hrs in the oven, were the beans bubbling? One problem with crock pot beans is that they might never come to a boil. I would recommend bringing the pot of beans to a boil (for up to 10 minutes) before switching to a slow-cooking method. For some beans that boil is needed to break down the hard to digest sugars/starches.

                            1. As others have said, it's the acid. that keeps them from softening. Something to remember is that this happens with potatoes, too, so watch out when cooking potatoes in a beef vegetable soup with tomato base, for example.

                              1. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe for Boston Baked beans. After soaking the beans overnight you parboil them with a small amount of baking soda. They are then placed in the crock pot with an aluminum foil over the top of the mixture. They cook perfectly each time. Perhaps this would work for your red beans next time.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: Ruthie789

                                  I tired the baking soda once and could taste it in the food ...

                                  1. re: Ruthie789

                                    I happen to have the multiyear CI collection book from the library. I don't see mention of baking soda. Instead they advocate using salt in the soaking liquid (2 tsp / qt). They claim this softens the skin, especially if the tap water is hard. Calcium and magnesium ions harden the skin; sodium ions allow more water to penetrate.

                                    CI does recommend a pinch of baking soda with cornmeal (polenta), reducing the need for stirring.

                                    1. re: paulj

                                      I meant the Cook`s Country Cookbook recipe for Boston Baked Beans page 423. Sorry for the confusion.

                                      1. re: Ruthie789

                                        The volume that I have also has a Boston Baked Beans recipe. Side bars talk about the salt, but there's no mention of baking soda.

                                        The writeups in their magazine are always much longer than in the books.

                                        Baked beans have molasses, which is slightly acidic. Baking soda would counter that.

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          baking soda is more to ward off the, er, environmental impact after eating beans, I've been told.

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            Baking soda is slightly alkaline. Its used to offset acid.

                                            Epazote is used for gas. Its also important to drain off the soaking water and cook with fresh if gas is an issue.

                                            1. re: C. Hamster

                                              the baking soda does help....if it fixes the problem in your stomach, it's reasonably logical that it will help in the pot, as well.

                                              It does, however, leave you with that slightly metallic baking soda flavor if you use more than just a pinch or two.

                                              Changing the soaking water usually works fine for this bunch - I had an ex-boyfriend for whom the baking soda was a necessity (this was in the days before Beano, too)

                                          2. re: paulj

                                            My 2008 version of Cook`s Country Cookbook uses 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda with molasses in the recipe. As well this recipe was used on their TV program, it works like a charm and the baked beans are good. Page 424 writeup to the recipe says the following, we did some research and found that baking soda is often added to beans to soften the skins. The recipe has used 1lb of navy beans soaked overnight, parboiled in 8 cups of water with BAKING SODA. Please refer to the recipe book for further details and certainly there was no reference to environmental hmmm details.

                                        2. re: paulj

                                          The CI people discuss the advantages of a tiny bit of baking soda in "The Science of Good Cooking." They also recommend soaking beans in heavily salted water. These are tips 28 and 29.

                                      2. Do you happen to live at a somewhat high altitude, say about 3,500 feet? If so, that could be the problem. The temperature at which water boils drops as altitude increases, and the result is that liquids evaporate rather than get hot enough to cook beans. You need a pressure cooker to do so at high altitudes.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: bitchincook

                                          I just asked google, and I was told my altitude is roughly 49 feet above sea level. So that's not it.

                                          I'm going to go with the acid in the tomatoes. It's not that the skins were tough. The beans simply weren't entirely cooked through. "Toothsome" is one thing. These were Rare to Medium Rare.

                                          Next time: cook them first, separately. And maybe as sunshine642 suggests, they simply weren't cooked, as per standard cooking times.

                                        2. I soak beans 12 hours usually overnight starting with warm water (more iron in the end result). Rinse once then boil the beans in plain water until done (the only way I've found to tell if done is by eating a few). Usually takes a couple hours depending on the beans. After cooked then I add beans to the bean soup or chili sauce-base in the second pan I have going with acid / salt, etc.

                                          Here in Oregon find bulk beans at Winco are awesome for a good price (have been told their goal is to turn their bins over every two days or Winco removes the item not selling). I have used Winco bulk beans often making chili (red beans), humus (garbonzo), baked beans (navy beans), bean soup with ham, and more with great results.

                                          About bean soup I usually use navy beans - small they cook faster than some and am very happy with the results when use navy beans alone (it is my 'standard'). However sometimes go with great northerns instead as slightly larger with a different mouth feel in bean and bacon soup. Occasionally I use a mix of beans in soup for various texture with unique flavors: navy, cannellini, and great northern are similar white beans so find a good mix in a bean soup. Because all three are different sizes I cook each bean type alone until done in its own pot before mix together (cook in no salt with no acid in plain water). If making a bean soup I like with thyme and carrots with ham / bacon.

                                          1. I have extremely hard tap water. Every single time I cooked dried beans/peas etc. they didn't soften, no matter what the technique.

                                            After installing a water softener and using the treated water for soaking and cooking beans, there has not been a single time they had "al dente" issues.

                                            * The cold tap in the kitchen uses water straight from our well. The only time I use the softened water is for cooking dried legumes.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: jammy

                                              I never thought of that issue ... Thanks for sharing.

                                            2. Although I agree with the other posters that the tomatoes were a problem, it's also true that it's really impossible to be certain how old your beans are before you buy them. I've had this happen on occasion with beans I've gotten from many different sources (supermarket, food coop, health food store, Kalustyan's, Patel's) - most recently just earlier this week with some Goya turtle beans I bought at a super busy Spanish grocery. I cooked them with onions, garlic, bell peppers and roasted poblanos (i.e., nothing really acidic) and they REALLY took a long time to soften up - I ended up leaving them simmering on the back of the stove for around ten hours, and then they were great. But it took that long.

                                              1. Whether it's the tomatoes or the salt or both that causes the problem, Beard advises cooking beans nearly to completion before salting (or with anything else but water).

                                                La Bonne Cuisine — Cooking New Orleans Style advises a preliminary boiling of red beans (and others) which conforms to a degassing method popularized by Narsai David, and which they write: "cuts cooking time considerably." Put rinsed beans in boiling water ror two minutes, then remove from heat and let sit, coveted, for one hour. Discard water to remove gas-producing compounds, according to David. They add: "Add the salt and flavorings only after soaking. Salt has a tendency to toughen the beans which causes them to take longer to cook."

                                                Whether "myth" or not, the practice of adding salt later rather than sooner seems to be recommended by several respected cooks, although there is some variation on exactly when. Child added a little salt after the initial boiling and soak, at the start of cooking; Beard added salt near the end of cooking. I always do the preliminary boiling and soak (with unsalted water), discard the water (according to David), do not soak overnight (although I may keep them, refrigerated, overnight), then cook with only a little salt, until nearly done. Tomatoes and finishing salt go in near the end.

                                                6 Replies
                                                1. re: GH1618

                                                  there's been a lot of research in recent years (since Beard) that has pretty much proven that salting beans doesn't impede the softening process at all.

                                                  I soaked my beans in salted water for my baked beans last summer, and they were the best I've ever made -- and softened faster, not slower.

                                                  Many threads about it right here on CH.

                                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                                    That may be so, and I am inclined to believe that the effect of salting the soaking water is minor, if it does anything at all. But there is no reason to put salt in the water for the preliminary boiling step. There is plenty of time to season the beans during actual cooking. That's the appropriate time to do it.

                                                    1. re: GH1618

                                                      the flavor difference between salting ahead of time and after they're done is significant. (that's in the new research, too)

                                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                                        It's obvious that you want salt in the water while the beans are still soaking up water, to carry the salt inside the beans. But this does not mean that the preliminary boiling water should be salted. Very little water is absorbed at this stage, and the water is poured off with the salt.

                                                        1. re: GH1618

                                                          sorry, I was reading that you were soaking and doing the first boil with no salt.

                                                          No, double-salting is unnecessary.

                                                          1. re: GH1618

                                                            Here, Harold McGee advises salting the soaking water, but he does not distinguish between the short preliminary boil and soak, and a long cold-water soak. Nor does he say whether the soaking water is dumped.


                                                            Clearly there are a lot of variables and differences in the details of cooking beans. The important thing is to use a procedure which gives consistently good results both for doneness and seasoning.

                                                  2. Staleness. When beans sit too long on a grocer's shelf, they get stale and fail to soften when cooked.

                                                    If you love beans, you need to find a grocer that turns it's stock over. Sometimes markets in ethnic neighborhoods

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: AdinaA

                                                      What is 'too long'?

                                                      Some of the biggest growers of beans in the USA are northern states like Washington and North Dakota. That means one crop per year. So even a store with a high turn over could have year old beans.

                                                      1. re: paulj

                                                        This thread sent me out to do some research. One source said that properly stored Pinto beans would still be acceptable to eat after thirty years. I think it was a BYU study.

                                                        Fresh or old, they are not going to soften with the tomatoes in them.

                                                    2. Maybe the hint from Cooks Country of putting aluminum foil directly on top of your beans would help with the cooking process. They used this in a crockpot recipe so I would think it would be good for your Creuset in a slow oven.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: Ruthie789

                                                        As long as no acid - for example, tomatoes before covering. Acid eats aluminum.

                                                        1. re: smaki

                                                          How about parchment paper to cover then?

                                                      2. I found that you need to add some fat to the cooking of beans to get a good result(and get good flavor!) In the South,we always add some bacon or pork cut up to the water, and it softens the beans. We don't presoak or pour off the water. The water for cooking is called pot liquor and is full of flavor and vitamins.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: mrstn123

                                                          Fat in the Liquid does not soften the Beans, it tastes good but that is it.