Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Best ways to cook dried beans

Dear Eric: My "old-country" farmer's-wife mother-in-law advised me always to add a teaspoonful of baking soda to pulses when boiling. She said it softens the skin. Another idea was taught to us at dietitian's school in Berlin.
Eric Akis didn't add any baking soda when he soaked his beans for this flavourful, Cajun-spiced dish.

Dear Eric: My "old-country" farmer's-wife mother-in-law advised me always to add a teaspoonful of baking soda to pulses when boiling. She said it softens the skin.

Another idea was taught to us at dietitian's school in Berlin. We had to sort out the debris from the pulses, then wash them in several changes of clear, lukewarm water, and then soak them, regardless of type, overnight. You were never to throw out the soaking liquid because it was full of nutrients.

Have you heard these ideas before?

Ingrid Ostrander

Dear Ingrid: I have read about some of these ideas in older cookbooks. However, modern sources for preparing pulses - the dried, edible seed of a legume, such as chickpeas, beans, peas and lentils - offer different advice.

The website of the Washington state-based Central Bean Company, central, says if you routinely have problems cooking dried beans to the desired tenderness, it is possible you have hard water. A sign of hard water is the appearance of a thick white or grey residue inside your tea kettle when you boil water. That residue is caused by the presence of excessive amounts of certain minerals.

The Central Bean Company says high concentrations of those minerals interfere with chemical and physical changes that are supposed to occur in beans during soaking and cooking. To counteract that affect, Pulse Canada, an association that represents growers, processors and traders of pulse crops in our country, say some recipes instruct you to add baking soda.

Their website, pulse, says baking soda increases the absorption of water, which helps - as your mother-in-law noted - to soften a dried bean or other pulse.

That said, both sources don't recommend using it.

Pulse Canada says baking soda could make pulses too soft, an undesired side effect. Central Bean Company says baking soda may give them an unpleasantly soapy flavour. More importantly, however, both say baking soda destroys thiamin - an important B vitamin found in pulses.

Pulse Canada says if hard water is your only choice and you feel the need to add baking soda, limit it to 1 teaspoon per two cups /8 water. The Central Bean Company says if you have hard water and are not sure if you should use baking soda, don't, and buy purified bottled drinking water - not distilled water - for soaking and cooking beans.

Another reason pulses may take forever to cook is because they're too old. It's best to use them within a year of purchase, although they will keep longer than that. The longer a pulse is stored, the drier it becomes, which, in turn, increases the cooking time. If they take forever to cook, they're past their prime.

With regard to soaking or not soaking pulses, there are mixed ideas on that.

According to Pulse Canada, fairly fast-cooking dry lentils and split peas do not need to be soaked. However, dry beans, whole peas and chickpeas must be soaked because their skins do not readily absorb water.

With regard to dried beans, the Central Bean Company takes another viewpoint, saying soaking is not an essential step in their preparation and that you could certainly cook them straight away. They say soaking simply begins the rehydration process. Not soaking has its disadvantages, they note.

For example, unsoaked beans take longer to cook, which requires more energy. You'll also need to cook them in twice as much water and be more attentive to ensure they don't cook dry.

The Central Bean Company says if you soak the beans, be sure the water is at room temperature. Hot water may cause the beans to sour during the long soaking period; cold water slows rehydration and the beans may take longer to cook. They also provide detailed information on a quick-soak method (see their website for information).

With regard to the soaking liquid, Pulse Canada says to always discard it.

After that, you should put the pulses into a strainer and rinse them well. This, they say, washes away some of the carbohydrates that cause gas.

The Central Bean Company adds that some water-soluble vitamins and minerals are also lost by discarding the soak water, but only small amounts. For many people, they say, the discomfort avoided by discarding the soak water is worth that loss.


This recipe makes a potluck, party-sized pot of beans, but could be halved if serving a smaller crowd. It makes an excellent accompaniment to grilled sausages, ribs or fried chicken or barbecued chicken.

Preparation time: 25 minutes, plus soaking time

Cooking time: About 3 hours

Makes: 8 to 10 servings

2 cups (1 lb) small white beans or baby lima beans

1 tsp olive oil

3 Tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 celery ribs, diced

1 medium green bell pepper, diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 (28 oz/796 mL) can diced tomatoes

1 (28 oz/796 mL) can crushed tomatoes

2 Tbsp tomato paste

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 /4 cup golden brown sugar

1 bay leaf

1 1 /2 Tbsp Cajun spice, or taste (see Note)

2 Tbsp whole grain Dijon mustard

- salt to taste

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Examine the beans and discard any debris. Set in a large bowl and cover with 6 cups of cold water. Soak at room temperature for eight hours, or overnight.

Put the soaked beans into a strainer and rinse with cold water. (This can help wash away carbohydrates and sugars that cause gas.)

Place the beans into a pot and cover with 10 cups cold water. Add the 1 tsp olive oil to the pot (this should help prevent foam from rising from beans as they cook).

Bring the beans to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer beans until just tender, about 45 to 55 minutes.

Drain the beans well.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Place the 3 Tbsp oil in a Dutch oven or other ovenproof pot set over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

Mix in the canned tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, brown sugar, bay leaf, Cajun spice and mustard.

Bring the mixture to a simmer, and then stir in the beans.

Cover the pot and bake the beans in the oven 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours, or until bubbly and delicious. Taste the beans, and season with salt if needed.

Stir in the parsley and serve.

Note: Cajun spice is sold in the bottled spice and herb aisle of most supermarkets.

[email protected]