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BBQ Beans Disaster ... a request for help ...

I am not a great cook. I try hard. As I've gotten older, I've learned to really love the whole process: shopping for ingredients, reading recipes, preparing the food.

I tried to make BBQ beans in the slow cooker last weekend. I read a few recipes just to get an idea of what to do, then made them my own.

I decided to make two pounds of beans. I bought Great Northern Beans. I should have made just one pound but that package of dried beans looked so small. So I doubled my recipe.

As instructed, I soaked the beans overnight, at least 12 hours from the time I put them in water to the time I started cooking. My recipe included brown sugar, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, a chopped onion, salt and pepper. Also some ketchup and yellow mustard.

The recipes were all a little different on cooking times, so I approximated. I cooked them for six hours on high (the recipes said "four on high" or "eight on low). Then I let them sit on "warm" for hours more.

At dinner time, yuck, beans were hard as pebbles. I put the high heat back on for a few hours ... no improvement. I transferred the beans to a big pot, brought the mix to a boil and simmered for hours more. The beans did get softer, but some were still sort of hard.

Stuck the pot in the refrigerator (because it was bed time) and the next evening added water and boiled/simmered for hours more. The beans were improved, but some were still sort of hard, though to look at them, a few were split apart. Tried the same thing the next not to no avail.

This morning I tossed the whole batch in the trash.

For the record, the beans tasted good. They just never got soft enough to enjoy.

I have two theories as to what might have happened but would truly love the opinion of the real cooks on this board.

(1) The recipe said "salt and pepper to taste." I added salt and pepper and it wasn't until I was having the consistency problems that I recalled once reading that salted beans never get done. So, it could have been the salt. I did do some online research and there really is no conclusive view on salting beans before cooking. Most sites said there was no real evidence that salted beans won't get done, just that they might take longer. (It also occurs to me that you could add bacon to the mix and bacon is salted -- so how could it be the salt? I'm not sure.)

(2) This is where I think I went wrong: The night before, I put the beans in the crock pot and covered them with water. When I woke up the next day, a quarter to a third of the beans were no longer covered in water, as the beans had absorbed some of the water and gotten bigger. The combination of larger beans and less water left some of the beans no longer soaking. I figured it was no big deal, but now I think I didn't add enough water to soak the beans and the whole thing was doomed from that point forward.

That said, I really don't know what happened. I'm determined to try again and would love some opinions. I really like to eat beans and want to make red beans for red beans and rice and black beans and so on, in addition to BBQ beans.


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  1. I would bet your beans were old. I had some old black beans that I cooked for 9 hours and they never softened up.

    2 Replies
    1. re: MrsJonesey

      Probably old beans.

      Salt doesn't inhibit softening. Many people presoak their beans in salted water!

      1. re: C. Hamster

        I brine beans during the soak. Works fine and seasons the beans very well.

    2. The lack of water is surely part of the problem. Did you add any acidic ingredients before the beans were already cooked most of the way to tender? Acids toughen the skin of the beans and keep them from softening. Salt is nowhere near the culprit it's sometimes made out to be.
      In fact, brining the dry beans - that is, soaking them in salted water - helps them hydrate and taste good. Pour off the brine, then proceed with your recipe but do not add more salt until you taste them at the end of cooking. You may not need it.

      1. I'm with MrsJonesey – probably old beans. If you get them from a store that probably sells a lot of beans they're likely to be fairly fresh. As for your having some beans high and dry, that hurts too. Salt is NOT a problem, as Harold McGee has confirmed; in fact, he says that salting the soaking water will cut down on the total amount of salt they'll need.

        I'd get one pound of beans, and look on the package to see if there's a packing date or "best by" date. Soak them in water several inches above the top layer, and some salt (= sea water). Proceed with whatever recipe you want. I've not had much success with crockpot beans myself, probably because the one I was using is ancient and doesn't heat evenly, but stovetop is dead easy if you're not needing to spend a lot of time out of the house. I like doing them in the oven, myself, though what that does to the electric bill limits the number of times I do it …

        1. I make beans in the crock pot all the time. Almost daily. I never soak them at all.

          In the morning I put the beans and water into the crock pot at a ration of 1:2. I put it on high for three hours. By the end of the three hours they are "al dente", just tender enough to eat.

          Then, I add whatever ingredients the recipe I am making calls for. That is when I would add the ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, etc. I find that the beans need some alone time with the water without anything else interfering. After I add the ingredients I would cook for another 3-4 hours, usually on high, sometimes on low, it doesn't usually make a difference to beans, depends on what I have added.

          Hope that helps!

          ETA: I also add a bit more water or broth with the other ingredients. They need to stay at least coated in liquid, though not covered, to stay tender.

          1. I think you pretty much stated the biggest problem. You were trying to make two lbs of beans in your first attempt. Start with 1/2 that amount.

            I'm a great cook and have been cooking for 30 years, and dry beans are still hit or miss. As some people stated, the beans might have been old to start with.

            1. They definitely need to be covered with several inches of water - this was probably the fault although old beans could have contributed to the problem also.

              I know you didn't ask for a recipe but I wanted to share my Great Aunt Mayme's bean recipe. These are excellent. I always finish cooking in the crockpot on low over night.

              Mayme’s Beans

              1 lb pinto beans – soaked overnight
              Add 1 ½ tsp salt
              3 T oil

              Bring to boil, cover and simmer until tender. Drain.

              4 oz diced bacon
              1 medium onion, cut fine
              3 cloves garlic, minced
              2 T molasses (light)
              ½ tsp worcestshire sauce
              ½ C catsup
              1/3 C brown sugar
              1/3 tsp dry mustard
              1 ¼ T cornstarch mixed with 1 ¼ C cold water
              3 T apple cider vinegar – at end

              Stir carefully, cover & cook slowly on top of range for 30-40 min or bake at 350˚ for 1 ½ hrs. (may take longer)

              Put in crock-pot & simmer away. Add vinegar at end.

              1. Thanks to MrsJonesy, greygarious, Will Owen, nat8199, Springhaze and Jeanne.

                Thanks also to Jeanne for the recipe.

                I forgot to mention that vinegar was in the recipe. Doubt that mattered - though I notice that Jeanne's recipe says put the vinegar in at the end. Could it have been the vinegar?

                I bet old beans were the cause. I bought them in a grocery store that I never go to and they were sort of lonely on the shelf. I bet they were old.

                AND -- I didn't add enough water to the soak.

                Great ideas everyone, thanks again.

                5 Replies
                1. re: PaulF

                  I really don't know if it was the vinegar at first or not - maybe someone else knows?

                  Do try my great-aunt's recipe. It is so good. I take them to cook outs often and everyone loves them. I've doubled the recipe for larger gatherings with no problems.

                  1. re: PaulF

                    Yes, the vinegar is a problem (and I think THE problem here). See greygarious's post above: "Did you add any acidic ingredients before the beans were already cooked most of the way to tender? Acids toughen the skin of the beans and keep them from softening."

                    I always cook beans until tender before adding any acidic ingredients (e.g. vinegar or tomatoes or lemon juice).

                    1. re: PaulF

                      Hi paulf, YES IT WAS THE VINEGAR. I've been making baked beans for 30+ years, and I'm convinced that beans won't get properly soft in acidic conditions. Adding salt at the beginning will not cause trouble, but adding vinegar or anything acid (including ketchup and mustard, which contain vinegar) too early will prevent the beans from ever getting soft. From your description, it sounds as though you also did not add enough water. Lastly, if you were using a standard, 6 qt crock pot, that's pretty small for two lbs of dried beans IMHO. The little buggers swell up more than you might expect

                      1. re: PaulF

                        Vinegar, molasses, ketchup and mustard are all acidic and will inhibit beans from softening

                        1. re: C. Hamster

                          The whole point of molasses and mustard in BostonBaked Beans, added in the beginning, is that the beans can cook over a long period of time to soak up the flavors without becoming mushy. I cook mine for six to eight hours in the oven and sometimes longer.
                          But I give them lots of space to grow, you used too many beans to the amount of liquid IMO. I use a pound of beans, start with a quart of liquid and usually have to add more several times.

                      2. I would suggest picking up an electric pressure cooker, you can make almost all of your crock pot meals in a fraction of the time and get the same results. In addition, you can make beans from dried to done in well under an hour too. And if you happen to get a bad bag of beans, you wouldn't be wasting hours if not a whole day before you find out.

                        1. So here's a dumb question: how much water did you leave in the beans when you added your other ingredients and started the crock pot? Old beans could be the culprit, but possibly you needed more liquid?

                          1. Baking soda. If you soaked and then cooked for six hours, you didn't do anything wrong. The beans could be old, you might have hard water, acidic ingredients can toughen them, etc etc etc.

                            Where I live water boils at 209 instead of 212, and sometimes I wonder if that makes the difference. After years of frequently having mixed success with tough/not tough beans, I've gone to using 1/2-1 tsp baking soda in the batch for insurance. Especially seems to be true for the harder legumes: navy beans, pinto beans, black beans. Chick peas absolutely must have soda. Lentils and split peas don't seem to need them.

                            Nutrition folks might say this decreases the nutrients, but hey----you won't get ANY nutrition if you can't eat them.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: applgrl

                              "If you soaked and then cooked for six hours, you didn't do anything wrong." Not true. The addition of vinegar too soon doomed the batch of beans that were already underhydrated because of insufficient water volume.

                              Yes, elevation makes a difference. You need a pressure cooker (if you don't want to take other measures to soften the beans), according to Jacques Pepin on a show where he was making chili with his daughter, who was living in Colorado.

                              I do not like adding baking soda, which to me, flattens the flavor.

                            2. A brief update and words of gratitude:

                              I tried crock pot beans again over the weekend and things turned out much better.

                              First, I tried to eliminate all of my original mistakes, as noted by the fine people in this thread:

                              1- I used bulk beans from Sprouts instead of bagged beans from the grocery store to increase the odds of them being fresh.

                              2 - I only made a pound of beans, instead of two.

                              3 - I soaked the beans in enough water this time.

                              4 - I waited until the end to add vinegar. I also subbed dry mustard for mustard and subbed V8 for ketchup. (Totally as an aside, I use V8 in my chili as well and it really is a great ingredient. My chili is one of the things I do well. Give V8 a try sometime.)

                              The result: A much, much better pot of beans.

                              I used the same recipes as a guide as I did the week before, though I also added in elements from Mayme's Beans as recommended by Jeanne. This included adding some bacon and some garlic, which I hadn't used the week before.

                              The beans turned out soft and tender, which was the main goal. I need to work on the seasoning as well, my version was a bit bland, but that just takes practice. The main thing is, the beans were well-cooked.

                              I will say one thing: I might prefer in the long run to make a pot of beans in a pot, instead of a slow cooker. The slow cooker doesn't cook off any of the liquid and the beans didn't get that thick sauce as the water/liquid cooked down. I like the "idea' of using the crock pot in theory because I just add all the ingredients and let it go all day without really tending to it much. But in practice, I think pot of beans that I keep an eye on might work better.

                              Next up: Black beans, Cuban style.

                              Thanks to everyone for their tips and comments and concern. Every single one of you shares credit for my successful pot of beans.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: PaulF

                                In her PBS series, Martha Stewart's Cooking Class, she does baked beans in a bean pot, in the oven. I haven't made her recipe but it looks like most people's idea of proper baked beans. Molasses, slab bacon, etc.

                                1. re: PaulF

                                  Thank you for reporting back, PaulF, and congratulations!