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Cooking Dried Beans


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#1 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 11:34 AM

There has been a bit of discussion lately on the cooking of dried beans. This thread in the Louisiana forum drifted into a discussion of red beans. There have also been some discussions in the various cassoulet threads. I thought it might be a good idea to collect all of our wisdom and lack thereof in a thread on beans. Here is a start.

To salt or not to salt while cooking... that is the question. I have seen numerous declarations over the years about the evils of cooking beans with salt. Then, in the same "breath" so to speak, you are adding ham hocks, ham bones, bacon or other salty pork products. What's up with that? Well, it seems that there was a controlled test done by someone. (I can't find it to save me. Alton Brown? Steingarten? Cook's Illustrated?) It seems that salt has nothing to do with the final texture of beans. It is the age of the dried bean. I have been salting away for years and am well known for my excellent beans. But I have been caught with old beans before that never cook up right. More on this later.

Then there is "the Problem" with beans. This from McGee:

"for extended space flights, it may prove advantageous to select astronauts who produce minimal amounts of methane and hydrogen and who do not normally produce very large quantities of flatus; and... selection criteria for astronauts might be established to eliminate those candidates who demonstrate marked or excessive gastroenterologic responses to stress..." What a way to wash out!

Well, it does seem that there may be some science behind some folk wisdom. It seems that phenolics that are present in certain herbs and such may suppress some of the bacterial action in the lower gut. (The situation is that the oligosaccharides in beans are not digested in the upper GI tract and arrive in the lower as ample fodder for the bacteria there to do their thing.) So, addition of epizote by the Mexicans may have some merit if epizote has a lot of phenolics. I don't know. There is a gathering opinion that if you eat a lot of beans, your bacterial population will adjust and all will be well. What has me intensely curious is the test protocol and equipment used to test those astronauts. Inquiring minds want to know.

This one is new to me. Paula Wolfert, in discussing cassoulet, has espoused the importance of cooking beans in "just enough liquid" and not too much in order to attain the optimum texture. It turns out that McGee has also addressed this issue. Another quote from McGee:

And it turns out, contrary to what we would expect, that seeds will actually absorb more water in a smaller volume of water: the less cooking water, the fewer carbohydrates are leached out, and the carbohydrates will take up about 10 times their weight in water. This means, then, that seeds will seem softer in a given time if cooked in a minimal amount of liquid.

So... Some years ago I adopted the crock pot as the method of choice for cooking my beans. Being a rather inattentive sort, I got sick of burning beans. As it turns out, my crock pot is of a size that, by the time I put in a ham bones or hocks or other seasoning, I have just enough room in the crock pot for the "just enough" liquid. So my excellent beans are not the result of my culinary prowess but a happy accident. Who knew? I won't tell if you don't.

Now back to that all important issue of the age of the dried beans, apparantly the most important factor in how they will cook up. There was a thread here some time ago, and I have heard it on TV, that there doesn't seem to be a good way to tell the age of the dried beans that you buy. All you could do was go somewhere that you had a reasonable expectation that the product turnover was high enough to ensure fresh dried beans. Then I noticed that the last time I bought Camellia red beans, they had an expiration date on the bag. I don't know how many other bags of beans are showing these dates. I will be investigating that. Then the question arises, what does that date mean? What is the shelf life of dried beans before they get to the point that they will never cook up to creamy wonderfulness? If a bag of Camellias says "use before xxx 2005" what does that mean? If the shelf life is two years, does that mean they were packaged in 2003? You see the problem.

Let's discuss these weighty issues.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#2 Andrew Fenton

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 11:52 AM

Great topic. On the issue of bean freshness, Aliza Green's The Bean Bible has an interesting comment:

Look for harvest dates that may be included on bean bags and boxes.  I've seen this done with a very special kind of large white bean from Spain, favas de Huelga, which are packed in their own numbered cloth bag, with controlled origin (like Cognac or Champagne) and date of harvest tagged.



Which is fine, I suppose, but while may be best to use beans from the current season's crop, most beans sold in the US don't have a harvest date. I bought a bag of blackeye peas the other day; it has a sell by date (12/9/04), but as you say, that doesn't mean much.

#3 Mudpuppie

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 11:54 AM

beans are good.

i don't have anything else to add.

Oh wait -- thought of two things.

The cheapo bag of store-brand black beans I just bought has a sell-by date. I've never noticed before. It's near impossible to read -- it's a black ink stamp superimposed over the nutritional info. Anyway, the date is December 2004, meaning that they think the beans are good eating for at least a year. When do dried beans become old?

Also, re salting. What a tough call. Salting in the beginning often, for me, means oversalting. By the time the liquid reduces, the beans can be positively briney. Salting in the end means the broth gets salty but the beans don't. Haven't mastered this yet.

No bacon for me, so I toss in a handful of dried chipotles. The smokiness is a welcome addition.
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#4 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 12:50 PM

I found this govt site. You can look up other beans on the list to the right. In general, the site states that dried beans over one year old will require longer cooking times. :blink: I don't know about you but when I have run into "old" beans, you could cook them until hell freezes over and they will never be great.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#5 howard88

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 12:55 PM

yo yo yo fifi:
I cook dried beans fairly often. As you: I cannnot remember the source, but I recall that it is not the salt that may be a problem rather acid as in tomato sauce, paste etc.
Either way I hold the salt and add tomato product later in the cooking of beans and never had a problem.

#6 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 01:29 PM

Ah... The acid issue. You are right. I don't have many bean recipes that use tomato products but those that do get the tomato added at the end. Oddly enough, those who INSIST on putting beans in chili exploit this property whether they know it or not. More from McGee:

Cell wall hemicelluloses are more soluble in alkaline conditions, and seeds, like stems and leaves, will soften more readily for this reason than they would in acidic water. Veteran chili makers have probably noticed this effect when they put partially cooked beans into chili sauce: the beans simply do not get any softer...

Now... if you are going to adulterate a perfectly good chili with beans :raz:, you really don't want them turning into mush. This is one place where a firm bean is called for. McGee also goes on to say that you can use this knowledge to keep beans at a particular texture when reheating or adding to another dish in a secondary cooking by making the new environment more acid.

I am going to have to go back and check the cassoulet recipes. I seem to remember at least one that puts a bit of tomato in there but I am not sure how much or at what point in that long process.

BTW... This Amazon link to McGee's original tome is eGullet friendly. I highly recommend this book. Then Amazon helpfully gives you that "people who bought this book also bought..." so that you can gleefully run your credit card flat. :biggrin:
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#7 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 02:56 PM

I went to my local Randall's (owned by Safeway) and while I was there, checked out some bags of beans.

House brand... Clearly marked (well, pretty clearly) "best if used by". The more popular beans such as red kidneys, pintos, great northerns and blackeyed peas, were generally given a date toward the end of 2004. Interestingly, limas are dated for May of 2004.

Goya... Some cryptic inked on numbers, not always legible, and I have no idea what they mean.

Various specialty brands and "gourmet" mixes with accompanying spice packs... No marks whatsoever.

Now I am wondering if the "use by" date is the magic one year from harvest? I will see if there is a way I can e-mail safeway and maybe Camellia.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#8 Mabelline

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 02:58 PM

I've always started beans in just enough water to cover. And I don't adhere to that old bring the water to a boil,blah blah blah because I think that was only a time saver. I don't mess with them. Add water as required, hot with a dipper from another pan. Old beans are hard to detect nowadays. My favorite for absolute dependability beside Camellia, which I love, is the Anazasi bean, which is purple and white to begin, but cooks up a beautiful beanish equivalent to a San Tropez tan. They are never hard upon completion, and have a wonderful flavor entirely on their own. But of course most times I cook beans is to use another ingredient, so I've got to say I rarely add salt, because it'll be there.

#9 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 03:17 PM

Where do you get Anazasi beans? I have heard of them but never had them. I have seen them in "gourmet" shops and such but I have always been wary of those sources. I wouldn't think their turnover is enough to ensure "fresh" beans... whatever that means.

Even if I am cooking beans plain as an ingredient for another dish, I add a little salt. I am just going with the same concept as rice and pasta. I do have to say that I don't do that often. For a bean salsa and such, the Goya canned beans are really good so I don't usually bother with cooking beans for such uses. I get bit by the lazy bug.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#10 Mudpuppie

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 03:22 PM

Fifi, aren't you in Central Market country? They'd have them.
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#11 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 03:26 PM

Our Central Market and Whole Foods is in town inside the loop. That is about a 30 mile trek so I don't frequent the place. I am assembling a list that will justify a trip and I have just added the beans to the list.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#12 hjshorter

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 04:06 PM

I took a bag of small pink beans out of the pantry this morning. Thanks to egullet I was compelled to check for an expiration date. They expired July 2003. :hmmm:

Chances are we're in for a lousy pot of beans tomorrow. :angry:
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#13 oatmeal

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 04:23 PM

Paul Pitchford has some great advise on cooking beans in his book Healing with Whole Foods. One suggestions that I use pretty regularly is adding some Kombu Seaweed to the beans. It helps to break down the beans a bit and makes them more digestable. He also suggests cumin and fennel for the same purpose. I cook beans almost everyday and have only had terminally hard beans when I added salt in the begining. Somehow the salt in the seaweed doesn't seem to be a factor.

#14 jsolomon

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 05:03 PM

I have found that pressure-cooking older beans helps tenderize them quite a bit, but alas, I cook too few beans for my tastes. You just can't find black beans in Nebraska :sad:
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#15 mongo_jones

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 05:27 PM

i have nothing to add except that i made some channa dal yesterday (is that a bean?). the dal turned out spectacular but has also increased the production of natural gas in our home by a couple of orders of magnitude. this has never happened before. as far as i can tell i cooked them the same way i always have. possibilities: i got a mutant batch of beans/split peas (they were from a new bag; i usually eat them with something else that counteracts this effect and this time didn't.

#16 arjay

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 05:34 PM

When to salt? Age of beans? Chemistry? Who cares, cook 'em and enjoy 'em.
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#17 bloviatrix

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:21 PM

Ah... The acid issue. You are right. I don't have many bean recipes that use tomato products but those that do get the tomato added at the end. Oddly enough, those who INSIST on putting beans in chili exploit this property whether they know it or not. More from McGee:

Cell wall hemicelluloses are more soluble in alkaline conditions, and seeds, like stems and leaves, will soften more readily for this reason than they would in acidic water. Veteran chili makers have probably noticed this effect when they put partially cooked beans into chili sauce: the beans simply do not get any softer...

Now... if you are going to adulterate a perfectly good chili with beans :raz:, you really don't want them turning into mush. This is one place where a firm bean is called for. McGee also goes on to say that you can use this knowledge to keep beans at a particular texture when reheating or adding to another dish in a secondary cooking by making the new environment more acid.

Wow. Fascinating stuff. I'm one of those who does use beans in my chili and I have noticed that they never get mushy. I never knew the science behind it.

I think I need to buy a copy of McGee.
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#18 rancho_gordo

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:36 PM

I hope I don't come off as a "sabe todo" but beans is my bizness. I grow, trade and sell beans professionally at local farmers markets, to restaurants a few specialty stores.

With a few exceptions, I don't pre-soak my beans. I sauté onion and garlic, mostly in a 1/2 teaspon of fresh lard from carnitas (OK, so it's a whole teaspoon, but NO MORE THAN THAT! Really!). I add dry beans, coat them, add water and then bring to a boil. Then simmer until done on a back burner while I do something else. Note that my beans are always fresh- no more than 2 seasons old and kept in cold storage until used. I only grow/sell heirlooms and I don't find the need for a ham hock or anything else. Eating heirloom beans is like heirloom tomatoes in that they are unique and stand on own.

I salt and add acids later, only because I am too cheap to waste a pot of beans to find out if it's a myth.

But I have learned that beans are like a dry martini cocktail- some stir, some shake and the chef/bartender is often irrationally dedicated to his methods. I've learned not to fight. If you like to soak, be my guest. My partner and his wife think I'm nuts. They soak, change the water, cook for seven days and all the rest. I'd rather eat at my house.

There are a few gigantic beans like Runner Cannellini, borlotti and Scarlet Runners that I soak, just to be contrary.

I think a crock pot is great.

Deborah Madison taught me about the pressure cooker. She cooks for 20 minutes under pressure, releases, then 20 minutes (or more or less, depending on the bean) stovetop. It works but changes the texture slightly, in a pleasurable way. And you get beans within an hour without soaking.

For my money, I always make extra liquid, or pot liquor. It's free soup! You can make frijoladaas (the bean version of enchiladas), poach eggs, make rice and more. It's great food for baby's after breast milk.

I eat beans twice a day and cook them about 3 times a week. I sometimes cook with epazote, sometimes not. I tell my cutomers that the gas is their "gift with purchase". Mostly it's not an issue, maybe becuase my beans are fresher.

Sorry of I've gone on too much. my website has descpriptions of many heirlooms, some recipes and cooking lore. I don't sell mail order so I think it's ok to list it here, isn't it?

Hope I haven't gone on too long. The bottom line is you just cook them. They are very forgiving, delicious and as a bonus- healthy. I say beware of anyone who speaks in absolutes about beans!

Edited by rancho_gordo, 31 January 2004 - 06:37 PM.

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#19 snowangel

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:38 PM

I hope I don't come off as a "sabe todo" but beans is my bizness. I grow, trade and sell beans professionally at local farmers markets, to restaurants a few specialty stores.

So, is there any way to tell how old the beans are when we buy them?
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#20 marie-louise

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:40 PM

Years ago Russ Parsons wrote a piece in the LA Times that changed the way I cook beans. I hope you weigh in here, Russ...

#21 rancho_gordo

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:42 PM

So, is there any way to tell how old the beans are when we buy them?

Not really. If you don't know your source, soaking might not be such a bad idea. But if you start bugging your grocer, they might work on getting fresher beans.
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#22 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:42 PM

Paul Pitchford has some great advise on cooking beans in his book Healing with Whole Foods. One suggestions that I use pretty regularly is adding some Kombu Seaweed to the beans. It helps to break down the beans a bit and makes them more digestable. He also suggests cumin and fennel for the same purpose. I cook beans almost everyday and have only had terminally hard beans when I added salt in the begining. Somehow the salt in the seaweed doesn't seem to be a factor.

I don't know the chemistry of the Kombu but if it is alkaline in nature, then there could be a difference. The drawback to playing around with alkalinity to make beans softer is that with the cell walls breached, nutrients can be lost. For that reason, use of baking soda or other alkaline additives is not normally recommended. Of course, if you are not dependent upon beans for significant nutritional needs, then it probably doesn't matter. It does seem a waste though.

Salt is salt whether it comes from the seaweed or the shaker. I have cooked beans with salt and salted pork for fifteen years and the only time I have gotten beans that wouldn't get smooth textured was when I had good reason to suspect old beans.

Then, beans have different textures inherent to the particular type of bean. In the Louisiana thread we have noted that only Camellia brand red kidney beans reliably cook to that famous creamy consistency. I have looked at Camellia brand and other brand kidney beans under the microscope and there did seem to be a difference in size of the amyloplasts, the starch containing bodies. I don't think I have ever had a "creamy" garbanzo, and I am not sure I would want one.
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#23 Mudpuppie

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:45 PM

Note that my beans are always fresh- no more than 2 seasons old and kept in cold storage until used.

What constitutes a season? (Sorry if that sounds dumb.) You're in CA, right? So you could conceivably get two or more harvests a year, and a season could be six months.

I have just horribly confused myself.

Repeat the question: When beans are two season old, how old are they in dog years? I mean, in months?
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#24 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:48 PM

Thanks for weighing in rancho_gordo. I think you are confirming what has been found by testing under controlled conditions.

Is the data given in the govt link above correct? Is the peak freshness gone after one year? And does that differ by type of bean?

As reported above, I have just started to see "use by" dates on some bean packages. Is that a new trend?

Damn. Why don't you sell mail order?
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#25 Exotic Mushroom

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 06:49 PM

I'm glad to learn I'm not the only one who doesn't soak beans. I read in Mexican Kitchen years ago not to do it, and so I haven't bothered ever since. I've never noticed a difference. It's funny how many people insist that you absolutely have to soak beans beforehand. I always tell them that it's a myth, but they just look at me like I'm insane.

As far as pot liquor goes, I like to save it and use it to make rice the next day.

edited to add: rancho gordo, I just clicked on your link and saw that you're in my area! I live in Oakland (I generally do Jack London square market on Sundays), so next Saturday I'm gonna head up to Grand Lake and try some of your beans.

Edited by Exotic Mushroom, 31 January 2004 - 06:53 PM.


#26 rancho_gordo

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 07:01 PM

Thanks for weighing in rancho_gordo. I think you are confirming what has been found by testing under controlled conditions.





>Is the data given in the govt link above correct? Is the peak freshness gone >after one year? And does that differ by type of bean?

I didn't get a chance to check it. But on any mass scale, from farm to cleaning to distribution to store to consumer within a year isn't very practical, especially the way most Americans eat beans. But- I don't know. I'll see if I can find out.

>As reported above, I have just started to see "use by" dates on some bean >packages. Is that a new trend?

The only problem is that it's so subjective. I know guys in the Dry Bean Association who think 5 years is just fine- and for a commerical hybrid that's going to be soaked and mixed with meat and more, it is.

>Damn. Why don't you sell mail order?

Need a job? :biggrin: Doing these markets is grueling and dealing with restaurants is exciting but there's no time for any nonesense. I don't want to do mail order until I can do it well.
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#27 rancho_gordo

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 07:07 PM

It's funny how many people insist that you absolutely have to soak beans beforehand. I always tell them that it's a myth, but they just look at me like I'm insane.

You just have to be careful. Cooks tend to be very attached to their cooking methods of beans. I used to almost fight with people but now I just smile.

But I do soak runner cannellini and the big beans.

>>>rancho gordo, I just clicked on your link and saw that you're in my area! I live in Oakland (I generally do Jack London square market on Sundays), so next Saturday I'm gonna head up to Grand Lake and try some of your beans.<<<

Yeah! I've already met two other EGullet Gastro-naughts and it's always fun. And don't forget the eGullet potluck in Napa in late Feb!
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#28 rancho_gordo

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 07:12 PM

What constitutes a season? (Sorry if that sounds dumb.) You're in CA, right? So you could conceivably get two or more harvests a year, and a season could be six months.

I have just horribly confused myself.

Repeat the question: When beans are two season old, how old are they in dog years? I mean, in months?

WIth a few exceptions, we can only get one crop a season. Heirlooms tend to be a later harvest, which is one reason hybrids are more popular. There are a few high-yielding heirlooms that we can squeeze two planting out of.

So I mean two years, practically speaking.

But we may grow them and harvest them, but then we still need to clean them and depending on the facility, it can be a good long time before they're ready to sell.
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#29 fifi

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 07:16 PM

I gave up soaking a long time ago. I am not usually that organized. I have a hard enough time planning to brine meat.

I have been tearing the house up looking for some books without any luck, and checking all of my SSB type references. I just remembered reading somewhere that you can tell if a bean is old and over the hill by what the skin does if you put some hot water over it and see what happens. WHAT the skin does is what I can't remember and it is driving me nuts. Also, being an SSB, I would have to understand the theory behind that since different beans can have different structures at the microscopic level and might react differently.

edit to add: Sorry, I have a day job. :biggrin: Otherwise, selling beans could be fun.
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#30 Katherine

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Posted 31 January 2004 - 07:31 PM

Actually, what I've found is that if the beans are old, and you soak them, some of them will not plump up, but will remain rock-hard, and the skins will wrinkle but remain firmly attached. If they are large beans, you can pick them out at this point, but you might just want to pitch them.

My experience is that cooking time for small beans is the same with or without soaking, but kidney beans take longer if they're not soaked, and don't taste as good. YMMV.