The Eternal Question: Bean Soaking. Or Not.

You know you’ve gone from casual cook to bean freak when you find you are interested in whether or not to soak beans. Like the amount of vermouth in a martini, nothing stirs a bean person’s soul like this subject of soaking, except maybe when to salt.

Soaking Rancho Gordo heirloom beans

As I’ve said before, I don’t really care what you do as long as you’re cooking beans. Canned are fine, I suppose, but the fact that you have to rinse off the muck is enough to throw my squeaky old can opener back into the utility drawer. Bean broth is a real gift. Along with superior flavor and texture, your pot liquor should be reason enough to cook beans.

As for soaking, I’ve seen it claimed that I’m against it. This isn’t quite true. If I’m home and I think about it, I also soak. Normally this would be Sunday morning, right after coffee. I clean and rinse a half pound of beans and cover them with fresh water by about 2 inches. Around the time I’m making lunch, I put the pot on to cook.

I don’t change the water, but again, if you think this is going to help make them digestible, go for it. I don’t. In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee, everyone’s favorite food scientist, says this about soaking and changing the water, “This does leach out the water-soluble oligosaccharides- but it also leaches out significant quantities of water-soluble vitamins, minerals, simple-sugars, and seed-coat pigments; that is, nutrients, flavor, color, and antioxidants. That’s a high price to pay.” Long and complete cooking helps break down the digestion-challenging oligosaccharides.

But if it’s early afternoon and I suddenly have the whim to make beans, there’s no way I’m not making them because I had forgotten to put some beans to soak. Just go ahead. It takes a little while longer but it’s not an impossible or even undesirable thing.

Another option is the pressure cooker. Within an hour of the idea, you can be eating heirloom beans. Many pressure cooker fans are soakers, which to me defeats the convenience of pressure cooking. Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen, and author of Vegan Under Pressure, suggests soaking beans and then freezing the soaked beans with their soaking water in plastic bags and then just dumping the contents into your pressure cooker when you’re ready to cook.

Others like the “quick soak” method, where you pour boiling water over your beans and let them “soak” for an hour, then strain them and start cooking. Guess what? Soaking in boiling water is cooking. I think you might as well just start cooking them if this is what you’re going to do.

My current, and so far fool-proof, technique is soaked or not, bring the beans and water up to a full boil and keep it there for 15, maybe even 20 minutes. Not a gentle simmer but a rapid boil. This initial bullying makes it clear to the beans that you are in charge and there’s no turning back. Then reduce the heat as low as you can take it. If you’re in a hurry, a nice simmer is fine. If you’re cooking for pleasure, the gentlest of simmers is best. Low and slow and loaded with love.

I promise you, you will find your groove. It takes a few pots but instead of just following directions, you’re really learning to cook and this will stay with you forever.

45 Comments on The Eternal Question: Bean Soaking. Or Not.

  1. I agree completely. I rarely soak beans — just start cooking them according to Diana Kennedy’s basic recipe: cover washed beans with 3 inches of water, add half a coarsely chopped onion and a tablespoon of lard (bacon grease, corn oil, whatever) and simmer til tender. Then add the salt. She advises that if you have cookbooks that tell you to soak beans, then you should just go ahead and soak those cookbooks. 😀

  2. I soak my beans because of the gas issue but found that Rancho Gordo beans don’t need to be soaked as long as store bought. In fact, if I soak them over night, they don’t ever seem to get soft when I do cook them. So, I keep the soaking to about 6 hours, throw out the soaking liquid and start over with new water or broth. Also, all of the states I’ve lived in, with the exception of North Carolina, have hard water so I have to use bottled water or the beans never soften up. But, no matter how you cook them, Rancho Gordo beans are still better than all the others!

    • Do water filters like Brita help with hard water? I’m on a spring and haven’t found any problems but I have lived places with hard water and it’s a drag.

    • I too live in a place with hard water, I have found that filtered water makes a huge difference. In fact, I can tell it’s time to change the filter when my beans won’t cook to softness in the time I’m used to!

  3. I have to admit – I like to soak, primarily because I love leaving a bowl of (mostly) water at bedtime and coming into the kitchen in the morning and finding a bowl of huge shiny beans! Also, apparently my water is too hard even to cook RG beans unsoaked in < 6 hrs (seriously, I did some last weekend, they didn't get finished until after 11 pm, even _with_ a vigorous starting boil) – anyway, soaking seems to be kind of necessary, unless I learn to cook them only in bottled water.

  4. For those with hard water, I’ve heard that adding baking soda to soaking and/or cooking water will solve the hard water problem. I think about 1t to soaking water and 1/4 t -ish to cooking water. I used to do it regularly before we put in a softener & it seemed to work.

  5. I’ve been wanting to post about this for a long time. When I decide I want to make frijoles refritos for dinner, I know that I can put a pot of RG Mayacobas on the stove for about 90 minutes, and they’re perfectly soft and ready (and insanely delicious) for mashing. Hummus? Ninety to 120 minutes at a simmer and my chickpeas are set for puree-ing with garlic, lemon juice and tahini. In short, cooking with freshly-harvested beans is simple; set them to simmer, take a bath, clean the house, prep the rest of your meal. No crock-pot or soaking necessary.

  6. Years ago I watched my mother cook beans. I asked her why she was washing the dried beans. Her response,”It gives her a chance to inspect the beans and pick out the bad ones and to pick out the small stones that lie in hiding.” Many things are done with no common sense….just tradition.

    • Actually, cleaning and picking through beans is important. Most of the bean cleaning happens in the fields and it’s really easy to have rocks and pebbles mix in with the beans. We really work hard to make them super clean but it can happen. Best to look through them for debris and rinse well, just to be safe.

  7. Ever since we were introduced to Rancho Gordo beans in July 2015, we have become huge bean lovers! Pot liquor is magic! The flavors and texture of fresh beans is a wonderful epicurean journey. We no longer soak their beans. Just cook them right up and salt afterwards. We personally don’t ever plan on buying canned beans again! Rancho Gordo has changed our way of enjoying every and all beans, and we thank you very much!

  8. Thought that the pressure cooker was a no no as it can clog the vent. However, when I lived in Brazil, everyone used the pressure cooker to cook their black beans!

  9. How do you keep the beans from sticking/scorching like crazy on the bottom of the pressure cooker? I’ve never been able to figure out how to use mine without a disaster layer of burned food at the bottom of the pot (except dishes with tons of liquid).

    • I’m not so experienced with pressure cookers but I haven’t had this problem. Are there different settings on yours? Mine stove is gas.

  10. I had the same problem with my pressure cooker and electric burner. It works much better for me on the gas burner of my new stove which cuts the heat faster. Try having a second electric burner on low at the same time as your other burner on high and just moving the pot over to the low burner quickly when it comes to pressure. Hope this helps!

    • Interesting stuff! I have a gas burner too, and no problems with that.

    • Thank you for the suggestions. I have a gas stovetop and it sounds like I’m not cutting the heat enough once it is up to pressure. I have a classic Fagor pressure cooker with just two pressure settings and the release setting.

  11. I saute chopped onion in lard or bacon fat before I add the uncooked beans and water to the pressure cooker, and always add a ketchen twine-wrapped bouquet garnie bundle of parsley, thyme, celery leaves and bay leaf. If I am making frijoles refritos, a little bit of ground cumin gets sprinkled on the onion as it is sauteing, and a carrot and some dried Mexican oregano goes into the water.

  12. I saute chopped onion in lard or bacon fat before I add the uncooked beans and water to the pressure cooker, and always add a ketchen twine-wrapped bouquet garnie bundle of parsley, thyme, celery leaves and bay leaf. If I am making frijoles refritos, a little bit of ground cumin gets sprinkled on the onion as it is sauteing, and a carrot and some dried Mexican oregano go into the water.

  13. Donna carpentier // January 15, 2016 at 6:52 pm // Reply

    I actually sautéed my beans today (dry pan, 10 min, punctuated with several tosses) then poured hot water over the in the sauté pan to cover and simmered until the water evaporates. No salt. Then I dumped the beans into my soup. Done. Superbe.

    • Wow. THat’s a new one!

      • I first saw this technique in a Joe Famularo book of Italian soup recipes. He sautés the beans (soaked, but I’m working on how to do this without soaking) in the fat and then covers them with a cup of red wine. That recipe was an absolute game-changer for me and I’ve been using that technique for soups ever since. It’s wonderful. You can use white wine or any other aromatic liquid you want, and the resulting soups are in a class by themselves.

  14. Hi, I’m new to Rancho Gordo, but not to beans. 🙂 As far as the soaking question goes, I’ve recently started cooking mine in the oven from dry and it’s almost magical. Put 1/2 lb beans (cannellini are my favorite at the moment) in a casserole with lid, add water to cover by 2 – 3 inches, salt or not as you prefer, and cook at 350 degrees F for 1 – 1 1/2 hours. I check at one hour, see if they need more water, but usually it takes around one and a half. Perfect, creamy beans every time. If I may, here is the link to the article that transformed my bean cooking:

  15. I don’t generally soak them since I use RG beans, but I did recently try the brining method. I was skeptical but decided to experiment. Soaked 1 lb of beans (Mayacobas) in 4 qts water with 3 TBS kosher salt for 8 hours. Then dumped the water, put fresh water in, and cooked. Added about a teaspoon of kosher salt while cooking. The beans were done about 30 minutes sooner than usual and tasted really good! The skins were tender, the insides were creamy and well seasoned. Not salty but better seasoned than my beans usually taste when I don’t soak and salt toward the end of cooking time.

  16. I tend to brine all my beans (picked up from Cook’s Illustrated), and I’ve done a lot of reading on the issue all over plus some testing on my own. I know I’m probably throwing away some good things in the brine water, but it does have an impact on the softness of the skins, and it seems to help the cooking overall, probably because my water is pretty hard. Maybe if I did everything using my Brita water I’d do fine without brining. In one control test with RG reboseros, I did half the bag brined then cooked and the other soaked and then cooked with the soaking liquid. (Both cooked by the same method, which for me is bringing to a vigorous boil and then cooking the rest of the time in the oven.) I found the difference in taste negligible but a softer texture to the brined. For me, texture is very important, and I prefer creamy, so losing a touch in flavor in the native cooked bean to get a better texture is worth it. And if you then use a mirepoix, or garnishes when you eat them, I found no taste difference. Just my experience, and would love to know if others have tried similar comparisons!

  17. I’m a bit confused- has anyone used a slow cooker to pre cook the beans? I have and of course saved the water and it was great.

  18. No one in this thread has mentioned phytic acid, or the importance of removing phytic acid from seeds — beans, grains, and nuts — prior to cooking and/or eating raw.

    I believe it was Sally Fallon, in her book “Nourishing Traditions,” who first sounded the alarm about phytic acid. From there, the concern has taken on a life of its own. The Weston Price Foundation, for example, writes “phytic acid in grains, nuts, seeds and beans represents a serious problem in our diets.”

    Allegedly, phytic acid blocks the absorption of vital minerals during digestion, and soaking removes nearly all the phytic acid.

    I’m not defending the concern — it may be the latest bugaboo du jour — but merely bringing it up to learn what other people have concluded.

    I will say this, though: While I have zero zealotry regarding soaking beans prior to cooking, I DO soak my rolled oats, rye, and barley overnight prior to making granola. The practice complicates enormously my granola prep (because after draining the rolled grains, I need to dry them), but I can testify to a dramatic improvement in digestibility.

    Your thoughts about phytic acid?


  19. So you made me go read up too, and I found this. I can’t vouch for it, it’s just another website but seems to back it up with reference to a a Journal I don’t recognize, lol. Food science seems to reverse itself a lot though as more pieces to various puzzles are found.

    • Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s some truth to the phytic acid concern.

      A few random thoughts:

      – Many years back, instructions for preparing Quake Oats called for soaking the rolled oats overnight before cooking.

      – Michael Pollan makes a good point: An apple tree wants us to eat its fruit because our eating the apple sows the apple seeds far and wide. It’s unlikely, however, that a wheat plant wants us to harvest its seeds, grind them up into flour, and eat them — for the obvious reason that the wheat’s reproduction is aborted. The same probably goes for beans and nuts: We’re eating the plant’s future. One commentator (I can’t remember his name) went so far as to say that cultivating and eating grains — i.e., seeds — is the greatest mistake in humanity’s past. We would have been much better off remaining hunters and foragers.

      – There’s lots of information on the internet about phytic acid and how best to deal with it. I’ve read more than my fair share. If you dive in, you’ll begin to notice, especially from food bloggers interested in click-throughs and advertising page-views, the same information repeated over and over. That said, there are some excellent original sources with actual chemical analysis substantiating the correlation between phytic acid and malabsorption of minerals. To me, these original sources have some credibility because none of them is freaked out about phytic acid, unlike some food bloggers. (I’m sorry, but I didn’t stash away links to the sources that I found credible.)

      – For myself, yes, I definitely insist on soaking rolled grains before making granola to remove phytic acid. I also ferment buckwheat flour overnight with a sourdough starter for pancakes the next morning. What a difference that makes! I used to feel kind of “heavy” or “woozy” after eating pancakes, but no more. At the same time, I once soaked overnight all the nuts for my granola. Never again. What a hassle, not to mention a mushy mess. So there are limits. Finally, I do soak my RG beans overnight, but only from the momentum of old habit. I might stop soaking based on this (most excellent) blog post.

      All the best,

  20. When I was young in the early 70’s, I used to always soak my beans and then use my trusty pressure cooker to cook then. One of my main motivations was energy saving! Soaking just takes time, & pressure cooking is fast & uses way less energy or water than any other cooking method mentioned here already. I’m surprised no one has mentioned the energy saving factor of using a PC! Anyway, 45 years later & I still cook beans this way. If I don’t have time to soak the beans, I use the PC, bring it to pressure twice with a cool-off period in-between (10 mins or so) and add more water if needed. Most beans are cooked enough by then, or ready to go into a soup or stew where they will get a little more time cooking.

    I’ve never had trouble with a clogged vent cooking beans (also, never fill the PC too full of anything!) It’s split peas you need to be careful of – they foam a lot & can cause trouble.

    I love Rancho Gordo beans & always stop by the very friendly store when I’m in Napa visiting my sister – and she always sends more for my birthday & Christmas! Thanks for the email newsletters – they are a great read!

  21. I’m a little late in this post, having just come across your excellent site, having arrived via one of the many testaments to your product. I have always like beans, but I am largely paleo these days There are many nutritional drawbacks — as well as pluses — to beans and they can be enjoyed as part of a sound diet for many if not most.

    To consume beans or not is not “settled science,” by any means, but this piece by Loren Cordain. Sums up the cons and backs it up with a number of references. The points he raises are all salient, and they include much more than just phytic acid.

    Me, I continue to eat beans, but more sparingly….

  22. I originally read this post trying to determine whether soaking or not soaking was a good idea. All the “Paleo” opinions on here and the subsequent links, (which I read) trying to discourage people from consuming legumes really staggers incredulity. One thing the “Paleo” people cannot deny is entire cultures of human populations survive and thrive on these legumes as a major staple in their diets. So “Paleo” folks, please don’t preach here, at least, until you can prove beans wiped out an entire population of humans!

    IMO to soak or not to soak is up to the individual’s digestive system. If you can handle the “no soak” straight to cooking then you’re okay with that process. If you’re like me and find some legumes hard to digest, feeling lethargic, uncomfortable, or physiological distress after consuming….then maybe soaking is the answer to all your problems. I’m most certainly going to give it a try! 🙂

    • I’m with you! I’m sure there are good things to consider from the Paleo diet but almost all cultures with longevity consume legumes and their consumption us considered a good thing by most everyone else.
      re soaking, I’m all for it if it makes you happy!

  23. Having trouble with my RC beans last 2 months; the skins are really tough no matter which bean I am cooking. I always do an overnight soak, stovetop cook, then salt and let stand. I also use filtered water, but from the tap (not softened). I thought it might be alkalinity do to our changing water supply in SanJose, so I tried adding just a pinch of soda this time, but the skins were still tough. Tough enough that we all actually had to spit out the skins. sigh.
    Any thoughts or suggestions? Much appreciated.

    • I would suggest following our basic instructions: Soak only four to six hours, don’t change the water, make sure the beans are covered by two inches, bring to a full boil for 15 minutes and then let them simmer until soft. Budget about 2 hours but it won’t be the long.

  24. I can never remember to soak the damned beans, so I skip that step.

    I cook my breakfast beans every night in one of those little slow-cookers, the tiny ones they advertise for keeping your cocktail weenies hot for your party. (Love those weenies, but I digress.)

    I put about a third of a cup of rinsed beans in the little cooker, cover with water, and add some chopped onion and some garlic. Then I turn on the cooker and go to bed.

    In the morning I’m greeted with a steaming bowl of perfectly cooked beans (Midnight Black, Yellow Indian Woman and Good Mother Stallard are my current favorites), just enough for one deeply satisfying serving. I stir in some chopped greens and let them wilt, salt to taste, then top the whole shebang with a good dollop of Pico de Gallo. A better breakfast cannot be had.

    I don’t know why, but I never get gas from beans eaten first thing in the morning. Later in the day is a different story…

  25. Lots of interesting, but often conflicting info. Oh well! Two questions for the group –
    1) keep or discard the small percentage of beans that float?
    2) keep or discard ones that are split?

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