Easy, forgiving, healthy and economical, beans are a home cook’s secret weapon. Yes, canned beans are convenient, but knowing how to cook dried beans gives you flexibility, and makes for a far more delicious meal. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about preparing beans and some of their relatives in the legume family, including lentils and split peas, both on the stove and in the pressure- or slow-cooker.
Before You Start
Check for a date on the beans; freshness matters. Dried beans last up to two years, but are best cooked within a year of harvest. Always rinse beans before cooking, and check for stray rocks, twigs and leaves.
Leave substantial time for bean soaking (either overnight or using our shortcut method) and cooking. If you are short on time, choose lentils or adzuki beans, which cook quickly and don’t need soaking.
To add more flavor, consider cooking your beans in stock or broth instead of water (and see our chapter on seasonings for more ideas).
Choosing Your Bean
There are dozens of varieties of beans, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter. Use this list to figure out what to buy when you want them to fall apart into a soup or dal (lentils, flageolet and split peas), or hold their shape for salads (adzuki, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, cranberry and kidney). As a general rule, 1 cup dried beans makes about 3 cups cooked.
Above, from left: cranberry beans, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, red kidney beans, split peas, pinto beans and cannellini beans.
Adzuki: These small, scarlet beans cook quickly, with a sweet flavor. They’re often used in Japanese bean paste desserts, but are versatile enough for salads, soups and stews.
Black: Also known as turtle beans, these full-flavored beans are classic in Latin American cooking, usually for soups and stews.
Black-eyed peas: These small earthy-flavored beans, also known as crowder peas and cowpeas, are particularly cherished in Southern cooking.
Cannellini: These mild, starchy white beans are often used in soups and stews, particularly in Italian cooking.
Chickpeas: These nutty-tasting legumes, also known as garbanzo beans, are used all the globe in many guises: soups, stews, dips and even fried or roasted as a snack.
Cranberry: These red-and-brown speckled beans have a rich, toasty flavor. They hold their shape well for salads, soups and stews.
Fava: Dried favas, also known as broad beans, have a very strong, meaty flavor and a somewhat thick skin. Beloved in Middle Eastern cuisine, they are made into soups, stews and salads.
Flageolet: These are a creamy, smooth, pale green-to-white-hued bean from France with a thin skin. They work well for soups and purées.
Great Northern: These large white beans with a firm texture and gentle, nutty flavor are great for stews and soups.
Kidney: These large red beans are often used in salads and chili. Some people find them particularly hard to digest, but soaking and rinsing before cooking can help, as does using a pressure cooker.
Lentils: There are several varieties of these tiny legumes, ranging from shiny black beluga lentils, which remain nicely intact for salads, to orange-hued “red” lentils, which collapse into a thick purée when simmered. In between, there are brown lentils (good all-purpose lentils) and more expensive French green lentils, also called Puy lentils, which take a bit longer to cook and have a nice sweet flavor. All lentils are relatively quick-cooking and don’t need any presoaking.
Lima: Large white dried lima beans take on a velvety, creamy texture after simmering, and hold their shape well.
Navy: These small white beans have a nutty flavor, and cook more quickly than other white beans. They are the traditional choice for Boston baked beans. Like red kidney beans, they can be easier to digest if you soak and rinse before cooking.
Pinto: These are small brownish-pink beans frequently used in Mexican and other Latin American cooking, particularly for refried beans, stews and chili.
Split peas: Green or yellow split peas are small legumes often used in soups, and in the case of the yellow ones, Indian dals. They do not need to be soaked before cooking.
Soaking your beans helps them cook faster and more evenly, and it can also make them easier to digest. If you add salt to the soaking water (in other words, make a brine), your beans will cook even faster; the salt helps break down their skins. Here are a few methods; choose the one that best fits your schedule. And keep in mind that you never need to soak legumes like lentils or split peas.
Craig Lee for The New York Times
To soak beans the traditional way, cover them with water by 2 inches, add 2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon fine salt) per pound of beans, and let them soak for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours. Drain them and rinse before using.
Another option is quick-soaking, which allows you to make a pot of beans within a few hours flat without sacrificing flavor or texture. Put the beans in a pot on the stove, cover with water by two inches, add salt if you like, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let them soak for an hour. Drain, rinse and proceed with your recipe.
OR, DON’T SOAK AT ALL
Here’s a secret you may not know: You don’t actually have to soak your beans at all. Just add them to your pot and plan on cooking your recipe for another hour or two beyond the usual cooking time. Keep an eye on the level of liquid, adding more water, broth or stock if the pot looks dry. There should always be liquid covering your beans as they cook.
You can simmer beans and other legumes in nothing but plain water with salt and get great results. But before you start cooking, take a minute to add the herbs, spices, stock and aromatics that make beans even better. Even a humble onion and a bay leaf works wonders.